Filing Cabinet of the Damned

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Let’s All Go to the Lobby: Tim Burton and Freaks

Tim Burton’s remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has guaranteed me a miserable evening. His casting of Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka means that Mrs. Jerkwater insists we see it. That Tim Burton directed it virtually guarantees I’ll loathe it.

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.


  • Big word up on that! I alone among my friends hate Edward Scissorhands. See? I hate it so much I'm not even going to italicize the title! Tim Burton was picked on in school by cruel "normal" people who didn't understand his unique gifts. I GET IT, SHUT THE FUCK UP! That movie is the most thinly veiled, awkward allegory I've ever seen in my life. His other movies are only slightly better. Sleepy Hollow was beautiful but was as scary as a grade-school music paegant. His other movies eschew narrative for ambience. Batman Returns? What was the Penguin's plan anyway? Run for mayor? Kidnap Gotham's kids? Blow up Gotham with his penguin missiles? Make up your fucking mind! And Planet of the Apes - Christ, what a mess. Ape Lincoln? That's just stupid. Burton is the champion of people who like The Pretty but don't care about The Story, and people who were teased on the school bus.

    Phew! Thanks, I feel better. Good post, BTW.

    By Blogger David Campbell, at 3:21 PM  

  • I, too, loathe Burton's live action films. But I love his stop motion animation. You know, where the plot takes a total backseat to the visuals on purpose.
    And I'm glad to find another fan of Freaks. Though I must ask why people consider it exploitative. I'm a freak (really, I could have made a living in a sideshow if self-righteous do-gooders hadn't shut them down) and I've never felt that it took advantage of the performers.I've always loved it for using real freaks, in contrast to the vast bulk of movies that won't even use normal looking girls to play the normal girl in "ugly duckling" movies, and giving them a chance to act like people instead of props. But I hear that comment about the film a lot, so I'm wondering why.

    But really, I'm just glad someone else hates Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice. Their only value is as a sleep aid.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:23 PM  

  • Burton has great visual sensibilities, in this respect he should have just been a set dresser. His movies are shit. I enjoyed Batman but that's it. The sequel was god awful. Scissorhands was a cruel, disgusting and abhorrent film masked by blatant fairy floss-style "give me sympathy" emotional heart-string tugging. Constantly.

    Sleepy Hollow was boring, period. Beetlejuice had it's funny moments, but the direction felt like it belonged to a campy-goth horror film, utterly inappropriate for the script and story. And Big Fish simply sucked balls unrepentantly - bad, dodgy and irritating.

    Planet Of The Apes seemed to me as if Burton had a vendetta against the original and decided to take a giant shit on it by doing a remake nobody in their right mind could possibly like.

    Burton makes things LOOK great, but FEEL great they do not. The characters are largely two sausages short of a barbecue and I for one am tired of having the same old Forrest Gump-esque mentality crammed down my throat that "if you're not a retard, you're not pure."
    Eat a bucket of soggy dicks Burton, if purity means existing at a similar mental state to a squashed badger, you can keep it.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:56 AM  

  • well since you obviously don't like Tim's films, why do you keep watching them? You've obviously known you don't like his films for a long time. Are you a masochist?

    One thing about Burton...he's done very well for himself. He's no slave wage for The Man.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:48 AM  

  • An anonymous commenter asked: well since you obviously don't like Tim's films, why do you keep watching them?

    Two simple words, my friend: Mrs. Jerkwater. She's the reason I've seen Edward Scissorhands, Big Fish, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. She's heard my rants before.

    (I saw Planet of the Apes on a transatlantic flight. Strapped to a seat for a zillion hours, your standards in entertainment drop.)

    To defend Burton a little bit, Beetlejuice was fun, and he did make one honestly good movie: Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. That was a masterpiece.

    I'd be spared Burton's movies if he'd stop casting Mrs. Jerkwater's Celebrity Boyfriend, Johnny Depp. Agh!

    By Blogger Harvey Jerkwater, at 5:07 PM  


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:04 PM  

  • Wow! Tim Burton directed "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure"? I did not know that. I may actually have to admit that I like one of his films. I don't recall the distorted reality and overdone goth in that film. Was Helena Bonham Carter in that one? She must have been and I just forgot.

    I agree with your assessment of his mutilation of long-time favorites (Wonka, Apes, Batman, etc.) Can't wait to see his "re-visioning" of Hogan's Heroes, should be a hoot!

    The only ones I feel bad for are kids who get taken to his movies when their parents think they are cartoons or family entertainment. Coraline, The Nightmare Before Christmas, really? The parents get depressed and the children have nightmares.

    They are really just porn for fan-boys and emo kids. Why Johnny Depp wastes his time with such dreck is beyond me.

    By Anonymous Michael Scott, at 10:26 PM  

  • Tim Burton is one of the best directors across all the history of the movie films. He really has a natural talent to manage and to produce successful movies, reason for which I admire him too much.
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