Bestest or Bad Idea?: MoMA’s Tim Burton Retrospective

Did you hear the breaking science news?  The Museum of Modern Art’s developed a nuclear-grade nostalgia bomb: on November 22nd, they plan to drop a career-wide Tim Burton retrospective, after which scores of movie lovers will be indubitably reduced to smoldering piles of enthusiastic screams and hyperventilation.  Really, every day at the MoMA will look like this:


My breath is quickening, my hands are shaking, and my ears are already bleeding from my anticipatory shrieks!  It’s just.  Too.  MUCH!  GYAH!!!

(…sorry ’bout that.)

Anyways, it’ll feature over 700 pieces (ranging from illustrations to film props and beyond), as well as a retrospective film series, so MoMA’s also discovered the way to beat the recession.  An exhibition this elaborate is going to inspire pilgrimages from the world over, and I highly imagine NYC is going to have to go on Nerd Alert: High ’til April 26th.  I be up on this exhibit like an ornate pattern on Nomi Malone’s fingernails, natch, yet I can’t help adding a splash of Maybeline’s “Conspicuously Cautious” to my Excitement nails.

It’s certainly spectacular to have Tim Burton’s work get such prestigious treatment.  He’s built a career on channeling his darkly whimsical imagination into camp, kitsch, and pop sensibility.  His moviess have a distinct look, and his stories frequently center around the Other as misunderstood protagonist.  He’s parlayed awkward-kid status into an career that transcends niche.  For those of us who were sympathetic to characters’ alienation, Burton built us a home that wasn’t erected in the seedy back alleys of nigh-forgotten cult; we got the warm flicker of celluloid and the buttered-popcorn scent of the multiplex.  Can any other contemporary filmmaker claim such success?  I think not, so YAY!

Plus, let’s not forget that whole film retrospective.  Like most all movies, his filmography will play better on the big screen, but I think a few are particularly well-suited.  Like Batman Returns:

Inspiredly insane performances by Danny DeVito and Christopher Walken?  A Batman movie about a nefarious business man and a twisted scheme to kill Gotham’s first-born children?  The sublime camp pleasure of Michelle Pfeiffer’s vixen-bitch Catwoman?  The undeniable batshit insanity that this was all squeezed into a studio-funded, action-figure shilling summer blockbuster?  Yes, my dears, the 90s were littered with Hollywood’s strange decisions, and Batman Returns was one of the strangest for sure.

But Mars Attacks! probably takes the strange cake:

It assembled this cast to star in a deliberately camp, 50s B-movie inspired ridicupalooza.  It was released in the Holiday season of 1996, not even six months after aliens blew up everything in Independence Day.  Oh, and instead of a Mac saving humanity, we got Slim Whitman.  Totally standard Christmas fair, duh.

Mostly, though, there’s this reason to put your must-see-on-the-big-screen pants on:

There just isn’t better Tim Burton than Edward Scissorhands.  It perfectly synthesizes his adoration for gothic aesthetics and an even stranger suburbia.  It’s Johnny Depp’s breakout role and the beginning of his fruitful collaboration with Burton; they’re the bizarro Scorcese and DeNiro.  The rest of the cast is equally divine, the story itself a rare modern fairy tale that doesn’t collapse under the weight of its own imagination, and there’s that damn Danny Elfman score!  SOO GOOOOD!!!

Fittingly enough, said perfection is also the exhibition’s conundrum.

While his 90s career steadily continued on in wonderful weirdness (Ed Wood and Sleepy Hollow), Tim Burton entered the 2000s and lost that magic.  Even this decade’s best (Big Fish and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street) lack a certain je ne sais quoi found in his prior work.  But there’s the all-caps “HUH?” that is Planet of the Apes. And the desperate battle against and (perhaps) partial victory over decades of childhood adoration that is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. And Corpse Bride, an important lesson in impossible act of capturing lightening twice.

Has Hollywood’s increasing aversion to risk-taking transformed Tim Burton from visionary director to brand-name?  Is he now just a key ingredient in high-concept pitches meant to reassure studio execs that the movie will have a built in audience hungry for his particular style?  It’s too early to ponder if his Alice in Wonderland will be a return to form or step towards self-parody, but the MoMA exhibit raises such concerns about the trajectory of Tim Burton’s career.

Putting the entire span of his work together could go both ways.  It might inspire newfound appreciation for this past decade’s decisions, or it might simply serve as to reinforcement our sour-grapes.  Will it dismantle the Do-Not-Want-bomb that is Planet of the Apes, or will it reinforce the opinion that something’s really been amiss for a while?

Seriously.  Let’s discuss.

3 Responses

  1. Tim Burton was my favorite director. Was. Big Fish was the last movie of his that I actually enjoyed. After Corpse Bride , Charlie and the Chocolate Factory , and Sweeney Todd , I am not at all looking forward to Alice in Wonderland . I will see it eventually, just to see if he can redeem himself at all, but honestly, his movies are becoming bland with creepy lighting and big budgets. It’s really dissapointing.


  2. […] The Alice in Wonderland Teaser Just Melted My Face! A little while back I’d expressed my concern about the current state of Tim Burton’s career and my growing unease that his best y…  I’ve obviously spoken too soon because the teaser trailer for Alice in Wonderland has […]


  3. […] Wonderland Is Going to Be Out of Control Amazing I’ll be completely frank: even though I previously had my doubts about Tim Burton’s latest, the reality is that I never needed this past summer’s face-meltingly fantastic teaser […]


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