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Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

Tim Burton: Sometimes Being an Auteur is a Bad Thing

As an elitist film snob, I subscribe to the “auteur” theory. I believe that the director is the true author of the film and that it is my job as a film writer to trace a filmmaker’s themes and creative tics through their filmography. When Truffaut wrote about the Auteur theory, he was speaking mostly about ascertaining whose creative vision each film was and also about his role as a critic, but to call a director an “auteur” has become a shorthand for praising the filmmaker for having a unique and distinctive vision.

Most auteurs are directors who return to the same material or setting often and/or emply a specific visual scheme and design. In other words, to be considered a true auteur, one should be able to look at a fragment of that filmmaker’s newest film and be able to recognize it immediately as the work of that particular director.

Today, there are very few auteurs left. In the rest of the world, there are many distinctive filmmakers like Arnaud Desplechin, Lukas Moodysson, Wong Kar-Wai, Ken Loach, and a handful of others. But surprisingly, the majority of filmmakers I consider to be auteurs are in America. We’ve got Spike Lee, Woody Allen, Terrence Malick, Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, David Fincher, Richard Linklater and a handful of others. To be not be considered an auteur is not necessarily the worst thing in the world. Many great filmmakers don’t fall into this category. Although, the truth of the matter is that most of the time, to be considered an auteur is indeed a compliment.

Tim Burton practically defines the word “auteur.” Look up the word in the dictionary and you’ll probably see his scraggly hair. He has repeated visual motifs and production designs that resemble abstract art, lots of deep velvety black hues dominating the palette and bright yellows and greens when they do pop up, oddball and outcast characters often at the center of his films, Danny Elfman scores, and a seeming desire to never allow his films to become too serious or consequential. That last comment by the way has only been a recent development, applied solely to the films he’s made in recent years. And it’s become something of a detriment to his recent work, which feels mostly as if there are no real stakes. And even when there are stakes, it doesn’t feel real.

Now, one could say, “hey Noah, you twit, he made Charlie and the Chocolate Factory not The Seventh Seal, give him a break!” But, my argument would be that one can make a so-called “light” film and have it have real stakes that are important to the characters and thus the audience. When Burton made Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, we truly cared whether or not Pee-wee got his bike back. He wasn’t trying to cure cancer or save the world from nuclear destruction; he was just an odd man-child who wanted his bike back more than anything in the world. The whole movie has diversions and distractions as Pee-wee hits the road, but we never forget the purpose of his journey. With something like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the second that Johnny Depp shows up doing his Michael Jackson impression, we forget the purpose of the journey. Charlie Bucket becomes a secondary character and the stakes disappear until the ending when we’re reminded of Charlie’s plight.

This has been a common problem in the last few Burton films, including his newest smash hit Alice in Wonderland, which never feels real, never feels like anything more than a dream. And it’s hard for dreams or fantasies to have any real weight to them unless you’re Luis Bunuel. Regardless, Burton’s last few films, from Planet of the Apes onward, have lacked that intensity and momentum. Instead of having some emotional or physical conflict at the center of the story, we are instead left with over-emotive performances from an admittedly charismatic Johnny Depp. Instead of probing insight into the human psyche and condition through the use of metaphor and visual splendor, we are left with predictable oddballs and eccentrics signifying very little.

In other words, the point I’m getting at, is that in the case of Tim Burton, becoming an auteur has hindered him. More than that, it’s not enough for him to simply be an auteur.

Instead of being excited by the fact that Burton was tackling something like Alice in Wonderland, which is right in his wheelhouse, I was worried that Burton would be typically Burtonesque in his adaptation. The sad fact is that when I heard the name Tim Burton and Alice in Wonderland I felt like I could already see the movie in my head. He’s the first auteur I can think of who is so predictably unpredictable that I don’t need to wait for a musical cue or a single image to appear on screen to say, “oh yes, of course, this is so Burton.” I already can predict and visualize the entire thing. This “outside” artist seems like he has let the studios co-opt his point of view. Now it doesn’t seem like Burton is this rebel voice working within the studio system, but rather that the studio can claim Burton’s mise-en-scene as rebellious and sell it to the cool kids. He has become the film version of Hot Topic.

The first clue to that transition came with his remake of Planet of the Apes. It looked and felt like a slick studio product from all the promotional material. But being the young cinephile that I was, I rallied all my friends to see it on opening day because, come on, I couldn’t miss the new Tim Burton film however awful it looked. And my worst fears were realized. It was exactly what I thought it was going to be. It felt lifeless. By the time Mark Wahlberg kisses the ape-woman played by Helena Bonham Carter, I was ready to cry for what Burton could have been. He had done the unthinkable and made a straight-up payheck job.

But then I thought he would bounce back with his next film, Big Fish. I figured, wow, now Burton’s gonna wow us; he’s making a film with an interesting storyline, great cast, but it’s also a bit weightier because there’s a dying father involved. This, I felt, was going to be Burton’s masterpiece. Boy, was I disappointed. This was a film that truly had no stakes because we’re being told the whole story from the perspective of a man who lies and exaggerates, so we know that what we’re seeing on screen is probably not the actual way things went down. And it felt like a big excuse for Burton to show us a bunch of carnival sideshows. It looked breathtaking, of course, because Burton has always been able to wow us with his images. But it felt empty and Burton does not do saccharine well. The tender moments felt too clumsy and overall, it seemed like a bad fit for Burton, like he couldn’t bring a story like this to life in the correct way, with the right amount of heart.

I really wanted him to go back to the stories and visions that didn’t require giant budgets. If he would make a small, independent film with a bunch of unknowns, I would be the happiest guy in the world. I truly feel like these big budgets are harming his creativity. We always root for these strong indie actors and filmmakers to break through so that they could get enough money to finance their bigger visions or to get the chance to star in the films they really want to make. But it’s like electing a president who says he’s going to end corruption; it’s the system, not the guy. So, the actors and directors wind up being seduced by the big bucks and then destroying their legacy. Who am I to judge? I’d probably do the same.

I will always have love in my heart for Burton. This is, after all, the man who gave us Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, and Ed Wood. Each of those films feel personal and distinctive, yet all from the hands of one particular author. When I see a film like Sweeney Todd, I can see clearly that the work is from the same man, but it feels devoid of any passion. There isn’t one scene in the past ten years of Burton’s work that has the same combination of beauty, longing and heartbreak as Edward Scissorhands being unable to hold the thing he loves the most without harming it. There is nothing that has the same joyful insanity as when the Maitlands change their faces in order to visit the spirit world. And there is nothing that Burton has displayed in fifteen years that makes it seem like he loves cinema the same way that Ed Wood did.

Now, who am I to say what Tim Burton should and shouldn’t do? Clearly the man has amassed a wild fortune and has created such an indelible body of work that MoMA did a retrospective on him this past year. He is an artist, first and foremost and what made him so appealing was the fact that he seemed to be a visual artist that was heavily influenced by Vincent Price and Hammer horror films and cheesy sci-fi movies. In other words, he wasn’t an abstract artist who seemed to take himself super seriously. His films mattered, though, because he was combining his unique style with storylines that were both original and slightly unhinged.

When you have someone as talented as Burton and as distinctive and you watch his earlier work, it’s like watching a young basketball player who is already able to score thirty points a night, like Kevin Durant. And you say to yourself, “wow, if this kid ever puts it all together, he could be a perennial MVP candidate.” And with Burton, it seemed like, “wow, when he puts it all together, he is going to make one of the greatest films of all time.” Now, I don’t know whether it’s the team around him or if he’s just one of those guys that never fully realizes their talent – a guy who never develops that mid-range game. But I do know that I will never stop rooting for Tim Burton. He’s been one of the most prominent auteurs in cinema for the last two decades, but I think it’s simply not enough anymore to give us exactly what we’re expecting.

Noah Forrest
March 8, 2010

Noah Forrest is a 26-year-old aspiring writer/filmmaker in New York City.

The opinions expressed in these columns are the writer’s and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Movie City News or any of its editors or other contributors.

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