Tim Burton’s Two Identities and His Five Best Films

Tim Burton, for me, has two identities. The first identity is that of a young and vital filmmaker who made a series of films that I adored when I was a teenager and very young man. This Tim Burton appealed to my love of fantasy in all its artistic permutations, as well as to my adolescent and naïve self-image as a budding Romantic artist.

Ed Wood (1994), which in my estimation was Burton’s final truly great film and a sophisticated and stylistic departure from his early work, marked the turning point in his identity. I could appreciate the oddities and risks of Mars Attacks! (1996) but found the film to be extremely cold and calculating. It definitely was unsatisfying, as were the two films that followed: Sleepy Hollow (1999) and the correctly critically lambasted Planet of the Apes (2001).

After truly appreciating Big Fish (2003) as a surprising return to form, I was excited to see Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) – and that’s when I felt that Burton had fully developed a second identity as a filmmaker. You see, most of the Burton films that I saw from Charlie on, I saw with my twin girls, both of whom love fantasy. I realized that Burton, with the obvious exception of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007), had become – and, most likely always was – a filmmaker for teenagers and children. This realization led to my having mixed feelings about his work. On the one hand, I was disappointed to lose the filmmaker who had meant so much to me when I was younger (perhaps I was simply nostalgic for the self-absorbed and naïve Romantic whom I once was); on the other hand, I was glad to see my daughters indulge their love of fantasy (they also adore all things C.S. Lewis, Lewis Carroll, J.K. Rowling, Erin Hunter, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Lemony Snickett) and to watch films such as Charlie, Corpse Bride (2005), and Alice in Wonderland (2010) through their eyes. But I knew that I personally had outgrown Burton.

The following list of Burton’s five best films, with the exception of Big Fish, comes from his first identity. I’m sure that nostalgia for my lost self and the lost Burton comes into play here – and I know from Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (1913-1927) and, most recently, Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (2011), that the words “nostalgia” and “idealized” go hand-in-hand – but here goes:

5. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985). I was eleven when I saw Pee-wee for the first time – and the film taught my young self a lot about the comic potential for surrealism. Of course I wouldn’t have used the word “surrealism” to describe the film when I first saw it. I just remember a string of images – Pee-wee (Paul Reubens) spreading butter on his morning toast with a floppy and oversized knife, Large Marge’s (Alice Nunn) face exploding into a tangled mess of ghastly images upon the conclusion of her story of the world’s worst truck accident, the silly regulatory street signs that fill the mountainous part of Pee-wee’s journey to find his stolen bicycle, and Pee-wee getting into a fight with Andy (Jon Harris) over Simone (Diane Salinger) as they circle a giant dinosaur – whose weirdness was fresh and new to me. Pee-wee also first introduced me to “metafiction”: a term that would one-day inform much of my teaching and academic publishing. Although I didn’t know that it was metafiction at the time, the final scene of the film, which depicts James Brolin and Morgan Fairchild in a slick Hollywood version of Pee-wee’s big adventure, had the hallmark of self-reflexivity in art and gave me my first inkling of its potential for comedic strangeness.

4. Beetlejuice (1988). I was fourteen and just beginning to use unconsciously the tropes of Romanticism to define myself and the way I related – that is, couldn’t relate – to the world, when I saw my second Burton film. But, in all honesty, I shouldn’t say “my second Burton film” because doing so wouldn’t be fair to the film’s main attraction for me: Winona Ryder. Ah, Winona – she who would one-day make the even darker and funnier Heathers (1989) and become the crush of my high school years! Ryder’s Lydia Deetz in Beetlejuice was a goth heroine to me and made my equally black heart beat with the certainty that, at last, I’d found a girl who could understand me – or, really, notice me. From the tip of her Siouxsie Sioux raven locks to her black-clad feet, she was my muse. I so easily could envision her listening to the Cure, Depeche Mode, and Joy Division in bed in the solace of her dark room, absorbing the truths of Robert Smith’s, Martin Gore’s, and Ian Curtis’ prophecies (like me!). She could even talk to dead people, including Betelgeuse (Michael Keaton) himself. And there were many bleak nights when, just like her, I wanted to be, as Betelgeuse would say, “Dead dead dead-ski.”

3. Big Fish (2003). I saw Big Fish after I’d begun to process fully the ramifications of my childhood cancer and recent diagnosis of idiopathic dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), so the film’s story of the dying Edward Bloom’s (Albert Finney and Ewan McGregor) attempts to tell the story of his life to his son William (Billy Cudrup) through a series of seemingly tall tales deeply resonated with me. First of all, the surname of the main character – “Bloom” – was a nod to the hero of the novel Ulysses (1922) by James Joyce, who himself strung together some of the world’s greatest fish stories, especially in the surreal and stylistically experimental Finnegans Wake (1939). Having devoted my dissertation and a few publications and conference papers to Joyce before my diagnosis of DCM, I could immediately relate to Burton’s main character, filmmaking method, and his theme of a dying man’s attempt to convey his legacy to his child through the murkiness of language. My doctors tell me that I’m still dying – and I know that I’m still writing and telling stories that I hope will allow my daughters in the future to make sense of their head-in-the-clouds dad. Big Fish inspires me to keep the stories flowing. Besides, the film’s final images of all of Bloom’s characters and the people from his life intermingling at his funeral, which pay homage to the conclusion of Federico Fellini’s (1963) and are probably the most heartfelt moments in all Burton’s catalogue, gives a pretty cool preview of a perfect afterlife for a departed storyteller.

2. Ed Wood (1994). Ed Wood is one of Burton’s least popular films with audiences but with the possible exception of Big Fish, his most critically successful. It’s hard for me to explain why film critics love Ed Wood because I’m not a film critic, but I’d like to take a shot. First, the film features the great Martin Landau in his Oscar-winning performance of Bela Lugosi, Hollywood’s greatest Dracula. Second, the sheer audacity of Burton’s task as the director of Ed Wood is extremely impressive. Burton actually manages to make a good and weirdly funny movie about Ed Wood, whom critics often cite as the world’s worst filmmaker of all time. It’s much easier to make movies about historical figures who were good at what they did – Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982), Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992), and Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind (2001) jump to mind. But to make an Academy Award winner about a guy who sucked? This kind of film is almost unthinkable. Third, Ed Wood was the coming-out party for Johnny Depp as a “serious actor.” The film put to rest forever the critical misconception that Depp was just a pretty face who couldn’t really act. In the film, Burton allowed Depp, who played the title character, the opportunity to cross-dress, to demonstrate his character’s deep admiration for Lugosi, and to engage in hilarious dialogue with the rest of the film’s cast as they make the Wood film Plan 9 from Outer Space. It was Ed Wood that gave Depp the freedom to show his acting range. Fourth, Ed Wood is a film geek’s delight. It’s just as self-reflexive and metafictional as Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (which was released the same year) but weirder and more discomforting – a film that in deconstructing the making of a film, has given critics a work of complexity to deconstruct for themselves.

1. Edward Scissorhands (1990). After my brief discussion of Burton’s two most critically successful films, I must return to teenage Paul for my number one Burton film. Edward has everything that I loved about Burton when I was young. It had my would-be girlfriend, Winona Ryder, who played Kim Boggs, Edward’s (Johnny Depp) love interest. The artistically gifted, odd, and malformed Edward used his scissor-hands to create beautiful works of art in the form of tree sculptures and hairdos and, in so doing, somehow captured the attention of the beautiful Kim. At the height of my adolescent self-indulgence, I saw Edward as an uncanny stand in for myself – a physically repellant guy with a scar across his stomach from his kidney-removal surgery who despite feeling ostracized from his peers, could create art that would attract someone as wonderful as Kim. I also couldn’t help but notice that Edward’s deformed hands (which were also uncannily my medical history and scar) led to the infliction of pain on other people because Edward wasn’t always in control of them. Looking back on Edward’s hands from my current perspective, I understand them as metaphors for the choice that we all have to control our emotional responses. Edward didn’t end up with Kim, but he exiled himself in the castle from which he came, a victim of his inability to function well emotionally – and Edward’s danger exists for many of us for our entire lives.

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  1. A well written article offering a slightly different look at Tim Burton! Though I may disagree with the top 5 Burton films list, I did appreciate the walk down memory lane with some of the classics which I haven't seen in forever. I wonder if Netflix has Beetlejuice?

  2. Wow Paul, this is outstanding. Your personal insight into Big Fish is truly incredible.

  3. christinabarrett86

    I agree about your 2 identities point. He started off as a budding little filmmaker and now is enormous in the world of film.

    I think it's cool your daughters like Tim Burton, too.

    "Pee-wee's Big Adventure" is pretty nostalgic, a nod to films of lore.

    "Big Fish" is his modern masterpiece, for the mature of the audience. It highlights everyday common discrepancies…

    "Ed Wood" introduces us to Sarah Jessica Parker. I like Landau's daughter. I just looked up that she's 5'7". I thought she was 5'6".

    "Edward Scissorhands" is the 2nd most famous thing he did in stage 1 of his dual personality as you said he has to you.

    I do like him for his more popular things, like "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." People may use it as a tool, but I think it was well-liked. I like think there is a certain reaction people have to anything that might spark the memory of it. I feel kinda attacked because I grew up kinda in the same culture as Tim Burton and Johnny Depp. People love them, but … (I left writing.)

    So, yea, Tim Burton adds a spark of imagination to all he does to make things fancy. It's a big deal. We learn about birth, living, and dying in pretty much a lot of his movies. Bravo!

  4. Pingback: Self Esteem, Self Confidence and Our Self Image | QUOTES OF ENCOURAGEMENT

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