Archive for Tim Burton

Airless in Wonderland

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 28, 2016 by dcairns

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I had never even heard of this 1949 British ALICE IN WONDERLAND. I have suspicions it may have been suppressed by Disney, but maybe it was just judged not entertaining enough. But if so, how to explain the 1972 ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND, possibly the least entertaining thing since the Aberfan disaster, which got tons of airplay in my dim youth?

This one has wonderfully smooth stop-motion animation — their ways of integrating the live-action Carol Marsh (of BRIGHTON ROCK fame) are simple, but adequate. Split-screen predominates rather than matte shots or rear projection. Lou Bunin, whom I had never heard of, was in charge of animation. A Russian-born American and former apprentice to Diego Rivera…

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Unfortunately the script pursues some pointless conceit of Lewis Carroll’s characters all having real-life analogues. This extends the framing structure endlessly, a real problem since the movie also reproduces all of Alice’s to gain access to the garden of Wonderland — I’ve never seen the caucus-race presented on-screen before, and now that I have I understand why it’s usually cut.

Pamela Brown plays Queen Victoria and voices the Queen of Hearts. A couple of other popular actors do voice-only duty: Peter Bull (unspecified role/s) and Joyce Grenfell (Duchess AND Dormouse). There’s a preponderance of French crew, including Claude Renoir as co-cinematographer.

It’s curiously unaffecting, maybe because the material is so familiar and the film does nothing very effective to re-energize it. There’s an arch style of playing which nearly everybody adopts when doing Carroll (which is why Ian Holm’s White Knight is so startling), and you then need either magnificently odd production design or some other means of refreshing it. Here, the smoothness of the animation is coldly admirable but the designs and characterisations aren’t uniformly beautiful or charming, though there’s some nice use of Regency stripe and some of the flattened stylisation is pleasing in its approach to Yves Tanguy.

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Worse, it isn’t funny. Disney’s version is criticised for Americanizing the characters but it does have a certain slapstick energy. When I saw it as a kid, on a double-feature with CANDLEWICK, it made me feel stoned, before I knew what that was. It’s interesting that Disney couldn’t completely Disneyficate this unconducive material. One reason I hated the Tim Burton version more than I hate my own body is that it mutilates and malforms Carroll’s nonsense into a bogus “empowering” Disney princess tale. There aren’t enough thunderbolts in heaven to punish anyone who (a) thinks that’s a good idea (b) attempts to do it (c) breaks box office records by doing so. The only good thing is that schoolchildren drawn to the book by the Burton monstrosity are due to have their minds blown all over the nursery walls by the unexpected psychedelic hilarity.

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Everybody’s Acrylic

Posted in FILM, Painting, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 9, 2015 by dcairns

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I liked BIG EYES but not as much as Fiona or as much as I expected to. It’s definitely an improvement on the awful ALICE IN WONDERLAND de-imagining, which caused me to skip out on DARK SHADOWS altogether. And it fits squarely into the oeuvre of screenwriters Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski, maybe the only writing team in America whose authorship trumps whoever’s directing. I mean, it’s recognizably a Burton movie, even without Helena Bonham-Carter, but it has more in common with MAN ON THE MOON or even AUTO-FOCUS (which they produced but didn’t write) than it does with SWEENEY TODD or the de-imagining of PLANET OF THE APES.

Adapting true stories of crazy people to the screen presents all kinds of problems — generally, it seems to help if the people are likable and have some kind of self-insight — Edward D. Wood Jnr. as written by this team, maybe have been delusional about his own talent, but he’s a clear-eyed American optimist in every other way (the real Wood, I would guess from reading and viewing, was more arrogant, sneaky and tortured than the fictional version). I guess it’s the reverse of fiction, where you try to figure out what yhe character would do — here, you know what they did but you have to discover or invent the WHY, then express it. The Keanes, at the centre of BIG EYES, present interesting difficulties.

Walter, played with ever-more-manic grin (and some hysterical chimp-like physical touches) by Christoph Waltz, lives in such a cloud of deceit that it’s hard to know how much self-insight he’s capable of. At times, he seems to know in his heart of hearts that he’s a fraud, but being an artist is so central to his conceit of himself that he can only survive without this fantasy for seconds at a time, before diving gratefully back into his goldfish bowl of delusion. Waltz plays this to the hilt, never much bothering to suggest the plausibility which would make someone fall for Walter’s stories or his charm.

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This choice, perfectly defensible in itself, puts more pressure on Amy Adams, who plays a woman who, despite walking out on one (unseen) husband at the film’s opening, allows herself to be dominated and steered for most of the movie. People in co-dependant relationships are tricky to dramatise, because in fiction as in life it’s easy to get frustrated with them for making bad choices, for being gullible, for being doormats. The movie does its best to stress Margaret Keane’s strengths, but that makes the story’s plausibility even shakier than history left it (knowing something is true doesn’t stop it being hard to believe at times). And since Margaret is still alive, and cooperated with the filmmakers, and shouldn’t be trashed after all she’s been through, there’s some particularly delicate footwork when she trades the domination of her crazy husband for the domination of the Jehovah’s Witness movement (after a flirtation with numerology).

Adams is a talented, versatile player, but holding the film together with such a passive character seemed a strain for her, or for the film. We go with her when she’s suckered in by Walter/Waltz, since the script cunningly conceals much of the truth about his background, so we’re quite prepared to accept him as a struggling minor landscape artist, like Hitler. Showing how he just sort of falls into claiming credit for her paintings doesn’t just soften his character a little, it makes it easier for us to accept her forgiving him and going along with it.

But actors like to feel positive about the people they’re playing — admirable qualities can be found even in an utter villain — and apparently being nice isn’t enough to make Margaret Keane worthy of Adams — she tries to make her smart, and strong, which I think Keane may be now with maturity and hindsight, but probably wasn’t at the time of these events. (Having her kick over a bottle of white spirits as her hubbie, gone full Jack Torrance, is shoving lit matches through the letterbox, doesn’t help convince us of her resourcefulness.)

My other problem is with the script, which has come in for near-universal praise, but which I felt was a bit talky, ploddy and expository. True, there’s nothing as bald and artless as the “As you know, I’m your father” type dialogue in HITCHCOCK and MY WEEK WITH MARILYN, but a whole lot of scenes not involving our main characters, and a whole lot of characters without any meat on their bones, have to be invented to move the events along and explain them. And we have scenes that are just characters watching TV so we can meet Terence Stamp and see Perry Mason “for dramatic purposes” as Foreign Man puts it during the opening titles of MAN ON THE MOON. This eagerness to explain everything maybe helps the average viewer cope with the unexplainable actions of the protagonists, which is what is interesting about them, but to me they felt mechanical, like the unnecessary VO and the one-note cartoonery of Jon Polito and Jason Schwartzman (Krysten Ritter pulls this off best). Although speaking personally, I was cheered to see a movie in which an art critic gets to be bad-ass. Burton obviously likes Margaret Keane’s terrible paintings the same way he likes Ed Wood’s terrible films (I prefer Wood to Keane, myself), but it was important to have SOMEONE in the film who can make the necessary point that just because Keane’s paintings are sincere, doesn’t make them any good.

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Real artists NEVER look at what they’re doing.

Side-note — I have a pet hate in movies, which is the unconvincing painter/artist. It’s great in NEW YORK STORIES when we see Nick Nolte getting slathered in coloured goop the way real painters do, but he has it easy, playing an abstract impressionist. Most actors seem terrified to make a mark on paper or canvas, and we see them scratching away at a line in tiny increments, when any competent draughtsman would have swept the pencil across the paper in a single unbroken arc. In RENOIR we see huge closeups of Michel Bouquet’s hand, elaborately made-up with a callous the size a second thumb, but what he’s actually doing with his pencil and brush is farcical. The shot doesn’t require him to do anything we can assess as good or bad, he just needs to MAKE A DISCERNIBLE MARK, and he’s evidently scared stiff of doing so. (What happens to most kids that makes them stop drawing as they learn to read? And become humiliated by the very notion of sketching?)

As Margaret Keane, Adams has a key scene which is all about her executing a painting under the watchful eyes of an audience, so it’s a shame this couldn’t have been handled more convincingly. (James Cameron hand-doubling for Leo in TITANIC works fine, except he draws like a 90s storyboard artist, all Jack Kirby cheekbones, and not like anybody ever drew in the period the movie’s set in — different eras have different bad habits.) Still, to some extent her incompetence can be explained as in keeping with the character’s lack of skill, and she’s slightly more convincing with a brush than a pencil. Though the whole thing makes me wonder if Burton ever really drew those cartoons of his. Maybe it was Lisa Marie?

I see the Keanes as a classic folie a deux. He couldn’t have perpetrated his fraud without her incredible compliance, and nor could his business acumen, such as it was, have found an outlet with the Unique Selling Point of her bulbous-eyed waifs. His own work, if it ever was his, had nothing to distinguish it. But since her paintings are not GOOD, we have to allow him his share of the credit for popularizing them.

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As with Ed Wood, the amount of narrative and talk does slightly limit Burton’s ability to be the visual stylist he’s known as, but at least it gets him away from stripes and curls and the film’s settings are gorgeous: the painterly depiction of period San Francisco is a constant delight (proving, as I trust the Wachowskis would concede, that San Francisco makes a better San Francisco onscreen than Glasgow does). The night scenes at the Keane’s lavish modern home are sumptuously coloured, evoking both three-strip Technicolor and Mario Bava, but landing in their own sweet, supersaturated spot. But only in the hallucinatory visit to a supermarket where Margaret’s subjects come to life and haunt her, does the film really come alive as pure cinema — a proper sequence! I wanted that bit to last three times as long.

Darkness Lite

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology, Painting, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 6, 2012 by dcairns

David Wingrove, being a big fan of the TV Dark Shadows, and a fan of Tim Burton (he even liked ALICE IN WONDERLAND, gah!), went to see Burton’s DARK SHADOWS with an open mind — and found it inspired a number of intriguing observations, which he has assembled into the following piece (writing as David Melville) —

Darkness Lite

Afternoons in my childhood were a strange and dangerous world. School over, my parents still at work and my grandmother busy in the kitchen boiling dinner, I would sneak into the living room and pull the curtains shut against the light. Creeping on tiptoe towards the TV – remotes (in our house, at least) were not yet invented – I would turn the switch softly to ON. Thrill to the wail of a theremin; a black-and-white seascape of waves crashing onto rocks. Then the magic words would fill the screen: DARK SHADOWS.

For the next half-hour or so, I was transported. Away from school and suburbia, and into a hidden world of dreams. Girls in filmy white night-gowns wandered alone through graveyards, bathed in moonlight and swathed in mists of dry ice. Tall and dark and lethally handsome men would rise, abruptly, out of coffins. Loom over the girls, resplendent in their dark capes, and sink their teeth – lovingly and ever so gently – into their soft, pale throats. Portraits of long-dead ladies would shiver and come to life. Drift about in unlit corridors, transparent ghosts of crinoline and bone. Wolves would wail and howl. Lurking always, conveniently, just off camera. It was, in a word, paradise.

I took care, on those far-off haunted afternoons, to keep the sound turned low – almost silent. My middle-class Canadian family was vigilant against anything ‘unsuitable’ or, worse, ‘unwholesome’ and Dark Shadows was the one show I was flatly forbidden to watch. My mother was convinced – with good reason, I suppose – that it would scare me and give me nightmares. I was a sensitive and impressionable child, frightened of many things. School, with its uniform of grey shorts, ugly red blazer and matching cap. Science and arithmetic, both totally beyond me, as was – horror of horrors! – sport. Teachers with gunmetal eyes and barking voices. Bicycles, on which I could never balance and always fell off.  Assembly, where we sang ‘God Save the Queen’ and my throat seized up with fear so I could barely speak.

Yes, life at six years of age was full of terrors. But Dark Shadows with its setting, Collinwood Manor, was the least frightening and most beautiful place I had ever seen. The one world, perhaps, where I truly felt I belonged. Clearly, a whole generation of misfit kids felt the same way. The original soap opera, created by Dan Curtis, ran every weekday from 1966 to 1971 and spawned two big-screen movies – House of Dark Shadows (1970) and Night of Dark Shadows (1971) – neither of which I have ever seen. Unsuccessfully revived as a TV series in the 90s, it has now become a mega-budget screen epic directed by Goth maestro Tim Burton.

By any regular cinematic standard, this is fantastically good news. Like any other Tim Burton extravaganza (leaving aside the perplexing Big Fish) the 2012 Dark Shadows is slick, smooth and uniquely compulsive entertainment. Johnny Depp, alluring in black eyeliner as vampire Barnabas Collins, adds one more to his list of camp Gothic grotesques. Michelle Pfeiffer, in full-on diva mode as matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, wears her eye-poppingly hideous 70s outfits with commendable aplomb. Eva Green is more expressive, and Helena Bonham Carter less annoying, than past experience gives us any right to hope. The cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel (whose other recent film is Alexander Sokurov’s Faust) has images inspired by – indeed, worthy of – such Romantic painters as Henry Fuseli and Caspar David Friedrich. The visuals, as always in a Burton movie, are several quantum leaps ahead of the script.

Had I not made the mistake – forty-odd years ago, I admit, at an age when I was far too young to know better – of watching and loving the original Dark Shadows with such passion, I might well be wholly thrilled with the Burton remake. Yet somehow, there was something not quite right. So wrong, in fact, that I went on Amazon and ordered the newly reissued Dark Shadows box set. (Don’t worry, not the whole series – just three discs and twenty episodes, which introduce the lead vampire, Barnabas Collins.)  This was something I felt obscurely afraid to do. Revisiting the past could only expose my childhood dream as the cheap, shoddy mirage that it undoubtedly was. Like a fairground Haunted House with the lights on. Black paint peeling, and sawdust and chewing gum piled up in the corners.

It took me one episode – well, perhaps two – to see where and how Tim Burton had slipped up. The original Barnabas Collins (played by the craggy-faced Canadian actor Jonathan Frid, whose one film of note is Oliver Stone’s 1974 debut Seizure) is a ruthless bisexual seducer who preys, both physically and psychologically, on other main characters. Rising out of his coffin, he latches onto the resident beefcake Willie Loomis (John Karlen, later the hero in Harry Kümel’s 1970 Daughters of Darkness) and revives by draining his bodily fluids. Willie is the protégé of a camp older gentleman named Jason McGuire (Dennis Patrick, whose name is the author of Auntie Mame, only backwards). Jason is blackmailing Elizabeth (played by film noir legend Joan Bennett) for the murder of her husband – who may also have been (we can’t help but wonder) his lover. He and Barnabas swiftly form a gay triangle around Willie. Everything hinges on who gets to suck what from whom.

After resuscitating himself with the blood of a man, Barnabas turns his attentions to a nubile young woman (Kathryn Leigh Scott, as local waitress Maggie Evans) but keeps Willie on as his factotum and blood bank. (This is the same pattern – Dark Shadows was nothing if not derivative – as Count Dracula in Bram Stoker’s original novel, feasting initially on the hero, Jonathan Harker and only later on Mina, his wife.) Willie seems, at once, protective and obscurely jealous of his female rival. His relationship with Barnabas grows ever more twisted. Towards the end of the episodes I saw, Barnabas gives him a sadomasochistic thrashing with a huge carved metal walking stick – an heirloom the vampire proudly shows off to Maggie, and which she greatly admires.

The implicit queerness of the original Dark Shadows was, of course, never spelled out in the script. But it is expunged, ruthlessly and systematically, from the 2012 remake. The cutesy Barnabas Collins played by Johnny Depp seems to feed exclusively on extras. At no point does he pose a threat to the Collins family, or to any of the other major characters. (His killing of Dr Julia Hoffmann, the psychiatrist played by Helena Bonham Carter, is done purely in self-defence.) The film’s Willie is no sexy young stud, but a shambling grotesque out of The Addams Family. His older male protector is, of course, nowhere in sight. A menage so relentlessly heterosexual, it is more Little House on the Prairie than Collinwood Manor.

In de-gaying and de-fanging Dark Shadows, Burton has made his vampire only slightly less innocuous than Robert Pattinson in the Twilight saga. Barnabas, as played by Johnny Depp, embodies not good old-fashioned Eros and Thanatos – the way a vampire should – but squeaky-clean 21st century Family Values. “The greatest wealth of all is family,” Depp intones as he revives the Collins fortune and saves his mortal relatives from the brink of ruin. Legions of Born Again Republicans across America would doubtless agree. Tim Burton, who was hailed two decades ago as the Great Dark Hope of Hollywood, is now looking more and more like a Gothic Steven Spielberg. Yes, he’s still a unique film artist but – as the TV Barnabas so memorably quipped – “Uniqueness is not necessarily a good thing.”

David Melville