At LACMA, lifelong outsider Tim Burton feels a connection
The line for autographs snaked eastward down Wilshire Boulevard on Saturday afternoon, even though representatives from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art warned that some fans waiting in line to meet Tim Burton, the artist and filmmaker who’s the subject of the museum’s new exhibition, would probably go home disappointed.
The scene outside had the hallmarks one might expect — patrons carrying black umbrellas, dressed in pinstriped or Gothic-inspired finery or even more elaborate costumes. But inside one of the museum’s offices, Burton himself, wearing a black suit jacket, red-and-black-striped socks and dark tinted glasses, just looked slightly overwhelmed, battling both jet lag and general fatigue.
The director of such films as “Beetlejuice,” “Edward Scissorhands,” “Ed Wood” and “Alice in Wonderland” had touched down in Los Angeles from London at 6 a.m. Saturday and was due to return Sunday to his adopted home base, where he’s at work on two movies set for release next year.
In “Dark Shadows,” Burton directs his longtime leading man, Johnny Depp, in an adaptation of the cult 1960s television series about a lovelorn vampire; the second, “Frankenweenie,” is a feature-length stop-motion animated revision of a 1984 black-and-white live-action short Burton made about a canine who returns from beyond the grave after being hit by a car.
Like the crowd gathered to meet Burton and walk through the LACMA exhibition that bears his name, both projects seem perfectly in keeping with the delightfully morbid aesthetic the filmmaker has become known for during his 26 years in Hollywood.
The exhibition, which opened Sunday in the museum’s Resnick Pavilion after debuting in 2009 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and traveling to Toronto and Melbourne, Australia, spotlights Burton’s movie projects — there are props and costumes from “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and his candy-colored adaptation of Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” among other films.
But the show also includes numerous drawings and photos that express the alienation and angst that Burton felt as a child growing up in Southern California, when he was an outsider who found joy and solace in watching old monster movies starring Vincent Price and Christopher Lee at the Cornell Theatre in Burbank.
Putting the exhibition together “made me realize what you do early in life really kind of shapes your life,” Burton, 52, said. “I guess it’s not that much of a revelation…. Those feelings never really leave you. It’s just part of your DNA. I always felt like Frankenstein, and my neighbors were all the angry villagers.”
The drive to create
Divided into three sections, “Surviving Burbank,” “Beautifying Burbank” and “Beyond Burbank,” “Tim Burton” brings together more than 700 drawings, paintings, photographs, film and video works, storyboards, puppets, concept art, costumes and other movie memorabilia.
For the traveling exhibition of the show, which runs at LACMA through Halloween, Burton created seven new pieces, including a 21-foot-tall creature dubbed Balloon Boy and a carousel installation that revolves inside a slightly psychedelic black-lighted room to music composed by another of the director’s longtime collaborators, Danny Elfman.
“I just like making things,” Burton said. “It’s fun. That’s why I like making movies or I like drawing, just making things. I think when I stop making movies, I can imagine myself living in a trailer out in the desert making weird things.”
Britt Salvesen, department head and curator of the Wallis Annenberg Department of Photography and department head and curator of prints and drawings, organized the exhibition at LACMA and said she believes that the show will broaden the popular understanding of Burton’s film and visual work.
“I think the sheer mass and spectacle of the exhibition shows how driven and disciplined he is as an artist and a maker,” Salvesen said. “He’s compelled to be making something even if it’s a drawing on a cocktail napkin to a feature film — it’s all a continuum. There’s a drive to create that also becomes a communication, but I think it starts out as a more internal drive and we get the benefit of being able to see the results. There’s an interiority to it that I think we can all respond to.”
Drawing, Burton said, proved an invaluable creative outlet as a younger man. His love for it spurred him to study at CalArts and led to his working as an animator at Walt Disney Studios before his career as a feature director took off with 1985’s “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.” At LACMA, his sketches from “The Black Cauldron” are on view, but so are countless line drawings he made before and after that period. The figures, some crudely rendered, others more refined, often have exaggerated proportions, heads or hands impossibly large for their skeletal frames.
“It’s an important form of therapy for me, even just doodling something helps me to think,” Burton said. “I was not a very verbal communicator growing up so it was a form of communication for me. I can communicate a little bit better verbally, but it’s still a process for me. [Drawing is] kind of a calming thing for me, it’s a Zen kind of thing. It’s important for my whole thought process.”
Ever the outsider
One consistent criticism of Burton’s work is that he returns too often to his own fantastic realms, fairy-tale lands cloaked in German Expressionist shadow and populated by well-meaning but misunderstood outcasts and loners. The material included in “Tim Burton” will do nothing to dissuade detractors that the director has too narrow a range.
In conversation, Burton returns to the subject of the monster movies he loves again and again when talking about inspiration for his art. He believes there’s a fundamental connection between horror and humor, though he concedes that he finds comedy in drama too. (“That’s why I get in trouble sometimes. I’ve been known to burst out laughing at weddings, serious speeches, church.”)
And he’s still an outsider when it comes to the obsession with technology in modern life. “I don’t do Facebook or Twitter or any of that,” Burton said. “Twitter, that even sounds horrible. Twittering. Geez.”
He said the show has helped him “reconnect with things that are meaningful,” even if viewing some of the specific pieces from his past — for example, an English class essay — in a rarefied museum environment created a certain amount of discomfort. “It really made me almost ill,” Burton said. “It’s like hanging your dirty laundry on the walls.”
It’s his willingness to share his own anxieties, to cop to his own sense of otherness, that seems to have won him such an ardent following, however — the sort of fan base willing to brave the bright light of the afternoon sun on Memorial Day weekend for a chance to meet the artist born out of a darkened movie theater.
“It’s shocking, really,” Burton said. “Certainly not anything I ever expected or anything like that. It’s really nice, though, because it’s more important than anything really, when you connect with somebody or the work you do helps connect to somebody — I find it incredibly moving and very special and it makes me almost want to cry sort of. If I think back to how I felt as a younger person, how lonely and isolated I felt, now when you meet people and feel a connection it’s really amazing.”
“Certain people seem to feel the pain of life a bit more,” he added. “I think everybody feels those things; some connect with it more than others.”
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