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Big Fish and the Movies of Tim Burton as Viewed Through His Art

By Michael Murray | Think Pieces | December 10, 2010 |

By Michael Murray | Think Pieces | December 10, 2010 |

The MOMA organized exhibit of the work of Tim Burton, which is currently parked in Toronto, is an excellent place to people watch.


There was one guy there that I just couldn’t take my eyes off of. He was wearing a wool sweater with a snowflake pattern around the neck that looked like it might have been knitted by a palsied grandmother. An extreme facial hair event sprouted erratically from his face, and he wore a simple and happy look that made you wonder whether he was on an excellent high or blissfully stupid. It was simply impossible to tell if he was indulging the ironic conventions of a heavily invested hipster, or was just a particularly naïve exchange student from a Finnish village.

A homely-faced and hot-bodied blonde with a bouncy ponytail toured the show with her guy. He slouched, wore a Ronaldo soccer jersey and a pair of Ed Hardy jeans into which he had deeply tucked his hands. He trailed after her, looking like he really didn’t want to be there, but whenever she moved her head and cast her ponytail into flight with the intentional precision of a gymnast, he was mesmerized, eyes trained on the sexual possibilities that her black bra so saucily revealed. When she came upon the costume that Johnny Depp wore in Edward Scissorhands, she stopped and spun around, ” I would look fucking awesome in that, don’t you think?”

“You know it,” he said, “you know it.”

A tiny Asian woman with tits-out-to-here, wore six-inch heels and black leather pants that it made it look like she’d been dipped in ink. She kept the company of an insanely muscled gay man who had decided that a sleeveless undershirt was the best fashion route for him to take for the day. Regardless of what feature of the exhibit this woman saw, she would always turn to him and say the same thing, “that is so RAD!!”

And on it went.

The gallery was full of the eccentric, erratic and merely curious, all wandering about the ridiculous and sublime world of Tim Burton.

Consisting of over 700 works that include puppets, drawings, storyboards, paintings, costumes and a multitude of other stuff, an astonishing and prolific explosion of something akin to folk art is on wide display. Looking through the work I thought that if Dr. Seuss, Edward Gorey, Madame Tussauds Chamber of Horrors and Walt Disney had somehow gotten into a car accident, it would be Tim Burton that staggered out of the carnage.

In the exhibited notes Burton made for Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorshands, we see evidence of a fevered imagination at work. Burtons’ indecipherable script, as if written in great and burning haste at a hotel bar, is practically torn into the paper. Exclamation points, circled passages, asterisks, arrows and cross-outs abound, giving you get the sense that Burton is an antennae for the all the ideas, like the beautiful Carousel, that flash upon him.


Clearly, Burtons’ primary gift is his visual imagination. His movies have always been more about the way that they look than what they say. Long a Hollywood brand, Burtons’ films are commercial and accessible. Although shadowed with dark hints, they’re never laden with actual mortal darkness, and retain a child-like buoyancy, like less cloying and more imaginative interpretations of the Twilight genre.

For the most part, the actors in his films are narrative tools that lead us through a tour of the art direction, that’s always the real star of the picture. (Johnny Depp, who provides the star wattage for a preponderance of Burton films, and has excelled in all their collaborations, has an admirable ability to flatten himself as an actor, coming across as a wind-up toy with just the appropriate hint of menace.)

Walking through the exhibit I had the clear sense that Burton was really a kind of toy maker, and in his case the toys he made happened to be animated by scripts, embellished with actors and then called movies.

Lord help me, but my favorite of this type of Burton offering is the critically slammed Mars Attacks!

I just love the Martians. They’re utterly brilliant, the perfect embodiment of an 11 year-old boy’s imagination. Mashing 1950’s Sci Fi with 1970’s all-star disaster flicks, the plot of the movie was so haphazard and incidental it was like it was propelled strictly by what resources were at the director’s disposal. And so, special effects, superstar actors and found objects were written into the script without any sort of end in sight, resulting in a Tim Burton film as directed by Ed Wood. It was extraordinarily entertaining, a diversion that managed to be simultaneously ironic and innocent, and one that always, at just one glance, makes me smile.

Burton has made around 20 films in his career and some work better than others, of course. Planet of the Apes, for instance, was a disappointing piece of shit that helped to reveal that Mark Wahlberg, when miscast, is the worst actor on the planet, be they full of apes or otherwise.

No matter, Burton has more than held up his end of the bargain, giving us an idiosyncratic and entirely memorable body of work. However, of all his pictures— each one which bears his unmistakable stamp as subtly as a forehead tattoo— I like the Burton film that is the least like a Burton film the best, and this would be Big Fish.

Made after Planet of the Apes, and perhaps in response to it, Big Fish, although blessed with gorgeous set design and characters of improbable invention, was primarily an actor’s film, one that drew it’s strength from the humanity of those at the center of the story instead of their surreal inhumanity.

Based on the novel by Daniel Wallace, Big Fish told the story of the wounded relationship between a grown son and his self-aggrandizing and self-centered father, now confined to his deathbed. Albert Finney, who played the father, was amazing, and the story although peppered with flourishes of magical realism, had an unmistakable authenticity and depth.

Typically, Burton returns his audience to a version of childhood that’s escapist, one that pulls away from the painful adult realities that govern our lives. (This, of course, is one of the reasons we go to see his movies.) But in Big Fish, Burton manages to find a space between the two, celebrating the mysterious and free-associative solitudes of childhood, but still acknowledging the residual imperfections that might linger from that time.

Regardless of the difficulties and misinterpretations that may separate parent and child, Burton shows us that the naked truth of that relationship, however imperfectly expressed, is love. Big Fish is a beautiful and touching film, reminding us that one of the great tragedies in our lives would be to let such love, once damaged, pass unreconciled.

Michael Murray is a freelance writer. He presently lives in Toronto. You can find more of his musings on his blog, or check out his Facebook page.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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