Let’s All Go to the Lobby: Tim Burton and Freaks
Burton has a number of talents. He’s visually inventive. He’s capable of telling a (semi-) coherent story. He has a sense of humor, of sorts.
But he also has one trait that makes most of his movies insufferable.
Allow me to ‘splain.
Tim Burton has said in the past that his favorite movie is Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932). Freaks was about life in a sideshow, with actual sideshow freaks playing most of the roles.
The central story involved a dwarf in love with the beauty queen of the circus.* She finds out that the dwarf is quite wealthy, and feigns interest in him. She plots to marry him, then murder him and take up with her lover and confidante, the strongman. She pulls off the plan but fails to murder the dwarf. The freaks find out about this and exact a hideous revenge.
Freaks is not a great movie, but it has a lot to recommend it. Despite its melodramatic plot and, let’s face it, exploitive subject matter, the movie has an undercurrent of honesty and humanity.
Why Tim Burton sucks ass can be explained by imagining what would happen if he remade Freaks.
Let’s review his oeuvre. In the miserable Edward Scissorhands, Burton tells the story of a freakish young man tormented by the normals. In the somewhat less miserable Beetlejuice, he tells the story of a group of unusual people (either dead or Gothy) tormented by the normals. In the excruciating Batman Returns, he recasts the Penguin as a tragic villain, a freakish young man tormented by the normals.
Okay, so he has a favorite theme. In and of itself, that’s not a problem. It’s how he interprets the theme that transforms him from “artist” to “major director most in need of Harvey Jerkwater forcibly shaving his head.”
Are the outsiders of Burton’s pictures misunderstood normal folk? Nope. In Burton’s eyes, they’re better than normal folk. The normals are shallow, silly twits who lack the special depth of the protagonists.
The stories ask not for tolerance of difference, but rather demand that the different be held in higher esteem than anyone else. They’re twee revenge fantasies.
What makes Burton a halfwit instead of an artist is that he doesn’t seem to understand that oppression doesn’t constitute righteousness. If A is stepping on B, then yes, that sucks. But that doesn’t mean B should be stepping on A. For some reason, while affirming the humanity of the outsiders, he feels the need to strip that humanity from the insiders. What a cockhead.
Timmy, if you were as sensitive and perceptive as you believe yourself to be, you’d understand that nobody should be stepping on anybody. You’re just another jackass who wants control, same as the people you mock and loathe.
Getting back to Freaks, let’s compare the endings we’d see.
Tod Browning’s ending: The sideshow folk discover the plot against their friend, who nearly dies of the poison his wife gave him. Late one night, the freaks come out of the darkness for revenge, and close in on the beauty queen and the strongman. The scene is horrible. It fades out as the freaks reach them. When it fades back in, we see what happened: the freaks deformed the woman and made her into the hideous “Chicken Lady.” The tone is one of horror and brutal justice.
Tim Burton’s ending: Same story, different tone. When the freaks emerge from the darkness, dramatic music swells. For theirs is a righteous cause! Triumphal music blasts as the oddly cute freaks (several of whom would have impossible, fantastical deformities rendered by CGI) close in. Their freakishness will be abstracted and fanciful, creating a storybook flavor. When we see the Chicken Lady, the tone will be one of victory and vindication.
Bitch, ain’t no vindication in this story.
Browning’s story boiled down to “Freaks are people, goddammit. Mess with them and they’ll mess with you.” Burton’s version would most certainly boil down to “For daring to oppress those who are truly beautiful and special, you shall pay for your impudence, you unworthy tramp!”
I hate this guy.
I’m still pissed off at having to sit through Big Fish. A man asks his dying blowhard father to stop telling the same tall tales he’s always told and finally tell the truth about his life, so the man can finally get to know his father. The father doesn’t. The son eventually forgives his father anyway. Now, that’s not the bad part. That could be a good movie. The suckass portion comes from the movie suggesting that being a lying sack of shit who was never around is okay, provided you’re interesting. How deliciously self-serving.
And if you ever meet me, don’t mention his brainless remake of Planet of the Apes. Why did he have to take a big steaming dump on one of the great cheesy movies? Aigh.
*I forget her exact job. Horseback rider, maybe? Anyway, she was the designated pretty woman of the circus.