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Beauty and the Beast

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

Tim Burton is going--how else to say it?--apeshit. The director of the "reimagined" Planet of the Apes is talking about the agility of chimps, waving his arms like he's swinging from vine to vine. Then, with the quizzical look of a playful primate, he leans in to suss out the other species in this concrete jungle--the one with the tape recorder and pen. "There's something about the way that chimps look at you," he says, tilting his head until the curls of his wild black mane begin to bounce, the reflected light in his bug-eye specs making him look like an alien creature from his Mars Attacks! "It's very, um, sweet, the textural nature of [chimps]," Burton continues, inching toward his interviewer. "It's almost sexy in a weird way. But then you get this uncomfortable feeling. For me, the fascination of apes is that they're so close--and yet so far away."

With that, the Hollywood animal retreats to his cage--that is, to the recesses of his Park Avenue hotel-suite sofa, where he's been doing press for the past several hours. "My girlfriend," Burton adds, referring to actor and artist Lisa Marie, "loves chimps. She says, 'Oh, they're so cute, these chimps.' And I'm thinking, 'These are the scariest fuckin' things I've ever seen in my life.' They draw you in with their cuteness, but they could bite your head off, rip your arm, go psycho killer on you in one second. And it's that juxtaposition--drawing you in and then doing something weird--that I think taps into our own duality: the emotional or primal side versus the intellectual side. I know that I struggle with that every day, the conflict between those two sides."

I had been told of Burton's two sides as they appear in interview: that if you catch him when he's distracted, or depressed, it can be like pulling teeth to get him to talk; and that if he's up, for whatever reason, it can be hard to get a word in edgewise. Today, only a week or two after putting the finishing touches on his $100 million ape opus, he's up. Indeed, during our half-hour chat in his room at the Regency hotel, the former Disney animator is fully animated--alternately giggling at his own sick jokes about hypothetical human/simian sex scenes, pulling his hair in a self-mocking depiction of tortured artistry, and lying on the couch in classic therapy patient's pose. "I grew up feeling lonely," he confesses while in the horizontal position, by way of explaining how his outlandish outsiders--Pee-wee, Batman, Ed Wood, Edward Scissorhands, and, to a degree, the astronaut hero of Apes--have "sort of a sad quality to them, a certain burden."

Now, most A-list directors wouldn't dream of sharing their innermost burden with a critic--except maybe in the context of bemoaning studio interference with their vision, a burden that Burton's mega-hyped Planet of the Apes bears on its own. (We'll get to that in a moment.) But Burton, in ways that make the critic want to protect him even when he fails, isn't like most A-list directors. Asked in 1992 to describe the billion-dollar family-entertainment franchise known as Batman, he replied, "It's about depression, and it's about lack of integration. It's about a character...who's completely fucked and doesn't know what he's doing." (Yeah! Bring the kids!) That Warner Bros. would have chosen to invest a fortune in a pair of summer movies about a hero who doesn't know what he's doing--and then proceed to reap an even bigger fortune from them--speaks volumes about Burton's supernatural appeal to industry executives and ticket buyers alike. At the blockbuster level, his is the rarest gift and privilege--"drawing you in," as he had said of chimpanzee seduction, "and then doing something weird."

Alas, what's weirdest about the new Planet of the Apes is its docile demeanor relative to the bulk of Burton's bestial oeuvre. Beginning with an ingeniously original setup involving a gene-spliced, "state of the art" monkey astronaut, Burton follows suit with the late-Sixties original by sending the ape's human trainer (Mark Wahlberg) crashing onto the titular planet. From there, the director almost immediately struggles to regain the comparative freedom he had in space.

True, the talking, tyrannical apes here rule over their homo sapiens prey about as viciously as the PG-13 rating will allow, and actor Tim Roth renders his savage chimp Thade in a wonderfully hammy, hunched-over triumph of animal-behaviorist Method. But with the human slaves kept mutually supportive and disarmingly bland (Wahlberg's perfunctory Spartacus makes Batman's Bruce Wayne look like an extrovert), there seems little at stake. It doesn't help that the movie's Ewok-style rainforest Apeville is the most artificial set the expressionist director has ever had, or that the unusual immobility of his camera bespeaks the impracticality of laying dolly track on a super-production that started shooting only nine months ago.  

I mention this stagebound quality to Burton, and can't begrudge him an answer that begins with an acknowledging nod but ends, like the film, without having gone into much detail. "Each [project] takes on its own energy," he says. "I actually feel it as it's going, and I don't realize what I'm doing until after the fact. I don't start the film saying, 'I think I'm going to try a lot of low-angle shots on this one.' I just find myself doing it. And as I'm doing it, I go, 'Hmmm...now that's interesting.' So I start from my emotional state, and then I see that I'm doing something, and I link it up to my intellectual side. I feel more comfortable that way."

 

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.

"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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