First things first; here in Toronto everything’s gone a little bit Burton since the announcement earlier this year of an exhibition spanning the director’s creative career at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) Bell Lightbox, swanky new home to all things cinema in Toronto. The exhibit, which exceeded all expectations during its initial run at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and has just finished a successful five month stint in Melbourne’s Australian Centre for the Moving Image, opened its doors to long queues and rave reviews on November 26th.
Toronto has been deliciously dressed for weeks now with posters, trailers, stripes and teasers, and for those of us who remember guffawing at our first encounter with Beetlejuice or queuing to see Batman, it is a surreal experience to watch the maker of such personal favourites as Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood welcomed and universally acclaimed on such a grand scale. And welcomed he has been; from 7pm on the exhibit’s opening evening all of Burton’s feature films were screened back to back, from Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure right through to Alice In Wonderland some 38 hours later; and 13 sturdy souls apparently braved the lot! Throughout December and January each of his movies will also be screened multiple times and each one will be paired with an older film that Burton has suggested influenced his art production and design. This has led to such choice pairings as Nightmare Before Christmas and Nosferatu; the odd pairing of Beetlejuice and 8 1/2 (!); and the delicious pairing of Vincent Price’s Theatre of Blood (a personal favourite) and Sweeney Todd.
Second things second, myself and Tim have a complicated history. Throughout the mid to late 90s Edward Scissorhands was my favourite film; I have always loved Beetlejuice; Ed Wood and Sleepy Hollow are great fun, and, James And The Giant Peach was the first movie that my wife and I saw together. However, Burton’s recent forays into CGI and its endless possibilities have, to my mind, stifled his stylistic signature and allowed an imagination without obvious boundaries the means to sometimes wander off the edge of story and linger a little too long in the sweet shop. That said, I hold high hopes for his upcoming adaptation of that weirdest of gothic soap operas, Dark Shadows (once again starring Johnny Depp).
There is, inevitably, a significant film component to this exhibit. It has been re-designed since its MOMA run to give it a more film-centric feel and moves from decades-old sketches and looped screenings of his early short, Vincent, to glide breathlessly through an exhaustively preserved career. We see Edward Scissorhands’ suit (who knew Johnny Depp had such big feet?) and the cookie maker robot from Vincent Price’s automated assembly line, Catwoman’s suit, latex Batman cowls, skulls, stick thin models and maquettes from The Nightmare Before Christmas, framed paintings of characters from Corpse Bride, the list goes on and on to more than 700 pieces.
You very quickly realize that these are not merely pictures and sculptures that were ‘made for movies’, these pieces are constantly in his head, moving, breathing, laughing and screaming. One of the notable elements of the exhibition is how Burton’s ideas develop over time and some concepts recognizable in his most recent films can gradually be traced back through notes, sketches and drawings to decades ago. The character that first appeared in Vincent morphs through serial sketches into Edward Scissorhands before retreating once more to the comfortable familiarity and conformity of Corpse Bride’s generic groom. In other words, the movies are made because the characters exist, they are an extra expression of what’s already playing in his head, and, as Burton himself repeatedly says, while making the films never gets any easier, all he ever needs to make a drawing is a pencil and napkin.
Magic emerges during those moments when the exhibit veers from the familiarity of Burton’s films. Everywhere you look there are notes, sketches, loose-leaf legal pads, one paragraph script ideas, scribbles, poems, and notepads preserved behind glass, one in particular pinned open to a specific page to display the drawing Romeo & Juliet that presents two monsters the size of counties sweetly holding hands. A sketch of Vincent Price, adorable for the message signed by Price himself, takes you out of the runaway success of Burton’s adult career and puts you in the same room as the child that grew up doodling and dreaming of animating for Disney.
Many of the characters from The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy are represented and some new installations have been fashioned from these stories and sketches especially for the exhibit. Outstanding amongst these are the house that holds Stain Boy, the colours of the interior constantly cycling through organic green to CSI-spatter red (along with a gruesome little surprise in the corner). Another delight is the full-page presentation of the illustrated story Burton submitted to an editor at Disney in 1976. Burton’s submission letter, his manuscript and the resultant rejection letter are all on display, yet even in the rejection there is a tenderness on the part of the editor that takes the time to complement, encourage and advise, careful not to crush the dreams of youth; hard to imagine that today. We see the letter Burton received from the local Fire Department commending his teenage appreciation of fire safety in the designs he had submitted for a Fire Safety Campaign competition. The letter invited Tim and classmates to visit the firehouse (with the appropriate parental permission of course). We also see the Crush Litter cartoon he designed at an early age which was adopted by his native Burbank and for years adorned the township’s garbage trucks.
This exhibit has risen from Burton’s personal vault, studio archives, private collections and even his mother’s basement, but recently commissioned items such as Carousel, introduced me to a new dayglow Burton that was exciting on first sight and enthralling on further scrutiny. Coming across like a psychedelic predator on day leave from Yellow Submarine, its crazed grin will stay with me for many a night, but in a good way. Fire safety, garbage trucks, art competitions, dreaming of working at Disney; these are not the daydreams of just any child and thank God this particular child’s dreams came true, even if some of them did turn out to be nightmares.
As for the ‘weirdness’ of it all, it is not so much the weird images or the eerie apposition of horror and childishness that surprise us, we know to expect the unexpected from a man who commands his own adjective, but the weirdness of the level of celebrity foisted on a man who seems oblivious to it all and is truly happiest doodling over a coffee seems simultaneously appropriate and misplaced. While he doesn’t necessarily feel comfortable devoting time to an exhibition devoted to himself, he says the experience has been beneficial for him. In his own words, “it’s interesting when you don’t look at something for so long, to go back and reconnect with it. I think it can kind of re-energize you, it can kind of calibrate your thinking. And it’s an interesting thing that I wouldn’t have done if it hadn’t been for this show.” And that has gotta be good news for both his films and his fans.
Happy Christmas and see you again in 2011.