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Tim Burton: auteur fantastique
May 12, 2010
The term auteur when applied to a filmmaker is often used in a variety of different ways. Some take the term to signify a director who exercises absolute control over a film project—from screenplay to casting to directing to post-production. Think Woody Allen early in his career.
I prefer the definition that originated in France in the early 1950s, when critics at "Cahiers du Cinema" and elsewhere began to use the term to designate directors whose work—even during the highly compartmentalized Studio System era—had been distinguished by overriding thematic and stylistic qualities. Think John Ford, Howard Hawks, Ernst Lubitsch, Preston Sturges. These directors "authored" their films with recognizable traits in the same way that one can recognize the individual writing styles of Faulkner, Hemingway, or Jane Austen. Recent film auteurs in my estimation include the Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino, Gus Van Sant, Pedro Almodovar, to name just a few.
After 25 years of feature-film directing, Tim Burton certainly merits auteur status. His recent "Alice in Wonderland" offers a culminating case in point. This visually imaginative and quirkily-conceived reworking of Lewis Carroll's beloved children's tale is Burtonesque to its creative core. First, of course, is the narrative's dark and expressionistic tailoring—a trait that has characterized all of Burton's screen work. He has consistently been drawn to the macabre, and every aspect of his productions, from plot to settings to lighting, costumes and makeup, contribute to his cinematic vision.
Burton's style erupted in his second feature film, 1988's "Beetle Juice." (His first was the workman-like "Pee Wee's Big Adventure" in 1985.) "Beetle Juice" involved a pair of mischievous ghosts, to wit a couple who drown in a car accident and who return from the dead. They enter their former home to "spook" the family that has dared to take over their beloved domicile. The intention is to drive these interlopers off the property. Visually and thematically, the film somehow combined the surreal and the madcap, the gothic and the whimsical.
"Alice in Wonderland" shares many of the same idiosyncratic interests. By depicting Alice (Mia Wasikowska) as a confused 19-year old woman—twelve years older than Carroll's Alice—Burton recasts the girl's journey into the Underworld in very different terms than earlier movie "Wonderlands." It's a scary, chaotic, surreal place, fraught with discomfiting and mischievous characters. The contrast between Burton's approach and earlier renderings of Carroll's tale is made clear in a brief "flashback" to the tea party attended by seven-year old Alice. It's depicted as a pristine little affair, pure whimsy. In Burton's take the tea scene with 19-year old Alice is in total disarray. The table, commanded by the ironic Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), is littered with broken porcelain and surrounded by over-turned chairs. It is one of many disheartening fantasy experiences for a young woman seeking to sort out her life and find new direction.
As in the best of Burton's noir fantasies a strong psychological undercurrent runs throughout "Alice in Wonderland". The main protagonist is again a character of considerable personal need. The prototype for a psychologically-disturbed fantasy hero can be traced back to "Batman" (1989). This film's self-questioning vigilante protagonist Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) was conceived as a character whom critics called Hamlet-like. Settings and chiaroscuro lighting added a somber, expressionistic aura to Burton's downbeat version of a familiar comic book tale. In this film and in his following work visual atmospherics would manifest themselves as all-enveloping correlatives for darkly-toned narratives.
The developing auteur elements appear in "Edward Scissorhands" (1990), appropriately a recent selection for a Museum of Modern Art retrospective of classic expressionistic films. It's possible to see striking likenesses between the characters of Edward and the grownup Alice. Both are insecure, misunderstood teenagers who for different reasons don't feel comfortable in their lives. Alice, living in a prescribed Victorian world, is expected to marry a man she doesn't love. Edward, taken from his dreary castle home to an antiseptic, modern suburb, sports shears in the place of human hands. His magical talent for hairstyling, topiary, and ice sculpting is at first met with awe, but then suspicion by wary, conservative neighbors. The suburban world created by Burton consists of acrylic-painted, pastel-colored houses and glossy, surreal landscapes. In contrast Edward Scissorhands' screen image is that of a dark, Gothic outsider—sleek black hair, porcelain skin, heavily shadowed eyes, dark clothing. This image has been repeated often in the many characters (seven altogether) Johnny Depp has portrayed in Tim Burton films.
In time it became apparent that Burton's filmmaking impulse was for fairy tales—old and new—that he shaped to fit his own macabre, somber sensibilities as their creator. Coming after "Edward Scissorhands" was "Batman Returns" (1992), a nightmarish, romance-tinged sequel to the original. Bruce Wayne (again Michael Keaton) falls for Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) while doing battle with the Penguin (Danny DeVito).
Next—with a title that reveals his power and popularity as a director—came "Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas" (1993), a stop-motion animated fantasy about a character who organizes horror capers in Halloweentown and who decides to take over the organization of Christmas in Christmastown, usurping the more traditional-minded manager, Sandy Claws.
Sticking with his horror obsession and his interest in down-trodden protagonists, Burton next created the bio-pic "Ed Wood" (1994), which recalled the career of an unheralded B-picture producer (played by Johnny Depp), who in the 1950s undertook a series of projects with the legendary horror-film actor Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau).
Returning to fantasy settings, "Ed Wood" was followed by "Mars Attacks!" (1997), "Sleepy Hollow" (1999), "Planet of the Apes" (2001), "Big Fish" (2003), and "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" (2005). "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" (2007) offered up Burton and Johnny Depp at their most macabre extremes.
Commenting on his screen adaptation of Roald Dahl's children's book, Burton said of his "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory": "Thematically, it's not that different from what I found in Batman or Edward Scissorhands, or Ed Wood. It has to do with a character who is semi-antisocial, has difficulty communicating or relating, is slightly out of touch, living in his own head." ("Burton On Burton," 2006). Had he made this statement in 2010, Burton would surely have added Alice to that litany of his screen characters. She is unquestionably a Burton-esque heroine. Moreover, "Alice in Wonderland's" gothic and beautifully realized 3-D images at times rival the magic of "Avatar" and hearken back to Burton's earlier work. The movie could only have been made by Tim Burton, and is further proof that he deserves the title of visionary auteur.
What do you think of Tim Burton's movies? Do you have a favorite Burton film or scene? Comment below.
is a film historian and critic, and Arthur F. Thurnau Professor Emeritus of Screen Arts and Cultures at the University of Michigan.