News & Politics

8 Awesome Things About Tim Burton

Looking at our favorite quirks from our favorite quirky director.

Johnny Depp in "Dark Shadows"
Photo Credit: Warner Brothers

The new movieDark Shadows took a decade to drop. A long-running bit of Tim Burton/Johnny Depp lore, the dynamic duo has been trying to make a film based on their favorite kitschy ‘60s vampire television show for years—so to have it released in theaters seems almost beyond comprehension for megafans. Unfortunately, though, it seems like it might have been left in the oven a little too long: critics are panning it like nobody’s business, despite its marquee director-star pairing and a packed cast that includes Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter and Jackie Earle Haley.

It's odd that a project so labored over and long aspired to by Burton and Depp—the latter has spoken lovingly about watching the original show as a kid—could flop. That said: lest Dark Shadows is truly that unpleasurable, here are eight things to remind you why Tim Burton is awesome.

1. His politics.

In case you couldn’t surmise by the subtexts of his films—in which dastardly conservative characters regularly get their gruesome comeuppance—Tim Burton is ready and willing to lash out and mock the ridiculous trappings of our politics. In Mars Attacks!, his 1996 film about... Mars attacking, he takes down everybody with his awesome macabre humor. When it’s unclear to humanity whether the clacking, wild-eyed Martians come in peace or to destroy the planet, he writes it large by having a stereotypical Jesus-esque hippie unleash a dove, which promptly gets zapped by a hostile Martian. That film portrays the military in hilariously Dr. Strangelove-esque rigidity (which would later become a reality with the advent of Donald Rumsfeld), and Burton takes great pleasure in visually destroying America, including the Washington Monument. In that sense, he’s got the visual inclinations of a good old feisty progressive artist, where nothing’s sacred and there’s always a larger truth.

2. He doesn’t condescend to children.

Aside from the systematic entrenchment of princess culture, there’s another way Disney is helping to ruin America’s children: treating them like their imaginations are as dainty as Cinderella’s glass slipper. Tim Burton makes children’s tales with a sense of the macabre, like Nightmare Before Christmas and the newly rebooted Frankenweenie, about a bull terrier resurrected by lightning by a young Frankenstein. In 2009, Burton spoke on how the shiny-happy children’s story infringes on his own ability to make movies:

..."When I was first doing stuff like Beetlejuice or Batman I used to get a lot of s**t for things being dark... When I was working on Nightmare Before Christmas I had endless arguments with the studio heads who said, 'You can't have a main character that's got no eyeballs. How is someone gonna feel about somebody with just eye sockets?'"

And yet, that’s exactly what he did. "Most great children's literature is politically incorrect,” he said at the time, “so I don't know why they can't get used to it by now.” In case you forgot: the original Grimm’s Cinderella portrays her stepsisters slicing off part of their feet to squeeze into the slipper. Grody/awesome.

3. Halloween 2009.

Last year, the news broke that in October 2009, midway through the financial crisis, the Obamas had an elaborate, Alice in Wonderland-themed Halloween party for schoolchildren from the DC area, which Burton and Johnny Depp attended (the latter in full Mad Hatter costume). While the conservative blogosphere was collectively reaching for angles to demonize a party for a bunch of eight-year-olds, we were searching for pics on Google so we could Tumblr them stat. The result was this: an amazing image of Burton and Depp posing with Malia as the Morton Salt girl, Sasha as something we can’t peg, Michelle as a leopard and killjoy daddy Obama wearing a dad sweater. How can one be mad at this, other than being salty at not getting an invite? It was a Halloween party for area schoolchildren, and Johnny Depp went to the White House dressed as a somewhat scary, crazed haberdasher! And it was all Burton’s doing.

4. How he met Lisa Marie.

Not gonna speculate on the intimacies or intricacies of how or whether Burton dumped longtime girlfriend Lisa Marie for present wife Helena Bonham Carter, because it’s ancient history (2001) and kinda none of our business. Here's what IS amazing: Burton and Lisa Marie first met in a New York Starbucks in 1992 on New Year’s Eve—which sounds like the conceit of a Garry Marshall film to begin with, but add to their particular romance that they first knew it was love when they were hanging out in Napa Valley and they had a mutual UFO sighting. (It’s only appropriate, then, that he later cast Lisa Marie as that smooth-walking, beehived martian in Mars Attacks.)

5. His amazing movie tropes.

Sci-fi blog i09 has an incredible rundown of “things you’ll see in every Burton film”—signature archetypes the director returns to time and again. And while they do illuminate that he should probably get better at employing people of color—there are goths of all races, Tim!—the list and photographs are visually striking.

6. His house.

When you’re consisently envisioning dark, fantastical worlds, riddled with trapdoors and twisty turns, you’re not likely to want to go home to a bi-level ranch house in the suburbs. The house in which Tim Burton resides with his wife Helena Bonham Carter is as conceptual a haven as you’d expect, and it’s the stuff of legend (and this awesome article). Well, apartments, actually: Tim and Helena each have their own artists' abodes, which sit side by side in North London, not unlike the symmetry he provided for Edward Scissorhands’ retro suburbia. As the Daily Mail wrote:

Each has its own very distinct decor: hers is girly, vintage and chintzy, while his is a gothic melange of 'skeletons and weird things' and floor lights in neon shades. Each partner has their own television, their own Sky Plus and their own kitchen -- although Tim's is barely used.

At night they sleep in their respective dwellings. Not only is Tim an insomniac who likes to pace and watch TV, he says that she talks too much and that he needs some peace and quiet away from her. And anyway, counters Helena, he snores.

The couples’ nanny and two children live in yet a third home, and they’re all joined by a large communal room, which has entered the psyche popular culture as a sort of conceptual underground tunnel. It’s a progressive way to live (the kitchen detail notwithstanding), insofar as it allows each partner equal weight in the relationship, and allows them to focus on their work. Carter told the Daily Mail, “He always visits, which is really touching. He's always coming over. It really is a great idea. You never have to compromise emotionally or feel invaded.” 

7. His breadth.

Though Burton is most associated with a dark aesthetic, it doesn’t entirely define him. As a director, he’s got enormous breadth and skill—the man who gave us animated films like Corpse Bride has still been able to tackle sci-fi like Planet of the Apes, touching family fantasies like Big Fish and musicals like Sweeney Todd. His specialty is not necessarily a visual device as much as a sense of loneliness and displacement that many of his characters share, from Scissorhands to Willy Wonka to Dark Shadows’ Barnabas (and Depp plays all three). He’s also an accomplished visual artist, with several art books and a full exhibition of his works on display at MOMA in 2009, which led to tours around the world (the show is presently in France). And he’s also an occasional actor: in 1992, he played Brian in the grunge rom-com Singles, and he’s also got a bit part in the upcoming blockbuster Men in Black III. Who says goths don’t have more fun?

 

8. Dark Shadows looks like a telenovela.

Okay, I’ve seen enough serial soaps from around the globe that many of them share the same campy DNA—Mexican dramas are quite similar to those that are Telugu, Taiwanese and Korean, by the very nature of soaps not being about realism—but somewhere along the line, American soaps started taking themselves just a little too seriously. The original “Dark Shadows,” which ran from 1966 to 1971, shows the older DNA of bad soaps, and it seems like Burton has managed to capture that essence—though some fans’ hackles have been raised because of it. Most of all, though, the drama and tone of the trailer brings to mind my favorite telenovela of all time, "Pasión," which is about pirates in colonial Mexico and starcrossed lovers kept apart by slavery in the 17th century. Visually, it’s evident that Burton transforms the canny, self-serious romanticism of the telenovela—clearly, a universal format—into high art within his own distinct oeuvre, fusing soap archetypes (the deadpan chainsmoker, the lusty jilted woman) with his gothier leanings. Even running through episodes of the original soap on YouTube, it’s obvious why these two loved this show: it’s inherently awkward, both in its plot and very existence, a monster dramedy airing long after the years of the Addams and the Munsters. It’s inevitable that a director like Burton would pick up and expand on that, and if it ends up being chintz, so be it. Besides, literally everything was kitchier in the 1970s, from the cut of the clothes to the tone of the technicolor.

 

 

Julianne Escobedo Shepherd is an associate editor at AlterNet and a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and editor. Formerly the executive editor of The FADER, her work has appeared in VIBE, SPIN, New York Times and various other magazines and websites.