Seeing Stripes: The Tim Burton Exhibit

Don't know why I didn't pose inside the mouth.
Too excited to be smart, I guess.

September 26, 2011— I’m not a big fan of the term fan. Sometimes I use it to avoid sounding like a jerk, but I really prefer words like appreciate, admire, even venerate. To me, the term fan somehow seems to degrade the space between artist and audience. Then I walked into the Tim Burton Exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. I’m such a stupid fan.

I mean, I’ve always dug Burton’s work, and up until about Mars Attacks! felt I could actively defend the inclination. Since that time, though, and with the exception of maybe Sweeney Todd and Sleepy Hollow (and only the visuals of the latter), his movies have ranged from erratic to underwhelming to downright bad. Worse, many of them have failed to evoke that Burtonesque sense of oddity that makes his best films so unique. Still, I’ll always have some kind of faith in anybody who can make a movie like Edward Scissorhands or Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure or Beetlejuice or The Nightmare Before Christmas or Ed Wood.

Not Burton's work, but weird enough to include.

Personally, I think Burton’s best when he’s conjuring his own visions, not trying to adapt others', which he seems to be doing more and more of these days. And, as a general rule, I think that any film project that seems “custom-made” for Burton, he should steer clear of. It just seems like he often coasts through those kinds of projects since he can do the macabre and the weird without even rustling a single one of his tentacular black locks. However, when the idea comes directly from the crazy whorls of his own brain, he seems to create much more significant stories.

Obviously, the movies I listed above are heavily weighted to the front of his career. Of late, I’d kind of lost some of my affinity for his work, and it was in this state of semi-Burton weariness that I approached his exhibit in Los Angeles.

L.A. is the fourth stop for this traveling exhibit, which has already spent time in Australia, New York, and Toronto, and will be in L.A. until Halloween. I looked around online for a future schedule, but couldn’t find one. Maybe the exhibit just picks the next place it finds most vulnerable and travels there, like the dark carnival from Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Unfortunately, they don’t allow pictures within the exhibit proper, but there are photo ops scattered around the museum and just outside the exhibit, all of which I’ve included in this article. Minus the Edward Scissorhands glove, of course, which my much bolder friend snagged a pic of with his phone despite the gaggle of guards converging on his location. Apparently, yelling “Sandworm!” wasn’t enough of a distraction. My bad, man.

This would be one of the artifacts I would want
in my own personal Ark of the Covenant

After entering through the mouth of a giant, crazy-eyed and -haired, black-and-white face, the exhibit started off almost like a scrapbook, with various artwork and artifacts from Burton’s teenage years, including lists of horror movies he kept, letters from contests that he entered, and various pictures of him pre-sunglasses and bed-head.

Although some of that section tended to the overly sentimental, a few of the artifacts from his early life were fascinating, most notably the fully realized children’s book he wrote, illustrated, laid out, and mailed off when he was in high school to his future employer Disney in the hopes that they would publish it, and the encouraging and thoughtful rejection letter that they sent back.

His earlier career was detailed as well, including his work on such Disney films as The Fox and the Hound and The Black Cauldron, as well as his brief stint as a puppeteer for the final shot of The Muppet Movie, when the creators were sticking the felt creatures on the hands of anybody who wandered by to get enough puppets together for the massive finale. From there, he got the opportunity to work on a few short films of his own creation, a couple of which were playing on screens throughout the exhibit.

At that point, the exhibit became an art gallery of his drawings and paintings that included about an equal amount of standalone pieces and pieces connected to his films, most in that black-and-white-striped, whimsically proportioned style that is unmistakably Burton and which reinforced my feeling that he should be making films about his original characters and ideas instead of recycling monkey sapiens, mad hatters, and Oompa-Loompas.

However, it was the movie props that really turned me into a stuttering, arm-waving fan and made me kind of relieved that they had outlawed photography, since I would have spent hours documenting every square inch of costume and prop in the entire exhibit.

You see, I have now breathed in particles off the leather outfit of Edward Scissorhands while waving to his bladed glove. I’ve been up close with all the characters from The Nightmare Before Christmas (who are taller in person), including hanging out in a black light-lit room with Oogie Boogie. I’ve stood in the shadow of the Pumpkin King-like scarecrow from Sleepy Hollow and closely examined the warp and weft of the cape of the headless horseman.

I’ve seen the eyeballs of Large Marge (all eight or so of them, each differently sized to maintain proportion to the stop-motion-animated clay face) and met the character models from his short film and Vincent Price homage Vincent. I’ve peeked into the baby carriage of the Penguin, peered into the jaws of a sandworm, and much more. I’ve even seen the severed heads of Pierce Brosnan and Sarah Jessica Parker, although that’s surprisingly never really been on my list.

Honestly, I didn’t want to leave the exhibit, even to go to the La Brea Tar Pits next door. It's officially one of the coolest things I've experienced in my travels, although that's such an extremely subjective statement I should probably edit it out. Nevertheless, seeing it rejuvenated my appreciation for Tim Burton’s work and vision. I just hope he gets back to that vision at some point.