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Tim Burton

The Museum of Modern Art, New York

November 22, 2009-April 26, 2010

"Trick or Treat" "Jaw-way"

"Trick or Treat" "jaw-way" by Tim Burton created for the Museum of Modern Art exhibition by TwoSeven Inc.

All photographs by Michele Leight

By Michele Leight

It is rare to see galleries as consistently packed with people as those at The Museum of Modern Art's retrospective of a contemporary filmmaker, entitled "Tim Burton," on view from November 22 2009 to April 26, 2010.

Sponsored by Syfy, an imagination-based entertainment cable TV channel, "Tim Burton" was organized by Ron Magliozzi, Assistant Curator, Jenny He, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Film, and Rajendra Roy, The Celeste Bartos Chief Curator of Film, The Museum of Modern Art.

Mr. Magliozzi said:

"While Tim Burton is known almost exclusively for his work on the screen, including "Beetlejuice," "Batman," "Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas," and more recently "Sweeny Todd," this exhibition covers the full range of his creative output, revealing an artist and filmmaker who shares much with his contemporaries in the post-modern generation who have taken their inspiration from pop culture. In Burton's case he was influenced by newspaper and magazine comics, cartoon animation and children's literature, toys and TV, Japanese monster movies, carnival sideshows and performance art, cinema Expressionism and science fiction films alike."

Tim Burton has been a huge influence on a young generation of filmmakers working in video, graphics and film, up-ending standard Hollywood fare through his unique and very personal vision. His global cult following is a testament to his artistic sensibilities and fertile imagination, rarified commodities in an age dominated by digital technology, and computer and video games, which give the young of all ages the impression they are being imaginative and creative when they are merely playing games in a virtual world.

People of all ages, but especially the young, have delighted in Burton-directed films such as "Edward Scissorhands," "Pee Wee's Great Adventure," "Batman," "Mars Attacks," "Beetlejuice," Sweeney Todd," "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," and more recently "Alice in Wonderland," all bearing Tim Burton's creative stamp. Creative his films certainly are, or TheMuseum of Modern Art would not anoint a contemporary filmmaker and director with a major retrospective.

Edward with his scissorhands Burton sketch of Scissorhands

"Edward" on a life-like model of actor Johnny
Depp) with his Scissorhands in a gallery with other loans from various film studios, left; Tim Burton sketch of Edward Scissorhands, right

From his earliest efforts like storytelling and video, (essential fodder for professional films), Burton does incredibly creative things, especially with graphics and video, often with the simplest devices. Viewing his adolescent storyboards and video clips at the show gives us ordinary folk the impression that he is the guy next door tinkering around with his toys, but we soon realize when one of his rapidly sketched characters morphs into Edward Scissorhands that he is in fact a genius. This show reveals how such characters are the product of raw imagination that begin on the pages of ordinary sketchbooks and notepads, brought to life with age-old tools like brushes, paints and pencils. The imaginary character is the special effect, magnificent and alone on a plain white page.

Refreshingly, like most art students - he is an artist to the core - Burton is a prolific user of pencils, with their wonderful ability to carve fine or thick outlines, smudge and create mysterious textures.. There are many superb, intricately detailed sketches in this exhibition, and it was a challenge to see all of them despite several visits because so many young people had their noses pressed up against them for closer viewing. His work has that effect - of wanting to look closer.

"Balloon-boy"

21-foot-tall "Balloon Boy" by Tim Burton in the Agnes Gund Garden Lobby

"Baloon Boy," a 21-foot-tall, larger than life sculpture with many eyes greets visitors in the Agnes Gund Garden Lobby, while a topiary deer from Edward Scissorhands co-exists happily for the duration of this exhibition with world famous sculptures by Picasso, Matisse and many others in the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden.

The endless lines of visitors awaiting access at MoMA to view Burtons idiosyncratic "take" on things is evidence that this cult of the imagination resonates with the young especially - the visitors were predominantly young, they were literally everywhere, and clearly enraptured with what they found in Burton's work.

Accessed through a delightfully "horrific" yawning monster's mouth inspired by an unrealized film project "Trick Or Treat," (1990), the exhibition in the museum's third floor galleries is focused on Tim Burton growing up in Burbank, organized in three sections: "Surviving Burbank," Beautifying Burbank," and "Beyond Burbank."

Tim Burton

Tim Burton sculpture

The titles reference the California city that inspired Burton's work, and the early works in "Surviving Burbank" - sketches, paintings, models and even short films about monsters - reflect his adolescent sense of alienation from the blah-blandness of Californian small town life, and the powerful creative forces within him that helped him escape it.

There are no less than 700 sketches of concept art, sketchbooks, drawings, paintings, photographs and a unique selection of his early amateur films on view at this show, many never seen before. It is the Museum of Modern Art's most comprehensive monograph exhibition devoted to a filmmaker, and includes an extensive film retrospective spanning Tim Burton's career, with a related series of films that influenced, inspired and intrigued him as a filmmaker.

It is as a director of off-beat films that Burton has gripped popular imagination and made him a household name, but his prolific creativity in a wide variety of media is the revelation of this show, charting a career spanning 27 years that began with an animated short entitled "Stalk of the Celery Monster (1979), submitted as his graduation project at CalArts (California Institute of the Arts). The film is a sketchbook illustration brought to life, and reveals his early preoccupation with combining the gothic and the everyday, a successful fusion that persists to this day. Other CalArt sketchbooks are also on view.

Tim Burton paintings

Tim Burton paintings

"Surviving Burbank" reveals Burton as a child of the Surrealists. His wonderful paintings, (some illustrated here), sketches and models depict characters so imaginative it is hard to define or label them. They are individualistic, apart, totally out of place in a homogenized and technocratic world, where the ability to dream or even exist outside a formulaic existence is not easy. "Imaginings" this well conceived could not be drowned out by a stereotypical sub-urban childhood, no matter where Burton had grown up.

Monotony and boredom was the catalyst that motivated Burton to make his own home movies starring friends and neighbors. The Super 8mm films from the early 1970s include "The Island of Dr. Agor," (1971) and "Houdini: The Untold Story," (1971).

He also whiled away the hours sketching prolifically in notebooks, painting, taking photographs - in other words creating a world of his own invention that was totally unlike the boring one in which he lived. He also wrote and illustrated a children's book, ""The Giant Zlig," (1976), compiled lists of fantastic films, and organized a film series reflecting his fascination with classic American horror movies, 1950s science fiction, and Japanese Monster Culture. He kept really busy.

Excerpts from later animated films on view at the show include "Luau," (1980) and "Doctor of Doom," (1980), featuring a young Tim Burton in starring roles. Hilarious, these films satirize foreign-language horror movies and beach party films, while adhering to traditional animation techniques. Not surprisingly, themes and motifs in Burton's early forays in filmmaking resurface years later in his professional films.

After two years at CalArts, Burton spent four years working as an animator at The Walt Disney Studios, and there are many examples of his first professional work at Disney that reveal signature motifs and persistent stylistic traits, including creature-based notions of character, masking and body-modification, themes of adult and adolescent interaction, and sentiment, cynicism and humor. A digital slideshow highlights select pages from his classroom exercises and notes.

Burton created 50 cartoons in pencil on animation registration paper between 1980 and 1986, which helped off-set the often mundane requirements for the apprentice artist's routine animation work at Disney. No day job could contain his imagination, and his own drawings explode with pent-up creative energy, non-abrasive youthful cynicism and a keen sense of fun. As a concept artist for Disney, he created several projects that were left un-produced and unpublished. These include "Trick or Treat," "Romeo and Juliet," (1980-84), and "Little Dead Riding Hood," (1981). His creative out-put was not in vain, however, because this body of work has remained an imaginative resource of wit and invention for the filmmaker.

Select items are on view from Burton's virtually unknown adaptation of "Hansel and Gretel," commissioned by The Walt Disney Company and broadcast only once in October 1983 on Disney's recently launched cable channel. It stars Vincent Price, the king of horror movies and Burton's childhood idol, who later narrated "Vincent," (1982), and played a pivotal role in "Edward Scissorhands. Together with early collaborators - another common theme in his life - Heinrichs, Stephen Chiodo, and Joe Ranft, Burton created over 500 pieces of concept and story board art, designed toys for the film, and hand-drew parts of the set for this essentially "handcrafted" production.

Father and son enjoy Burton's Internet series "The World of Stainboy"

Father and son enjoy Burton's Internet series "The World of Stainboy"

Another lifelong collaborator is Danny Elfman, who selected the musical compositions that accompany an installation of large-scale polaroids, 33 by 22 inches, created by Tim Burton between 1992 and 1999, together with a curio case filled with bizarre objects used in their production. Staged in studios and on desert and country locations often with live models, the polaroids utilize fantastical objects created for photo shoots, and puppets and props from "The Nightmare Before Christmas." Throughout, there is evidence of the filmmaker's fascination with body modification, and the Gothic. These are on view together with domestic and international posters from Burton's films in the Roy and Niuta Titus Theatre Lobbies.

Success came calling once audiences were treated to Tim Burton's "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (1985)," the riotously dark and humorous "Beetlejuice," (1988), Batman (1989), and Edward Scissorhands," (1990). His sixth feature film, "Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas" (1993), listed his name above the title, signaling his total "arrival" in fabled Hollywood. He was both producer and director of the film.

Professional collaborations intensified, including those with Colleen Atwood the costume designer, Stan Winston the special effects wizard, Ian Mackinnon and Peter Saunders the stop-motion puppet craftsmen, and the character design studio of Carlos Grangel that helped bring his vision to the screen.

One crammed gallery exploded with examples of their work together, and important studio loans from Disney, Warner Bros., and Twentieth Century Fox archives, including puppets from "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," (2005), the Sandworm jaws from "Beetlejuice," (1988), and original puppets and concept art from Tim Burton's "Corpse Bride," (2005). Iconic costumes from "Edward Scissorhands," (the original, shown on a lifelike mannequin of Johnny Depp, a constant in Burton's films), "Batman Returns" (the mask with those unmistakable stretched ears), and the original slinky Catwoman suit were displayed alongside props including the creepy Penguin carriage from "Batman Returns" and playfully ghoulish severed-heads from "Mars Attacks" (1996) casually laid down in a glass vitrine for maximum shock effect.

Among Burton's music videos was an excerpt from the stop-motion tests Burton made in the early production phase of his film "Mars Attacks!" This effort was abandoned for the film, but eventually when more sophisticated digital technology was used to animate the Martian's movements, they deliberately mimicked the jerky, less polished - Charlie Chaplain-esque - effects of stop-motion. It remains one of the most memorable aspects characteristics of this film, where disembodiment and jerky walking takes on a whole new meaning.

The imaginary special effects in Burton's films are awesome, but they are heavily influenced by his often meticulous sketches, like the sketch for the apparatus - or "hands" - of Edward Scissorhands, (not illustrated), which has the precision of a Leonardo Da Vinci sketch for a parachute, or plane, the mechanics carefully worked out, despite this being an imaginary character. The sketch shows how the scissorhands work. The spontaneous sketch illustrated here offers a more languid version of Edward, with loosely rendered "hands," that is incredibly appealing. It reveals his character.

Technology both traps and frees us, makes us dependent and independent, an irony Burton understands. While Edward Scissorhand's has enviably efficient, multi-tasking fingers that might belong to a robot or mechanical device, he is hypersensitive and emotionally vulnerable to the human beings around him with whom he feels nothing in common. That sense of alienation is both adolescent, and pervasive as we as a society become less social and spend more and more time alone with machines.

Fantasy is a powerful potion combined with a childlike fascination with horror, especially the hilarious brand of "scary" put out by Tim Burton. This childhood fascination has morphed into sophisticated and darkly humorous cult films like "Beetlejuice."

There is a childlike allure to Burton's horror, always laced with just enough humor to prevent it crossing over into the really horrible, or unbearably gross. He clearly relishes the state of childhood and children, and is not so keen on adults. While his films parody the harsh realities of life, they side-step the kind of "reality" (real violence and bloodshed), that make parents wince, and soccer moms hold up red flags.

Tim Burton's films are not "The Rocky Horror Show" oozing sex and drugs, or "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre," off-loading buckets of blood and gore. Weird as his protagonists are, they do not really want to alienate others. They are accessible, no matter how outrageous their behavior or appearance. There is virtually no X rated material in Burton's films, which makes them family friendly.

One cold, wintry "free Friday" the lines extended around the block from MoMA onto 6th Avenue. When I asked a family of four which exhibit they were interested in seeing, they replied "Tim Burton."

On my third visit to the MoMA show, there were dejected clusters of visitors outside the "Trick or Treat" jaws of the monster mouth entrance to the special exhibitions galleries on the third floor. Some were begging the poor guard to let them in. They did not know they had to purchase a "timed ticked" in advance because of the unprecedented popularity of the show.

Other foreign visitors bemoaned they had missed the show entirely because as tourists they did not have the luxury to return. I felt guilty but fortunate as I handed over my ticket and passed through the gaping jaw-way to the show (created for the exhibition by TwoSeven Inc.) and onto the red carpet that served as the creatures tongue. I was enveloped in a signature black and white striped Burton corridor lined with screens where dozens of enraptured humans were viewing his Internet series, "The World of Stainboy," on six large monitors. They were riveted. No "viewable" medium has been left unsung or untouched by this filmmaker.

If the Tim Burton show ran for several more months, the lines would probably get longer, as word of mouth, Tweets and internet chat spread its manifold wonders, many of which could never appear on screen. A sketchbook is an intimate, private ride into a fantasy world, and not transferable.

This year Tim Burton is President of the Jury of The Cannes Film Festival, (2010), a great honor and not bad for the kid who "survived Burbank," and who, at age 51, still manages to look like a tousle-haired art or film student. His life partner is the British actress Helena Bonham-Carter, who has appeared in several of his movies, including "Sweeney Todd" and "Alice In Wonderland," none of them remotely like Merchant/Ivory's "A Room With a View" that launched her career but pigeon-holed her as a pre-20th century actress. They have two children together, which might explain why Burtons' films are gravitating towards an even "younger" audience. That can only mean good things for his fans in the years ahead.

Most recently, Tim Burton re-imagined the Lewis Carroll classic as few could in his film version of "Alice In Wonderland," (2010). This wonderful film is a wild, colorful and surreal ride, especially with complimentary 3-D eyeware, and it stars Johnny Depp as The Mad Hatter and Helena Bonham-Carter as the Red Queen. It will undoubtedly join the shelf of family viewing classics that children of all ages will enjoy for years to come.

 

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