What will five months of feting by MOMA do to Tim Burton’s perversely blockbusting outsider art? Probably nothing. Intensely devoted to a scissorhandful of pop-surrealist obsessions, Burton has, with few exceptions, been making the same semi-autobiographical film for almost 30 years: Misunderstood loner waves his freak flag in wonderland. And so it should remain after the museum finishes exhibiting 17 of his features and shorts (through the end of the year), along with hundreds of little-seen artworks (through April 26) that—dating from his ’60s and ’70s childhood to the present—reveal admirably little in the way of range.
“I think if you’ve ever had that feeling of loneliness, of being an outsider or whatever, it doesn’t leave you,” Burton told me around the time of Corpse Bride in 2005. “You can be happy or successful or whatever, but that thing still stays inside you.”
In his films of the past decade, that bankable “thing” of Burton’s—teen-goth-style alienation, with varying degrees of playful rage—has survived even the primary influences of diverse fabulists Roald Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), Steven Sondheim (Sweeney Todd), Washington Irving (Sleepy Hollow), and, presumably, Lewis Carroll (we’ll know for sure when Burton’s Alice in Wonderland opens in March). Before earning the rights to such classy source texts, the director drew—literally and otherwise—from his admittedly isolated childhood in Burbank, culturally blighted outpost of the Hollywood dream factory.
The Burton bio—boy, distant from his parents and stifled by suburbia, turns darkness to light with the help of the famous monsters of filmland—finds its purest expression not in the great Edward Scissorhands, or in The Nightmare Before Christmas (which Burton only conceived and produced), but in his very first short. A stunningly confessional self-portrait in stop-motion animation, “Vincent” (1982)—funded by Disney for $60,000 while Burton was suffering a day job at the studio sketching foxes and hounds—tells us, in just six minutes, everything we need to know about the kid Burton. Mom, largely represented as a wagging finger, wants Vincent to go outside and “have some real fun”; the kid—a Vincent Price fan, seven years old and brooding—prefers to “wander dark hallways alone and tormented.” (Cinemaniacs know the feeling.)
Long-faced and wild-haired, a Charles Addams figure come to jittery life, the puppet Vincent is a dead ringer for Burton himself—or maybe it’s the other way around. Johnny Depp, who has essentially played the director six times and counting, memorably described him in 1994 as a “pale, frail-looking, sad-eyed man with hair that [expresses] more than last night’s pillow struggle.” Burton’s alter egos—from the reincarnated canine of another short, “Frankenweenie” (1984), to Pee-wee, Ed Wood, Beetlejuice, and Scissorhands—are unapologetically off their rockers (if not their meds). Arguably Burton’s most seismic contribution to pop culture is having rendered the Bush I–era Batman as not just superheroic, but irreparably damaged. Asked in ’92 to describe his then-billion-dollar Batman franchise, Burton didn’t mince words. “It’s about depression, and it’s about lack of integration. It’s about a character . . . who’s completely fucked and doesn’t know what he’s doing.” Yeah! Bring the kids!
A father himself now (“happy or successful or whatever . . .”), Burton seems to have grown up somewhat on the basis of Big Fish, Chocolate Factory, and Corpse Bride, all three principally concerned with relationships as they relate to the risks and rewards of adult responsibility. But as the blood-drenched Sweeney Todd recently proved, he hasn’t sworn off the gleefully destructive side of his sensibility that reached A-bomb strength in Mars Attacks!—much-loathed on its release in 1996, the year of the flag-waving Independence Day, and ever ripe for reappraisal.
Taking its name from the Cold War–era Topps trading cards that were pulled from the U.S. market after only three months, Mars Attacks! is the epitome of Burton’s subversive monster love. Flaunting dangerously bad taste, the film’s invaders are vicious creatures who fire squiggly laser beams from their ray guns and speak in a menacing mix of bark, hiccup, and cackle; it’s because they’re laughing at us that their “aack-aack” sounds suspiciously like a “yuk-yuk.” With their emaciated skullheads, brittle teeth, ping-pong eyeballs, and curlicue brains that resemble those heinous bouffants from the ’60s, the Martians park their spaceship in the Nevada desert, proclaim they have “come in peace,” and almost immediately lay violent waste to our human welcome party. Like Burton’s Joker, these screwball E.T.s are cultural anarchists, as eager to deface treasured works of art as to blow up the world. MOMA had better hire some extra guards.