Category Archives: the Burton Brief
“Wasn’t that just magnificent? I was worried it was getting a little dodgy in the middle part, but then that finale…wow!
Since it was published in America in 1964, Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964) has become a classic of children’s literature. The book is still assigned reading in many middle school and high school curricula and has spawned two film adaptations, 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Tim Burton’s 2005 fantasy, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Furthermore, Burton’s fascinating addition of a Willy Wonka back-story represents the director’s stylistic personalization or interpretation of the source material, and functions in some sense, even, as an improvement over the novel’s story. In particular, Burton gives Willy “father” issues, and this aspect of the movie plays perfectly into the social criticism of modern-day parenting underlining the entire affair.
“A man tells his stories so many times that he becomes the stories. They live on after him, and in that way he becomes immortal.”
In real life, we’re each of us but a little fish (only 1 out of 7 billion…) swimming about in a global sea. But in our imaginations — and in our private family circles — we’re all big fish: colorful personalities who loom large in the stories of our sons and daughters, and our Moms and Dads. In our private worlds, we’re important, nay the most important figures.
Sometimes we even do so at the expense of those we love, who risk becoming mere “context” in another person’s epic poem.
The big fish swims alone, after all…
Regardless, I do know that this film hits me on a very personal, very intimate level every time I see it. I had an important person in my life until about a year ago (2010) who was, like the movie’s Ed Bloom, a masterful and ridiculous storyteller. He was a man who had (so he claimed…) met and conversed with Colin Powell and Albert Einstein, and who was biologically related both to General Robert E. Lee and Katie Couric. He absolutely never met a fish story he didn’t like. The man could put you on with the straightest of straight faces, and in some moments, could even devise for you what your life story should be.
This larger-than-life figure spoke in the most idiosyncratic and singular manner I’ve ever known, replete with lots of extremely colorful metaphors, and he passed away following the sudden onset of a terminal illness. And yet — in large part because of his incomparable manner of expressing himself and telling his stories — he remains an everyday voice in my head. Today, he’s an indelible fixture there, and sometimes, almost against my will, I still hear his unique voice, and his flamboyant way of communicating. His vocabulary alone — his bizarre lexicon — seems often to be on the tip of my tongue. I don’t always know why.
So, in one sense, I knew this man and his unique mode of expression deeply for over twenty years, and yet in another very basic sense, I didn’t know the real man at all.
At least not until I understood the seemingly impossible: that the stories, jokes, and tall tales were the real man. They were part and parcel of his individual and mental gestalt, and you couldn’t separate him from those tall tales.
I agree with both those conclusions. If I had to select one Tim Burton film for people who generally don’t like Tim Burton films, it would be Big Fish.
Big Fish is the story of Ed and Will Bloom, estranged father and son. Ever since he was a little boy, Will has heard his father tell crazy stories about witches, giants, werewolves, Siamese twins, and mysterious ghost towns.
At first, Will believed the stories were wondrous and magical, but over the years he began to wish that his father would drop the fairy tales and just start relating to him as a real person.
In some senses, Big Fish is very much about a blowhard, as Roger Ebert suggested in his review of the film. It’s uncharitable, but true. Ed may have led a big life, but he also has a big mouth.
In fact, Ed Bloom (Ewan McGregor/Albert Finney) has so transformed his life into a series of weird and wonderful stories that his grown son, Will (Billy Crudup) isn’t sure he even knows his father. That’s a terrible thing.
And yet the movie ultimately sides with old Ed. He isn’t viewed with harshness by Burton. Instead — in the passing of the generations — the movie reminds us that each storyteller will have his day. Ed has had his day, and now Will’s day looms. At the movie’s end, it is Will who tells the “end” of Ed’s story, and who recounts for his son a lifetime of adventures. It’s important too, that Ed is never portrayed as a liar. Instead, as his funeral reveals, he is just a serial exaggerator: one with a foot in fact, and another in colorful fiction. By Ed’s reckoning, Will tells stories with “all the facts, none of the flavor,” and that’s just not his way.
Some reviewers have been hard on Big Fish, noting that it never really considers the son’s point of view or feelings.
There may be some truth to this perspective, but in the final analysis, Big Fish does right by both characters.
We follow Ed from birth to childhood illness, from his first love to, ultimately, his death. In Ed’s life story, we readily detect his spring and summer (his youth), and even his autumn and winter (his old age and demise).
Notably, Burton makes certain that the natural landscape echoes each one of these spans. As a young man, for instance, Ed sees Spectre as a beautiful, idyllic town, well-painted and carpeted in lush green grass. As a middle-aged man, however, Ed returns to the town and finds it paved over, browning, and in a state of decay. You can’t go home again.
Similarly, when Ed courts the love of his life, their romantic love is expressed in the vibrant yellow of endless daffodils. As death approaches, such blooming (and remember his name is Ed Bloom…) has ended, and all the trees are stark and naked, bereft of leaves. Winter has come for Ed at last.
Will certainly represents an important chapter in Ed’s life, but in a sense, his “part” of the story only really becomes important in the closing chapters. Ed can’t write his final sentences himself. That’s why he needs his boy. Ironically, it is to contextualize his life, not vice-versa as Will initially feared. And really, that’s always the job of those left to carry on after losing a parent: to put the actions and span of the dead into some kind of meaningful order.
As it turns out, Ed’s strange stories become important to Will. They represent the old man’s legacy and gift, a colorful way of looking at the world and remembering Dad. Ed wanted Will to listen to his stories for a reason, and not merely to entertain him. Someday, the boy would need to know the details so he could take ownership of Ed’s story and continue it for the next generation. Again, this is as much about Will as it is about Ed.
In life, we are all part of this cycle. We all heirs to a story, caretakers of that story, and then givers of the story — after we’ve had it and protected it for a lifetime. Big Fish gets at this idea in a more beautiful and imaginative fashion than just about any movie I’ve seen. The imagery is enormously affecting, particularly as the strong, healthy Will picks up his infirm, dying father and lifts him into the air — as if carrying him like a baby — for one last adventure, one final tall tale.
There’s something so innocent and beautiful about this image. The boy who was once held by his father’s strong arms now lifts up his sick dad — negating the realities of gravity — and cares for him as he was once cared for. This image gets me every time: the son becomes the father; the father the son. The roles reverse, and time marches on.
Although the picture is set in the year 1799 rather than two centuries later, Sleepy Hollow nonetheless obsesses on roiling concerns regarding the future. Would it belong to science or to superstition, knowledge or mysticism? Would the future bring only a new dark age (Y2K) or the beginnings of paradise on Earth?
Less deliberately oddball than some of Burton’s earlier works but nonetheless highly-stylized from a visual standpoint, Sleepy Hollow thus emerges as one of the top “tier” films in the director’s canon; a bedtime story that maintains, even today, the kind of timeless, classic qualities of the best ghost stories.
The rational, scientific constable Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) is sent by his superior (Christopher Lee) to the Dutch farming community of Sleepy Hollow to investigate a series of grisly murders allegedly caused by a spectral avenger called the Headless Horseman (Christopher Walken).
When he arrives, Crane begins to uncover evidence of witchcraft in the Van Tassel family, even as he grows close to Baltus Van Tassel’s (Michael Gambon) daughter, Katrina (Christina Ricci). The specter of witchcraft strikes a chord with the cowardly Ichabod, however, as Crane’s mother (Marie) was also witch.
“The millennium is almost upon us…”
In other words, Sleepy Hollow drips with atmosphere, depicts strange supernatural rituals, and generates extreme emotions in its dramatis personae and audience, namely terror. Writing in Entertainment Design, production designer John Calhoun reported that, from the outset of production on Sleepy Hollow, director Burton reported how he desired to “evoke the Hammer Film style,” one that was notably “artifice-heavy.” (“Headless in Sleepy Hollow,” November 1999, page 38.)
Almost immediately, Crane’s strategy is tested, and he encounters a world of very real superstition and witchcraft. Crane rejects these principles at first, in part because his Mother was a witch (a good witch…) and he lost her in a painful, violent manner to a society which condemns such practitioners. Looking at Crane’s dream sequences involving his mother, they pointedly contrast with the soot-and-industrial look of New York featured in the beginning of the film. The “cherry-blossom-filled reveries” (Interiors: “Here’s Your Head, What’s Your Hurry?” December 1999, page 62) suggest a world beyond reason and natural sciences; one more fully alive than what is depicted in the bleeding forest around the town. The forest there appears so autumnal and brown, I would submit, because magic and witchraft are disappearing from the world: it is their final autumn before Ichabod’s way will dominate the human race. Even the (ostensibly happy) end of the film reinforces this idea, with the arrival of Katrina and Ichabod in “modern” New York…a realm of science.
Interestingly, Sleepy Hollow does– at least partially — seem to view the loss of magic and the victory of science as a loss for mankind.
I distinctly recall reading a review of Mars Attacks! which stated unequivocally that the act of directing the bio-pic Ed Wood (1994) had finally caught up with director Tim Burton. After all, here he was – making an absolutely terrible 1950s-styled sci-fi movie all his own.
Sure, Mars Attacks! might be considered a bad movie from a certain perspective. The actors, especially Jack Nicholson, go way over the top, and the first thirty-five minutes of Mars Attacks! — before the Martians arrive — are pretty dire. It’s a mystery too why certain actors and their characters are present in the film at all, save for marquee value (Danny DeVito, j’accuse). The film feels burdened with subplots that go nowhere, and characters who serve no narrative purpose. The entire Art Land (Jack Nicholson) interlude is poorly-acted and contributes little. It just dies on-screen.
For instance, these alien creatures go (far…) out of their way to murder boy scouts, or to sneak up on an unsuspecting granny with an over sized laser canon. In toto, their wanton behavior makes tolerance of them an absolute impossibility. And that’s what’s so funny.
The Martians reveal absolutely nothing of themselves beyond unloosed Id; beyond the devilish inclination to destroy everything, everywhere. And yet the world-at-large keeps attempting to treat these invaders as if they’re just poor, misunderstood foreigners. Earth men give the Martians second chance after second chance, and every time the Martians revert to bloody, rapacious form.
This is a notable inversion or up-ending of the typical Burton aesthetic about sympathy for misfits and outsiders. Mars Attacks! is not a heartfelt plea for tolerance (like Edward Scissorhands) but rather a pointed suggestion that tolerance can absolutely be taken too far in some instances.
As you may guess by the tenor of my comments thus far, my thoughts on this Burton film are decidedly mixed. Mars Attacks! drags and sputters throughout its running time, often falling flat. And yet it occasionally rises to the occasion too, with Burton’s trademark, brilliant visual invention. I also love how the picture looks, for instance; how it successfully and gorgeously evokes its unusual source material from the 1960s.
Accordingly, Mars Attacks! is one of those rare cult movies that entertains me just about every time I choose to watch it. I always enjoy it on some ridiculous, fun level, even while openly acknowledging that parts of the enterprise flatly don’t work.
In impressive fashion, Mars Attacks! knowingly adopts the familiar cliches and traditions of 1950s era science fiction alien invasion film and then gazes at them through the prism of 1990s political correctness.
The film is not overtly partisan in its targets, but rather casts blame across the entire spectrum of Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives.
The film rather definitively does not find hope in politics (in Nicholson’s president), in the military (as represented by Steiger’s character), in big business (in Nicholson’s Art Land), in the media (in Sarah Jessica Parker and Michael J. Fox’s attention-seeking but vapid reporters), in parental authority (represented by — shudder — Joe Don Baker), or in science (as represented by Pierce Brosnan’s egghead character, Dr. Kessler).
To one extent or the other, each human character in every one of those above-listed “categories” seems blinded by agendas which don’t fit the pertinent debate (about how to handle the Martian invasion). In other words, nobody really seems to address the pressing problem effectively. There is never a compromise between the scientists and the military, for instance, just an “either/or,” binary approach.
And again, in real life this was the era of hyper partisanship as exemplified by opponents President Clinton and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. It was the era of government shutdowns because successful compromise could not be broached and diverse viewpoints were not accommodated.
Here, Nicholson’s Commander-in-Cief must deal with Steiger’s jingoistic general, who rabidly wants to use nuclear weapons despite the fact that such weapons would render Earth largely uninhabitable for the human population. That’s a non-starter.
On the opposite side, the same President must also deal with Brosnan’s bleeding-heart scientist, who can’t seem to accept overt hostility for what it is, and keeps foolishly preaching peace in the face of definitive Martian malevolence.
Both sides of the debate are blinded by pre-existing belief systems.
Meanwhile, the mass media merely views the Martian invasion as another ratings-grabbing circus to cover endlessly, and redneck Joe Don Baker and his wife decide quickly that — in times of war — it’s okay to write off Grandma (Sylvia Sidney) first. That’s the patriotic thing to do.
Again, not a pretty picture in either case.
Later, he invokes that famous plea for tolerance from another 1990s celebrity, Rodney King: “can’t we all just get along?” That’s an interrogative later Burton revived, also jokingly, in his 2001 Planet of the Apes.
Regardless, the overall effect of such ineffectual presidential leadership is the wholesale destruction of the Earth, and a kind of “Pox on Both Your Houses” message of principle from the film itself.
To wit, in Mars Attacks! last act, it is the next generation by necessity that takes the helm after the destruction of the military, scientists, parents and the ruling political class.
With the establishment wiped out by its own dottering, indecisive ways, it’s up to the president’s resourceful young daughter (Natalie Portman) and likable, common-sense Richie to lead the planet to a better future.
And again, the film’s last scenes — notably post-Martian and post-establishment — re-assert visually a sense of natural order. Even the cute little animals of the Earth can finally come out of hiding because both the Martians and human nincompoops are finally gone.
On the ash heap of history, as I wrote above, are the politicians, businessmen, generals, scientists, parents, and the mainstream media. And ensconced amongst the survivors, notably, are recovering alcoholics (Annette Benning), blue collar African-American folks (Pam Grier, Jim Brown), and idealistic kids (Portman, Haas). In other words, the disenfranchised of America. A new world order?
Regardless, the Martians thus function in Mars Attacks! as a kind of wicked (but necessary?) “clean-up” crew, one malevolently destroying Earth and yet also taking out the very players that seem to keep our culture from ever truly moving forward: politicians, businessmen and even lawyers, in the case of DeVito’s character.
Alas, one gets the impression that Burton is overwhelmed by the colossal cast (Nicholson, Glenn Close, Steiger, Martin Short, Lisa Marie, Christina Applegate, Jack Black, Paul Winfield, Haas, Jim Brown, Danny De Vito, Michael J. Fox, Natalie Portman, Pierce Brosnan, Sarah Jessica Parker, Pam Grier, and on and on…).
Just imagine these guys at a Tea Party Rally, or Occupying Wall Street…