Thursday, March 4, 2010

Burtonfest Day IV: Other People's Sandboxes (Pee Wee's Big Adventure, Nightmare Before Christmas, and Charlie And The Chocolate Factory)

Burton’s notoriety has from the beginning, come from just how fully formed his voice was . I’ll be writing about the effect that knowing a Burton film was a Burton film had on me later (as in on March 24th, dun dun dun). But suffice to say, Burton is an auteurist’s delight, able to shoehorn his personality into anything, Small passion projects? Burton. Big Budget superhero movies with one of the most notoriously meddlesome producers in the business? Still Burton. Biopics on other people? Still Burton. Remakes of other iconic films? Burton yet again. He’s the Coyote of filmmakers not only able to survive any hostile environs but thrive there.

Which is odd when you consider how many film’s Burton has made that leave the question of just how irreplaceable his sensibilities are a startlingly open one. Indeed his best known film, and the one that arguably the most people assosciate with him is the one he had the least to do with.

I mean The Nightmare Before Christmas is so quintessentially Burton isn’t it? The forlorn soulful outsider bring macarbre merriment to the boring “normal” world, The obsession with Holidays, Automatons, Shifting Gears, Creepy Crawlies, sweet meek love interests, German expressionism, a bad guy defined by his venality (The Cardinal Sin In Burton’s World), Danny Elfman, and a cast of lovable misunderstood monsters.

The only problem is that Tim Burton didn’t write or direct the movie. What he did do no one seems to be able to agree on. Rarely has the party line of a studio been so malformed. Beyond the fact that he wrote the story, and did the preliminary character designs, no one seems to agree on just what else his participation was. Depending on who you ask Burton was either on set every day, or got Disney off Selick’s back and then showed up for the premiere.

So lets take the middle ground. Lets assume that this was a project close to Burton’s heart that he a lot invested in, but was unable to devote his full attention to it as he was participating in back to back shoots with Edward Scissorhands and Batman Returns. Let’s say he knew what his film was and was smart enough to see that Henry Selick was filmmaker enough not to fuck it up. (A similar situation is raised with The Corpse Bride, which, though I don’t have time to cover in this Burton fest, I really love. And which has even less consensus on how much participation Burton had. Though in this case he is at least nominally credited as director.) That still leaves us with a basic problem, call it the Phillip K. Dick school of Film Criticism. If an auteur can be replicated so perfectly that no one really notices, what does that mean for the Auteur, and the people who admire him.

Or as Drew McWeeney put it in his scathing review of Alice In Wonderland.

Tim Burton is a brand these days, and that's certainly impressive, but he's not much of a filmmaker anymore.

Jesus Christ. Ouch. So Is Burton really as meaningless a place holder as this and this recent College Humor Video seems to suggest?

In the end the answer has to be no. But in this case its not because of Burton but because of Selick. Now fifteen years later, with Selick grown into his own independently fascinating artist, just what he brings to the movie is much clearer. The odd thing about watching The Nightmare Before Christmas today, is not how much of Burton Selick was able to reproduce without anyone noticing, but how much of his own unique sensibility (the obsession with doubles and parallel worlds, his intricate model maker aesthetic) slipped into the world without anyone noticing.

You can see the situation in its inverse in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. Now yes I know that I am supposed to love Paul Reubens, and the weird anarchic shit he does. I know he’s having his big comeback now, and really good for him. That said I more or less cannot stand Pee Wee Herman. If that means I have to go to hipster jail for awhile so be it. But I cannot bring myself to give a shit about a talking chair, even if Laurence Fishburn occasionally shows up as a mail delivering cowboy.

Once again though, while what used to be amazing about Pee Wee’s Big Adventure is how Burton was able to replicate the experience of the show. What’s amazing now, is that Burton’s personality was already so fully formed, even within the strictures of a well defined strictures of another Artist’s cemented persona. Sure Reuben’s discovering that there is in fact no basement at the Alamo, or his dance to Tequila, are all him. But the film’s most famous sequences.

Like Large Marge:

Or his dream sequence:

That nightmarish blend of silent cinema, stop motion, Harryhausen, story told around the campire, and something that I don’t know what the fuck it is, is there from the start. This is the basic’s of The Burton aesthetic, and the fact that it remains omni present in everything he touches, speaks to me not of his laziness, but his strength as a filmmaker.

Take Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, which aside from Planet Of The Apes (which I will admit to never having seen) is easily Burton’s most maligned film. It’s hard to think of a movie less receptive to a remake then Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory (Perhaps Planet Of The Apes but the idea that anyone would do that is laughable). It takes a lot of work for a film to become both a beloved family classic and a symbol for The Counter Culture. And by taking on such a sacred cow, Burton seemed to be inviting as many people to be as pissed off at him as possible.

After all isn’t this exactly the filmmaker that his detractors say Burton has become? A corporate shill willing to lend his “Barton Fink” feeling to anyone willing to write him a check? A lazy artist just going through the motions telling other people’s stories?

It doesn’t help that Johnny Depp didn’t get the memo that we are supposed to think that Wonka, if not likable is at least kind of neat, and thus decided to play him as the love child of Michael Jackson and Carol Burnett. And yet even here as the shilliest man in Shillton I can’t help but find Burton’s presence readily apparent.

Not just in the flaming automatons, and army of identical oompa loompas. Not just in the flares of absurdist humor (Wonka coming back to find his house literally gone), startling minutia of the frames, familiar cast, and Elfman score. That’s all just the dressing.

Instead I find Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, to be Burton’s most personal film. Given the fact that it was made around the birth of his first child, and marriage to Carter, Burton’s potrayl of Wonka as an aging wunderkid finding a family for the first time makes sense as an autobiography.

You see I agree with the detractors on one thing. I don’t know if Tim Burton knows quite who he is as a filmmaker anymore. I think The period from Pee Wee to Ed Wood, when he was just a cool cult filmmaker, is distinctive from Mars Attacks to The Corpse Bride, where he has probably been the closest to a director as Superstar this side of Tarantino. I think Tim Burton is coming to terms with what Tim Burton means, I think with Todd you see him working out his darkest side of the spectrum, and with Alice if the PG rating is any indication, you’ll see him working out the lightest version of such.

After all, this really only makes sense, as Burton, or at least his persona has changed so markedly over the last couple of years. The man who once infamously quipped that he was far more upset by the death of his Chihuahua then his Father, and set about selling himself as THE UBER Goth, has remade himself in the image of a family man, who is unafraid to be photographed smiling.

Far from an artist stuck in stasis I find Burton one whoses always evolving. I for one can’t wait to see where he goes next.

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