Inside the mind of Tim Burton
New exhibition explores the goth-inspired director’s creative process from earliest childhood to his recent films.
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“He’s a humorous artist,” says assistant curator of film Ron Magliozzi, who organized the show. “And ultimately I think he’s an optimistic artist. Look at how he survived when he was faced with any distressing situation. He didn’t respond by shutting down. He responded by producing more and more work – drawings and cartoons. Creative activity seems to be his response to stress.”Skip to next paragraph
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Burton’s woebegone heroes, too, seek consolation in creativity. The archetypal outsider Edward Scissorhands, a sweetly pathetic boy with blades for fingers who literally cannot touch another person, finds solace in sculpting topiary shrubs. Johnny Depp, who brought the character to life in the 1990 film, has said it was Burton’s initial sketches of the sad character, which “haunted” and “traumatized” him, that helped him internalize the outcast’s essence.
What makes the bizarre characters in Burton’s films appealing is his sympathy for them. “They come from a personal space,” says curatorial assistant Jenny He. “He makes emotional, subjective films, and even though the material may be dark and slightly macabre, it’s kind of innocuous and funny, so you’re not offended.”
The cartoons Burton produced during the 1980s bristle with adolescent humor. In one titled “Mental Floss,” an impossibly elongated figure holds a string in his bony fingers, using it to ream his brain through both ears. In “Curtis is giving his eyes a rest,” a man’s eyeballs dangle out on wires, with one reposing on a lounge chair, the other relaxing on a beach towel. The puns and verbal and visual humor are a hoot.
Burton’s gaudy style, which Mr. Magliozzi calls pop surrealism, is akin to Salvador Dalí in an antic mood. Pop media is clearly an influence: from the acid-tinged whimsy of Edward Gorey and jittery lines of cartoonist Gahan Wilson to the offbeat wit of Maurice Sendak and Charles Addams. Burton’s German Expressionist sensibility is indebted to early films like Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” (adapted in the menacing set of “Batman”).
The show is so packed with eye candy, it’s like a circus and costume party
mashed into one eye-popping spectacle. And the inhabitants of Burtonia? Oyster Boy whose head is shaped like a clamshell, Charred Girl (a carbonized sculpture, wiry as a Giacometti sculpture), and a pink tree dripping with sea horses. It’s like a Curiosity Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
A character in Burton’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” proclaims, “Candy doesn’t have to have a point. That’s why it’s candy.” But this exhibition, despite the ample fun quotient, does have a point. It shows the vast range of Burton’s creative output,
on paper and onscreen, and his consistent concerns in whichever media.
Burton’s depressed superhero Stainboy (the hero of six animated shorts) faces adult disapproval but perseveres in his do-good missions. Yet he only succeeds in leaving a stain wherever he goes. In the fantasies he creates, Burton – although hardly a real caped crusader – empathizes with such underdogs and freaks. His uncompromising films leave not a stain but an indelible mark on our culture.
His high school English teacher was prescient in a summation of the teenage Burton’s essay “Humor in America.” He wrote: “Good job; some good original material well arranged.”