Thursday, June 27, 2013

A Personal History of Tim Burton

Tim Burton

I have been thinking of Tim Burton today; he’s someone whose existence as a creative force I’ve taken for granted the past decade or so, and when I was a kid, like, since I saw Beetlejuice 3 times in theatres in 3rd grade and then a ton more once it came out on VHS, he was really important to me, as a weirdo in the mainstream making movies for weirdos.  Now, you can spend 5 minutes on a search engine and find such cool merchandise that references the most seemingly obscure details from books and movies, but in the 80’s and 90’s when I was growing up, it was harder and more fun to find merchandise if you were an enthusiast like I was.  Like, to find really cool Sonic Youth stuff, I remember I wrote to the fan club that was promoted in the liner notes of a Sonic Youth cassette tape – weird!  and with Beetlejuice, which used to be me and my mom’s favorite movie, she sent away for a Warner  Brothers catalogue and we bought such cool merchandise from there, like a paper bookcover that looked like the book “Handbook for the Recently Deceased,” which I covered one of my text books with in 3rd grade, and I would just look at it every time I opened up my desk and it made me feel like I was somewhere  far away from the shithole of a public school in a shithole part of L.A. that I lived in (aka The Valley) at the time.  And before Frankenweenie was an animated film, it was a live action short film (1984) that had this weird-looking girl named Domino in it; I LOVED that actress, and since I couldn’t just look her up on the internet, I would ask Gothic-looking adult friends of my mom’s if they knew who she was, like, “Have you ever heard of this little girl named Domino?”  Guess who she turned out to be?! – Sofia Coppola!  I only found that out recently, from a little invention called, you guessed it, the internet.  Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Batman, Edward Scissorhands and Batman Returns were all among my very favorite films, and they are all Tim Burton creations.  Somewhere along the way he lost my appreciation though.  Some of it has to do with my feminism, and the fact that the romantic interests in his films are uniformly dreamy waifs:  Sally in Nightmare Before Christmas, Kim in Edward Scissorhands, Kathy O’Hara in Ed Wood, the first daughter in Mars Attacks!, Johanna Barker in Sweeney Todd, Katrina Van Tassel in Sleepy Hollow, Sandra Bloom in Big Fish, .  To some degree, this doesn’t bother me, because these female characters are all pretty lovable and great – I’d fall in love with Kim in a heartbeat if I were Edward Scissorhands, she’s beautiful and sweet.  But I loved that movie so much, and I especially loved it (I think I was in 7th grade when it came out) as a romance, and I wanted to have a dramatic, tragic romance just like it, but if that meant I had to become like the Kim character, what did that mean? – that I had to be so pretty I outclassed the boy who loved me and therefore it was a heightened experience for him to win me?  That I had to be so pretty my boyfriend and my secret crush would both want me more than anything, and end up fighting over me?  That I had to be so pretty the boy I loved would pine for me forever?  There just wasn’t the meat there for me in that story line.  I don’t blame Tim Burton for this, because he’s a man, so yeah, it makes sense he’d be making films from a male perspective, and what did I expect, for the love interests to be prickly awkard-looking girls with short tempers who pretend they don’t want to be loved?  Well, yes, OF COURSE this is what I expected from him, but I recognize it as unreasonable.  I do remember feeling really sad once though because the boy I had a crush on said in front of our poetry class that the girl he had a crush on is Sally from Nightmare Before Christmas.  It was the 1990’s, the decade of the waif as a beauty ideal for girls, and it smarted to hear this boy, who I considered my equal in poetry genius (oh teenagers!) and thought would surely appreciate my angst for the way it matched his own angst, tell everyone that he wanted a sweet, patient girl like the zombie Sally. 

Then, also, I find Burton’s more recent movies obnoxious.  The Michael Jacksonesque Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as well as the addition of the subplot of Wonka’s estranged dentist father, and the absurd rewrite of Alice in Wonderland in the eponymous movie (“Wonderland” is really “Underland”?  Hmmm…) are two examples that come to mind of a cutesy cleverness that made me feel almost embarrassed for Tim Burton when I saw these 2 films.  So now how it stands is that when Tim Burton is mentioned, I say “Oh, neat,” but I have really gotten used to him and never take special notice anymore.  I was just imagining what it would be like to be a teenager today, though, and I could imagine loving these dud movies of his and thinking of them as ‘my’ movies the way I used to think of Beetlejuice or the original Frankenweenie as being my movies.  Even if the girls in his movies are a little spineless, they are still unconventional, and if a teen today, I would probably find a way to admire the werewolf girl in Dark Shadows.  Tim Burton is a mainstream director who the mainstream lets be weird, and as a kid and teenager, I liked the specialness of underground or no-name movies (my other fave in 3rd grade, besides Beetlejuice, was Babycakes, a made-for-tv movie mom taped on Valentine’s Day, starring a very fat and great Ricki Lake as an outgoing and lovelorn mortuary cosmetician), but I also felt the necessity for Tim Burton and his success, and his successful weird movies.  Today I feel that way about the mainstream but still special Wes Anderson.  I think of his movies as ‘mine’ even though there are unpoetic, unweird fashion photographers biting his aesthetic for fashion photo spreads in GQ etcetera (and I don’t think Anderson minds any of this, even if I do), and even though my favorite character, Margot Tenenbaum, is played by the same woman who puts out the ridiculous millionaire’s-club blog Goop and is this year’s PEOPLE Magazine Most Beautiful Woman.   


  1. I so enjoyed this post. His movies (most of them.. not Alice and not the horrid Willy Wonka) have meant a lot to me over the years. I'm so glad I was able to see Edward Scissorhands in the theater - at the time I didn't have a lot of spare money, so I only saw it on the big screen twice!

    I giggled when you said the part about photographers co-opting Burton's style for fashion spreads. Usually they just pick out anything black and white with stripes or spirals and claim that's Burtonesque - sigh.

  2. cool, i'm glad you enjoyed it. Thanks Carrie.