Tim Burton: A History of Our Complicated Affair

Johnny Depp in Burton's latest, Dark Shadows.
Johnny Depp in Burton's latest, Dark Shadows.

Tim Burton doesn't know it, but we are frenemies.

Frenemies have a relationship that is both mutually beneficial or dependent while being competitive, and fraught with risk and mistrust. That's exactly what Burton and I have. He needs me as an audience member, and I need him as a creative force. But I'm always doubtful whether he'll give me the goods. Tim, I assume, worries about whether I (the audience) will like what he delivers. Or maybe he doesn't care. In fact, maybe he doesn't give a shit at all. But you know what? He should.

Today Tim Burton's newest film, Dark Shadows, a re-imagining of the 1970's television melodrama, opens across the country. The film marks his eighth collaboration with Johnny Depp, his seventh with his partner Helena Bonham Carter, and his 13th with composer Danny Elfman. It would seem that Tim can't make a movie without getting the old gang together again. But as his audience clamors louder and louder for something original from the filmmaker, I'm beginning to wonder if our relationship has run its course.

It's not you, Tim, it's me. Okay, no. Actually, it's just you.


I can't argue with the fact that Burton, at his best, is a brilliant filmmaker whose films can entertain, engross, and leave me awestruck with their beautiful aesthetic. Some of the most thrilling moments of contemporary big budget cinema I've experienced are a result of Burton's vision. Yet, there are other moments in his ouevre that can only be described as disappointments. It's not that Tim Burton need live up to my standards. It's that he sometimes doesn't live up to his own.

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Perhaps if Burton hadn't made such a splash upon entry, his cinematic trangressions wouldn't seem so unforgivable. Yet when in those early years he gave us Pee Wee's Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Batman, and Edward Scissorhands, we were all looking around thinking, "This could be it. He could be it. Our generation's Billy Wilder."

When Batman Returns was released, there was a momentary pause in adulation. Certainly it was entertaining, and Devito, Pfeiffer, and Walken were amazing casting choices. But the sparkle had dulled, and Keaton, who excelled in the original, now bored slightly -- just slightly, but enough to be noticed. Still, sequels are always a tough sell, and it's easy to forgive the guy you're rooting for.

The Nightmare before Christmas was the Tim Burton film that followed, and while he didn't direct it, the story and script were his creations, and he produced the film. I'll admit I didn't like the movie when it debuted, but I'm growing more appreciative of it with time. (I'm not a hater, not yet a fan.) But it did speak to plenty of others; to this day, it retains a huge cult following.

For me, though, it was when Ed Wood landed that Burton's wow moment arrived. Tim Burton's work was edgy, and beautiful, and charming. He rediscovered a great character actor in Martin Landau, and brought the work of B movie maven Ed Wood back to light. It was a stunning film.

 

It's hard to say when my love affair with Burton started showing the strain. Was it Mars Attacks, an exercise in so-bad-it's-good campiness that fell flat with audiences but charmed me for its obvious ode to 1950s sci-fi schlock? Was it Sleepy Hollow, a perfectly entertaining albeit formulaic adaptation of Washington Irving's short story? If not, then certainly it was when Planet of the Apes arrived, and Burton had his jump-the-shark moment. The film had none of the quirkiness of its 1960s predecessor, nor any of the intensity that Burton intended. It was merely a mess of epic proportions. The apes on this planet did fling their feces, and it landed all over this unfortunate film.

From there, it was a downward spiral. In true manic-depressive form, the next film was the overtly emotional Big Fish, which marks one of the most complex relationships I have with a film. This tale of a father and son is sprinkled with magical realism and strong performances, but many have called it vapid and self-indulgent. While I can concede both points, I can't deny that it struck a chord with me -- so much so that I recall it bringing me to tears. I remember being angered by allowing Burton's cheap ploys of sentimentality take me there. Those emotions were pulled, ployed, and manipulated out of me, and while it worked, I resented him for it. Quit playing games with my heart, Burton.

The worst way to piss off an already jilted lover is to fuck with the good memories they have, and Charlie & The Chocolate Factory did just that. Perhaps it is unfair to compare this to Gene Wilder's 1971 Willy Wonka, but that film was a cinematic icon and a generational flagship. Undertaking a beloved classic is an invitation for comparison, and sadly, Burton's version didn't make the grade. The performances were forced, and the Tim Burton approach made the film seem like a misprinted mimeograph of his prior films. For all its bells, whistles, and special effects -- disco oompa loompas! -- it was instantly dated without retaining any of the timelessness of its predecessor. Similarly, The Corpse Bride tried to recall the feel of Nightmare, but didn't help Burton garner any points in the originality department.

The Tim Burton rollercoaster since then has had some high points. He adapted Sweeney Todd, one of the greatest American musicals by perhaps the greatest composer and lyricist that musical theater has ever known, into a triumphant, gothic homage on screen, with delicious casting and solid musical performances. Alice in Wonderland didn't knock me off my feet, but it didn't disappoint me, either. It entertained, and most of all, it went well with popcorn.

But now we are left to digest Dark Shadows, a film whose trailer makes me think theaters should be showing it in a triple-bill in between Steve Martin's Sgt. Bilko and Kelsey Grammer's Down Periscope. In Frankenweenie, coming out this fall, Burton returns to stop-motion animation in a feature length adaptation of a short film he made as a student. A recycled story told in a recycled format.

Sometime after Sweeney, when I was back on the Burton bandwagon, I went to the retrospective exhibition of his work at New York's Museum of Modern Art. From start to finish, it was pure Burton -- whimsical, gothic, curious, odd, and complicated. Looking at his childhood notebooks with sketches and poetry, I realized that Burton's work as an adult has just been a manifestation of his youthful reverie. The creatures and images that filled his head as a teenager and young man had all found their way into his films. While that's surely the dream of every aspiring filmmaker, I can't help but wonder -- have we seen all we're going to see from Timmy?

Kareem Tabsch is the co-founder and co-director of O Cinema.

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