July 2010

Arts & Letters

Primal scenes

By John Baxter
Tim Burton. 'Blue Girl with Wine' c. 1997. Oil on canvas, 71.1 x 55.9 cm. Private collection © Tim Burton
Tim Burton: The exhibition

When I taught at an American college in the 1970s, my students asked if I’d mind finishing my afternoon lectures early: local TV was re-running Dark Shadows and they didn’t want to miss a minute of it. I had to have Dark Shadows explained to me, and even then I didn’t understand the appeal; this was still the case after I watched a few of its 1245 episodes. A cheesy vampire soap opera with cardboard sets and acting to match? What did these smart, privileged young women see in it? The same thing, apparently that Tim Burton – then a gawky, wild-haired high-schooler in Burbank, California – did. Now a gawky, wild-haired multimillionaire in Hollywood, he’s preparing for his next movie project: Dark Shadows.

Tim Burton won’t simply update the original, any more than his Batman (1989) genuflected to original artist Bob Kane, or his latest creation, a 3-D sequel to Alice in Wonderland (2010), reverenced Lewis Carroll and illustrator John Tenniel. Expect, rather, something shiftier and stranger; perhaps The Vampire Variations or A Sketchbook of Blood – dried blood, for choice, since that slaty off-crimson tint permeates Burton’s work. In 2011 Dark Shadows will resemble a palimpsest, the parchment medieval scribes scraped clean to create new surfaces on which to write, but which often bore, faded, the ghost of an earlier text. Conserving some shadow of the lost words did honour to the work being supplanted; even as they effaced it, the new words tipped their hat in respect.

Most movie fantasists computer-craft their monsters and project them as backgrounds onto a green screen. Burton – at heart a craftsman – builds his, plank by plank, brick by brick. The windmill in Sleepy Hollow (1999) towered five storeys, and its sails alone weighed two tonnes. The bedevilled tree that devours the headless horseman was a sculptured swirl of ancient, gnarled trunk, imported from the tormented landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich, a German expressionist Burton reveres.

The Burton exhibition, showing at ACMI in Melbourne from 24 June to 10 October this year, celebrates his films but also exults in his draughtsmanship. Burton carries with him everywhere not a camera but a sketchbook and a pocket set of watercolours. For every scene from Edward Scissorhands (1990), Planet of the Apes (2001), Batman (1989), Sleepy Hollow and Beetlejuice (1988), the show exhibits drawings, posters, sketches and models dating back to a child-hood that, in his telling, dripped with Gothic. “I had these two windows in my room, nice windows that looked out onto the lawn, and for some reason my parents walled them up and gave me this little slit window that I had to climb up on a desk to see out of. To this day I never asked them why.” He memorialised this time in the animated character Stainboy. Sullen, pathetic and menacing, he is a Charlie Brown, Peanuts’ troubled moraliser, who has embraced the Dark Side. Wearing a perfunctory superhero cape and uniform, Stainboy roams Burbank at the orders of a snarling bureaucrat controller, stamping out deviant creativity, beauty and love.

Burton has little good to say about his education at the California Institute of the Arts, the university conceived by Walt Disney – of whom, on graduation, Burton was a brief, intransigent employee. After flunking ‘Life Drawing’ at CalArts, he went on to fail ‘Cute’ at Disney. His 29-minute film Frankenweenie (1984), in which young Victor Franken-stein reanimates his dead dog Sparky, so horrified the studio that they fired him, claiming he’d wasted company resources and the film was far too scary for kids. (He’s now remaking Frankenweenie as a feature, which rug rats around the world will no doubt adore.)

An appreciation of Burton demands a recalibration of aesthetics. He sketches in the key of twitch. His ink oozes, drips and spatters, not so much a medium as an excretion, like spit, semen and sweat. Art litters his wake like graphic dandruff, the detritus of a fretful mind. He’s in good company: Picasso scribbled on bar napkins and the backs of menus, scratched on soft clay, drew in wet sand; Cezanne and Renoir dashed off a dozen small watercolours each morning “to get their hands in”, then used them to light the fire or wipe their arses. Inspiration is the gold you transmute from air, art the stuff that sinks to the bottom of the pot.

Burton the graphic artist is the custodian of a magical lineage, which climbed from the American earth, and is as deep-rooted as crab grass. We can trace it by way of cartoonists such as Saul Steinberg, Charles Addams, Gahan Wilson and Edward Gorey, and righteous honoraries such as Ralph Steadman, Gerald Scarfe and Garry Shead, all the way back to George Herriman’s Krazy Kat illustrations for Don Marquis’ Archy and Mehitabel and the cartoons of Thomas Nast in the 1860s that snared Boss Tweed. Burton belongs to an aristocracy of the dip pen, the steel nib and the inkwell. Though his drawings recall New York satirists Jules Feiffer and David Levine, they lack the leer of Levine’s and Feiffer’s strangling of the literati with their own jargon. Nor will you find Mervyn Peake’s lapidary crosshatching and shading or Edward Ardizzone’s wistful antique. Look rather for blots and smears, crosses for eyes, faces flat and white – embodied above all by his Gioconde, Johnny Depp, who loiters palely through Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow and Ed Wood (1994), and does a jittery Mad Hatter in Alice.

He does have an affinity with David Lynch, whose comic strip The Angriest Dog in the World ran for years in Los Angeles’ LA Reader. The drawings never changed: a black dog with bared teeth, straining on his chain in a backyard, two panels in daylight, one in darkness. Likewise the text was unvarying: “The dog who is so angry he cannot move. He cannot eat. He cannot sleep. He can just barely growl. Bound so tightly with tension and anger, he approaches the state of rigor mortis.” Occasionally, with Zen reticence, Lynch dropped in an extra word, just to see if his readers were paying attention.

Back then, before Eraserhead (1976), Lynch liked to dissect a trout or a flounder, mount and label each component on a plank, and present it as “Fish Kit” – a gift, one feels, young Tim might have enjoyed finding under the Christmas tree, were the holiday not, to judge from his feature The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), a dreaded interregnum between Thanksgiving and New Year. Burton preferred more fecund feasts, and the grisly playthings that adorn their tables, such as Mexico’s Day of the Dead, whose pink sugar-skulls are first cousins of the gutted pumpkins of Halloween.

The soundtracks to Burton’s films reflect the scratchiness of his images. His composer of choice, Danny Elfman, draws, as Philip Glass did in his opera The Photographer, on handmade frontier musicology (the fiddle, zither, harmonium and thumping bass drum) and country dance (reels, jigs, schottisches and rigadoons). In the ACMI show, music rises off the objects and images like the faint taint of decomposition. A group of black plants, the nightmares of a Venus flytrap, display steel-stiletto fangs. An aide, showing off this monstrosity, says of them “Musical, too”, and gives the spikes a playful briiiinnnnggg.

Don’t expect engagement from Burton. If he has a position on anything more contentious than Disney’s decision to abandon hand-painted animation for the computerised variety, he stays mum. The year 2010 is not part of his world. He refuses to approach the twenty-first century virtually at all, only tentatively acknowledges the twentieth, and is barely on speaking terms with the nineteenth. He only begins to warm to the past when approaching those eras when woods were dark and deep, trolls lurked under every bridge, and carnivals trailed from town to town with their gaudy sideshows and rides, bearded ladies, two-headed calves and all-round oompahpah.

Alexander Theroux said of Edward Gorey that he “found almost everything about human nature absurd. Politics, sports, trends and fads. International news. He was a born isolato and his singular fascinations – books, movies, music, television, antiques, art – were all solitary and had virtually nothing to do with people in the sense of directly encountering them.” The same goes, one feels, for Burton, who shares with Gorey and Star Wars’ George Lucas a detestation of groups, movements and families – fathers in particular. (Lucas, long-divorced, adopted and raised his children as a single parent; Burton and companion, actor Helena Bonham Carter, have two children, but the pair live in separate houses.) From Batman to Sweeney Todd (2007), Burton’s dads are hostile, malevolent and, above all, absent. He and Lucas lead a generation of film-makers who prefer to stay in their rooms with their toys, and want the rest of the world to just go away!

Lucas lurks incommunicado on his Skywalker Ranch, where the buildings imitate nineteenth-century originals, complete with an invented history (built by a retired whaling captain, gullible visitors are told). No less reclusive, Burton lives in Ojai, whose astonishing valley was used to depict Shangri-La, the Tibetan sanctuary in Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon (1937), where everyone remains happy and healthy, and old age comes slowly – so long as they don’t step outside. Burton’s favourite film is The Omega Man (1971), in which Charlton Heston plays a lone plague survivor who has Los Angeles all to himself – at least until sunset, when the vampires emerge; join the dots yourself. “If you’ve ever had that feeling of loneliness,” Burton recently told the Independent, “of being an outsider, it never quite leaves you. You can be happy or successful or whatever, but that thing still stays within you.”

In most Burton films Nemesis is a woman, usually a dead (or undead) one. Necrophiles may rejoice at this exhibition, but for the conventionally sensual there’s little to stimulate. The feminine ideal is deceased, demented or damned (and sometimes all three), as embodied by frost-faced Miranda Richardson as the witch of Sleepy Hollow, by Bonham Carter as the rabid Red Queen in Alice and by the bloodless, languishing creatures, sewn together from cadavers but with the naughty bits omitted, in The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride (2005). When quizzed about his adolescent sexuality, Burton described being about 13 and “in line to see When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970), and all the younger kids were, like, ‘Dinosaurs are so cool!’ and all the older kids were, like, ‘Oh, man, I hear there’s this really hot babe in this movie!’” No prizes for spotting where Burton’s interest lay.

Key to any appreciation of Burton is the moment when Jack Nicholson’s Joker in Batman, dodging the high-tech gadgets deployed by the Caped Crusader, crows “Where does he get those wonderful toys?” Lucas has also confessed that, if he hadn’t become a film director, he would have liked to have been a toymaker; after all his billions come not from the Star Wars films but the merchandise they promote. If ‘toy’ is a keyword in the Burton lexicon, so is ‘sewn’. We sense his glee in the needle, the thread, the fabric – the craft. (Edward Gorey, to keep busy, hand-sewed beanbag frogs.) Scarecrows stitched from sacking and straw; limbs tacked to torsos; corpses crisscrossed with autopsy scars: what infantile perversion of the primal scene lurks here? In developing his wound aesthetic, Burton belongs to – perhaps even inspired – the audience that embraces the undertaker soap opera Six Feet Under, police procedural Dexter and the various incarnations of CSI, revered by ghouls of all nations and currently out-rating every drama in TV history.

And Burton’s secret? I think I know. He reveres Mario Bava, the 1960s master of cheap Italian horror, and plans to remake Bava’s gem of low-budget High Gothic, La Maschera del Demonio (also known as Black Sunday, 1977). No less an admirer, I once tracked down Bava in Rome. Unexpectedly, the director of The Torture Chamber of Baron Blood (1972), An Axe for the Honeymoon (1970) and The Whip and the Flesh (1963) – a film its star, Christopher Lee, is reticent to discuss – lived like a banker, in a dark apartment hung with tapestries. The ticking of his collection of antique watches played a solemn obbligato to our conversation.

Could this portly gentleman really have dreamed up the spiked iron mask that the peasants slam with a mallet onto the face of sorceress Barbara Steele in La Maschera del Demonio? He didn’t seem the type. Oh, but he was, he insisted. “When I sleep here alone, I put crumpled paper on the floor – to hear if anyone comes close.” He glanced round with an unease Tim Burton must also know well. “I am,” he confessed, “a frightened man.”

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