Film Nerd 2.0: Tim Burton exhibit at LACMA dazzles and disturbs

Toshi still hasn’t seen the film “Edward Scissorhands,” but after a recent weekend outing, I have a feeling that’s going to change sooner rather than later.

I’ve taken some heat for things I’ve written about Tim Burton’s recent work here and on Ain’t It Cool, and I think the idea has settled in that I don’t like Burton.  That’s not true at all.  I think he’s a significant film artist.  I think that even when I don’t like his films, his ability to bring his vision to life with such precision onscreen is impressive, and he has more than staked out a place in film history, no matter what I think of individual films he’s made along the way.  When I was in Toronto last year for the film festival, I saw dozens of ads for the Tim Burton exhibit at the TIFF Lightbox.  I was sorry to leave town before the exhibit showed up, and I regretted not getting a chance to see it.

As a result, when it was announced that the Burton exhibit would be making its way to LACMA, I knew I’d be attending, but I wasn’t sure if I’d take the boys or not.  Then, as the Memorial Day weekend rolled around, I found myself planning a Monday out with the boys so their mom could have the day off.  I called my friend Craig, since his daughter Frannie is one of Toshi’s best friends, the two of them having been born a month apart when we were still living in the apartment next to Craig and his wife.  We decided to spend the day at a park and then at the Burton exhibit, and Monday, just before noon, I stopped by his house so we could load both of my boys as well as him and his little girl into my car.

We spent the morning in the park, then had lunch at McDonald’s, where the simple act of buying three Happy Meals turned into a debate on who got which “Kung-Fu Panda” toys.  It is remarkable how much importance five-year-olds can place on a  piece of plastic, but I guess that’s what happens when we steep our kids in pop culture.  I took the boys to see “Kung-Fu Panda 2” this weekend, and they’ve been flipping out about it ever since.  Thankfully, Toshi liked the characters enough that he was happy to take a Tigress toy when they ran out of the Po figures that both Allen and Frannie were given.  Crisis averted.

Finally, we made our way over to LACMA, where the Burton exhibit was playing to capacity crowds all weekend.  It’s only been open for a few days now, so it’s still a little frantic.  We arrived at LACMA just after 4:00 and we were told that we couldn’t enter the exhibit until 6:00.  No worries.  If you’re unfamiliar with the Los Angeles County Museum Of Art, it shares a property with the La Brea Tar Pits, and there are some huge, beautiful lawns where families are frequently gathered to play and relax.  Spending a few hours out there with three rowdy kids made for a lovely Memorial Day afternoon, and by the time we finally walked through the sculpture garden, past the giant lamps that stand in the courtyard, and got in line to go inside, the kids were a little bit worn out, which is never a bad thing when you’re hoping for some mellow behavior.

I was a little concerned before we walked in that the exhibit might be too scary for the kids, and sure enough, as we reached the entrance to the Resnick Pavilion, it’s been converted into a giant evil clown face, and you have to walk into its fanged mouth to get to the exhibit.  That was the test, and all three kids seemed happy enough to head inside, so I figured we were in the clear.

The exhibit, which is traveling around the world stop by stop, uses props, paintings, sculptures, and lots and lots and lots of drawings to trace Burton’s development as an artist from his childhood in Burbank to where he is right now, and overall, it is a successful look at the way his singular vision developed over time.  Could it be more comprehensive?  Absolutely.  More than anything, it feels to me like the exhibit just touches on the surface of Burton’s career, and more than anything, deals with the unlikely notion that this gloomy goth kid from a late-60’s Burbank suburban upbringing would take his Charles Addams/Edward Gorey monster-loving sensibility and turn it into a billion-dollar-industry through sheer force of will.

I like repeating that Tim Burton is from Burbank because it makes me laugh.  That is the furthest thing from a dark and tortured background, aesthetics-wise, as humanly possible, and that must just make it ten times worse as a memory for Burton.  Pure eternal sunshine must have seemed like Hell to him, but working as an animator must have seemed a human-scale accomplishment to someone growing up miles from the lot.  The studio in the ’70s was at a strange and experimental moment in a lot of ways, trying to figure out what it would be in a world without Walt Disney, and Burton was one of many hires at the time who have gone on to fairly major feature careers.  Based on the material on display from that time period, he was always drawing his own characters, his own creatures, his own style, working at it, shaping his voice in private while delivering pencils for “The Fox and the Hound.”

In the first room, there’s a sculpture of RobotBoy, one of the many Boy-named characters in Burton’s work.  StainBoy, of course, has his own animated series that plays on monitors in the final room of the exhibit, all the episodes at the same time on side-by-side screens.  The RobotBoy sculpture looks stationary, with lights inside the head, and the kids all looked at it, then moved on to the next part of the display.  

What they didn’t realize is that the head then opened up, a big round panel swinging up, then CRASH! Snapped closed with a sound that made all three of our kids jump about six inches in the air, frozen.  In synch.  When Craig and I both started laughing, the kids started laughing, but I think it could have gone either way based on how totally unexpected the motion was.  If you stand and watch RobotBoy for a while, he’ll do different things.  Unpredictably.  There are also some full-sized abstract monsters, all teeth and gnarled tree limbs and weird ineffective little wings and tails.  

And yet, right away, instead of getting freaked out and asking to go, reactions that might not be entirely unexpected looking at much of the imagery in Burton’s work, all three of the kids were drawn from picture to picture by curiosity.  We followed them, sat with them when they wanted, answered questions if we needed to.  That first room flows pretty naturally into the second and third rooms, big spaces that cover mostly his time growing up in Burbank and then making his first short films.  So he’s already at Disney, and he’s experimenting openly now.  There’s some great early work for “Vincent,” his original short film, and there are some Mackinnon & Saunders pieces for the upcoming remake of “Frankenweenie” to show how that early vision is still being represented in the new stuff that’s coming soon.  There were short films of his playing that I’ve never seen, and we watched a good chunk of one about a Japanese family that is, and I do not say this lightly, the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen with Tim Burton’s name on it.

There was a blacklight room for a scuplture called “Carousel,” and the kids actually made us double back to that room for a second look before we wrapped up our time at the gallery.  You had to walk through there to get to the room with the “Edward Scissorhands” and “Batman” material, and that room was a pretty big hit with Toshi and Frannie, although both times we were in that room, Allen told me he didn’t like any of the Batman stuff.  The full Catwoman costume is part of the show, pressed flat, and the Penguin’s dark bassinet stands next to it.  There are a fistful of cowls on stands.  The drawings of Batman and The Penguin and Catwoman and, in particular, The Joker, were a big hit with Allen.

All of them, though, were united in their fascination with every single thing on display from “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”  The actual puppets.  A full rack of Jack Skellington faces created to help animated him singing and talking.  Drawings.  Paintings that build from the imagery.  It was just one great thing after another for the kids to look at, recognize, react to.  Toshi, who is a fan of “Mars Attacks!”, was pleased when we found a section in the final room that deals with that film, showing a looped display of the stop-motion test footage that Burton did for the movie.  I knew he had considered stop-motion, but I didn’t realize he’d tried to convince the studio by producing his own tests.  It is, I must say, a persuasive sequence involving bikini-underwear-clad creatures that look pretty much exactly the same as the ones he had in the film, only stop-motion.  That physical herky-jerky thing is just that one step funnier, and more bizarre, and I have to say I really wish we’d seen that version of the film.  It would have taken two more years than it did, but wow, it would have been outrageous.

There were a few images that were, perhaps, too blunt.  There was a dollhouse sort of a thing, for example, that was set up for you to look into the front picture window, and inside was a little boy, standing in a living room decorated for a glorious Christmas, the tree all lit up, and there’s blood everywhere.  And just barely where you can see them, in a hallway, the legs of the little boy’s father where he’s been chopped down.  And it’s all very Burton-cute, harmless creepy, but still… my god.  Brutal image.  And the kids found the thing before we turned the corner completely.  And they ask us what’s going on.

“Well… it looks like maybe that little boy spilled some paint.  Annnnnnd… when his daddy saw it, he fainted because he couldn’t believe what a mess it is.  The end.”

Our tap-dancing got us some laughs from other grown-ups looking at the dollhouse, and all three of the kids shrugged and kept moving.  Totally didn’t hit them what they were looking at.  They were more interested in other things, and there was always something else to look at.  In the days since we went, Toshi’s been asking questions about “Edward Scissorhands” and “Beetlejuice” in particular, because he hasn’t seen either film.  And when he realized there is a movie called “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure” that actually stars Pee Wee Herman and that he had not been told this until now, there was a sense of betrayal on my part that he made perfectly clear.  All three of those films will figure in Film Nerd 2.0 at some point in the future.  I’ve been informed.  I’m not sure if I think he’s exactly ready for them right this moment… but if he’s asking, then he’s starting to get ready.

In general, your mileage for the Burton show may vary, but both Craig and I were positively giddy when we ran into the white angora sweater from “Ed Wood,” and the idea that any one person’s journey can encompass those early creepy doodles and the physical realization of his visual style that we see in everything he makes, whose films can be perennial favorites like “Nightmare” or “Batman” or commercial failures like “Mars Attacks!”, that person deserves a certain consideration, and the show offers up a lovely framework for exactly that sort of consideration for Burton. 

I think it was well worth the time and the money, and it was a great Memorial Day evening with the kids, a jet black little bit of Film Nerdery.

Want to read earlier installments in the series?

Here’s the moment the series was born, at the tail end of the series of “Star Trek” reviews with Toshi. (9.2.09).

“The Last Starfighter” on Blu-ray (9.7.09)

“Popeye,” empathy, and David Bowie’s codpiece (9.21.09)

Talking Heads, ‘Astro Boy,’ and “Willy Wonka” on Blu-ray (10.26.09)

“The Dark Crystal,” featuring a guest appearance by Toshi’s little brother (12.2.09)

“Help!”, in which Toshi discovers the Beatles, especially Ringo (1.4.10)

‘Last Action Hero” introduces Toshi to Armer Shirtzganoma (1.18.10)

A Tale Of Two Zorros (2.23.10)

“Clash Of The Titans” on Blu-ray (4.2.10)

“Jason And The Argonauts” on Blu-ray and Harryhausen at AMPAS (8.9.10)

“Time Bandits,” “Mars Attacks,” and letting go (9.7.10)

“Toshi and Allen encounter high adventure with ‘The Goonies'” (3.6.11)

“‘Tron’ vs ‘Babe’ on Blu-ray” (4.19.11)

“Toshi and Allen head to Asgard for ‘Thor'” (5.4.11)