Beauty and the Beast

Tim Burton's outsider art survives even the brute commercialism of Planet of the Apes


If Burton's very public art stems from a process that sounds hugely private in the description, it would certainly suit the creative protagonists of his most personal work: born loners who transcend the oppressive normality of their surroundings by constructing elaborate inner lives, which they share only reluctantly with the cruel world at large. Pee-wee's Big Adventure (1985), Burton's first feature and happiest hour, playfully allegorizes its young director's big adventure in Hollywood. Edward Scissorhands, no less than poor Pee-wee's tabloid reality, suggests the public's prudish insensitivity as being an essential component of outsider art. Ed Wood, about the legendarily bad director of Plan 9 from Outer Space, offers that flaws of character and creation can be forgivable, even charming. And Batman Returns, the pimply pubescent of the bunch, whips the whole dynamic into a psychosexual frenzy, the return of what was repressed in Batman erupting with enough carnal force to leave a stain on the screen.

But perhaps the purest expression of the Burton biography--boy alone, feeling distant from his parents and stifled by suburbia, turns darkness to light with the help of filmland's famous monsters--lies in his very first six-minute short. (Completists will find it on the newly issued Nightmare Before Christmas DVD.) A stunningly confessional self-portrait in stop-motion animation, "Vincent" (1982)--funded by Disney for $60,000 while Burton was suffering a day job at the studio drawing foxes and hounds--tells us everything we need to know about the kid and what he was up against. And yet the director has more to say about it, particularly about the reaction 20 years ago to its tragic ending, in the context of the mass confusion that has greeted his latest movie's final twist.

Jungle love: Director Tim Burton with his chimpanzee muse, Lisa Marie
Jungle love: Director Tim Burton with his chimpanzee muse, Lisa Marie

"I showed 'Vincent' to [Disney execs]," Burton recalls, punctuating his words with palpable resentment (and a certain relish of same). "And they go, 'Well, the kid dies. You gotta have him live.' I said, 'You guys don't even get this at all. It's not about whether he lives or dies. It's his life--his fantasy life. If he wants to die, and that's his emotional catharsis...well, that's it.' And the same is true [with the ending of Apes]: It's not meant to be literal so much as it's meant to be true to the ambiguity that's at the heart of the [Apes] series. Where am I? Who am I? In all the [Apes] movies, you're never quite sure where you are--which is a real metaphor for the material and, at least to me, for life itself."

Indeed, the ending, while not quite on a par with the original's Statue of Liberty shocker, is the closest the new Apes comes to the topsy-turvy horror that made the initial series such a potent allegory of Sixties and Seventies racial tumult. In fact, if you're feeling charitable enough to read Burton's rainbow-coalition installment as a post-Clinton critique of liberal attempts at race reparations, the finale works as a violent (and, yes, illogical) rebuttal of the white man's privileged version of events. (If ours weren't such a Bushwhacked jungle, the sequel could be radical.) Otherwise, this action-oriented Apes is a stubbornly "apolitical" hodgepodge, albeit one whose lack of clarity Burton deftly characterizes in artistic terms.

"If the first movie was of its time," he says, "when the issues were unmistakable, this one represents the way it is now--which is that it's harder to tell. [The world] is much more of a melting pot, with globalization, instant access to information--everything is more fragmented. And we tried to represent that. In the first movie, the chimps were all good [laughs], whereas there are factions in this one: You have 'purist' apes still retaining their primal energy, you have apes that are more humanlike, [and] people who still talk. I actually don't consider the movie to be right or left [politically], because to me it's more representative of fragmentation."

Be that as it may, the power struggle that emerges most vividly onscreen is the one between director and studio. (According to showbiz scuttlebutt, the forces that be were still fighting only weeks ago to invoke Gladiator in the final cut.) Which is to say that, almost despite itself, Planet of the Apes does work as another of Burton's outsider movies, with the filmmaker himself playing the part of the vulnerable loner trapped in hostile territory. No wonder he expresses his envy of the artistic "freedom" one enjoys in Minneapolis, where he'll be stopping in May of next year on the occasion of a Walker Art Center retrospective--which will include screenings of his films, an exhibit of his Polaroid work with Marie, and a dialogue between the two artists and acclaimed commercial-maker Jeff Preiss. (Don't bother calling for tickets just yet.) In the meantime, as in Ed Wood, imperfection in the context of passion has its own weird beauty. Speaking as a huge fan of both Burton and the Apes series, I believe I can live with the director's compromised battle for a planet of his own--if he can.

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