Tim Burton at LACMA How a Hollywood director became a counterculture hero
By Liz Ohanesian Thursday, Jun 9 2011
On a recent Saturday morning, Mayra Plascencia and Peter Aguirre were in the first handful of people waiting in line to meet Tim Burton at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The two 31-year-olds had arrived at 9:30 the previous night, and Plascencia had made a gift for Burton: a small figurine of a black "creepy cat."
The rest of the line, which began near the museum's box office, traveled down an impressive staircase and swung out onto Wilshire Boulevard, past the Tar Pits and around the corner, displayed more overt symbols of the Burton obsession. A few people were wearing seemingly homemade Edward Scissorhands T-shirts and sweatshirts. One girl arrived in a patchwork skirt reminiscent of Sally's from The Nightmare Before Christmas, while another had her hair covered in a Jack Skellington scarf from the same film. A third wore a wide-brimmed black hat similar to the one Winona Ryder wore as Lydia Deetz in Beetlejuice.
Many of these fans had already been notified that there was a good chance they wouldn't get a face-to-face encounter. Still, the line persisted. A total of 719 people would come face to face with the director to have him sign their exhibition books, and LACMA estimates more than 1,400 books were signed.
In the end, as writer Neil Gaiman did with comic book series The Sandman and musician Robert Smith did with the Cure, Burton harnessed his dark, brooding underground to create works that became pop culture phenomena.
"He makes films for 'us' people, an audience that isn't represented often on-screen," Ward says in a follow-up email. "I don't like most movies. I don't watch chick flicks! I long for the next Tim Burton creation."
"His sense of humor is dark, and sense of style darker," says Donna Ricci, owner of Clockwork Couture, a Burbank boutique that specializes in neo-Victorian and steampunk (a sci-fi take on Victorian culture) fashion. "You have to in some way be able to relate to that outside-the-norm mentality and feeling of exclusion to feel empathy for his characters. That's not easy for big Hollywood to do, but every teen knows the feeling too well."
Burton's outsider perspective often is associated with goth, the subculture that came out of the early 1980s post-punk music scene and has become a catchall phrase for anything that embraces the melancholic or macabre. Certainly, the movies he released in the early part of his career, between Beetlejuice and Ed Wood, referenced goth culture — think Lydia Deetz's wardrobe, or Siouxsie and the Banshees' contribution to the Batman Returns soundtrack. His films also have been embraced within the subculture — when "This Is Halloween," from The Nightmare Before Christmas, became something of a dance-floor hit at L.A. goth clubs in the 1990s, for example.
But Burton's cult sensibilities go beyond goth, as they manage to tie together a variety of different scenes.
What Burton does better than anyone else is include small references to youth culture without sticking a label on his work. You may have seen Beetlejuice for the first time and thought that Lydia reminded you of a girl who worked at the local record store, or you may have recognized Edward Scissorhands' hair as being strikingly similar to Robert Smith's teased hairdo.
But it's what Burton doesn't do that makes him both a beloved icon of the underground and a Hollywood hit maker. He doesn't pander to any particular subculture. His films are free from grossly inaccurate club scenes, overt preachiness and dialogue and costumes that try way too hard to be relevant. In other words, he lacks many of the elements of Hollywood films that would make your average cynical person with less-than-mainstream interests guffaw.
This ability to subtly reference youth culture carries into the exhibition, which features more than 700 items, including pieces that date back to his youth in Burbank and his early career, art projects reflecting his film work, and contributions from collaborators such as costume designer Colleen Atwood and puppet-making company Mackinnon & Saunders. The work then stretches to the present day, as it includes images from the upcoming stop-motion animated feature version of Frankenweenie.
The L.A. stop on the traveling exhibition features a few exclusives, such as Air Dancers, a sculpture reminiscent of the inflatable-man advertisements that blow in the wind outside mini-malls, accompanied by background music by Elfman.
You'll see a drawing and fabric from the Sandworm in Beetlejuice, its black and white stripes reflecting the striped T-shirts and tights that have long been staples of alternative fashion. Atwood's costume for the title character of Edward Scissorhands is on display, looking ready for a night of dancing to goth and industrial music. There's a black-light room in the museum filled with paintings and an installation piece, Carousel, that may bring to mind teenagers' bedrooms covered in black-light band posters. Untitled (Ramone), which was produced with ink, marker and colored pencil, depicts famed punk frontman Joey Ramone.
While walking through the exhibition, one might wonder who is influencing whom. Certainly, people were wearing stripes before Beetlejuice, but it was hard not to notice just how many people were dressed in black and white on opening weekend.
Ashley Marie Manzo, an L.A.-based illustrator and taxidermy artist who cites Burton as an influence on her work, says she's "100 percent sure" that goth kids have influenced Burton, noting the set designs and fashion choices in many of his films. At the same time, though, she points to films like 2005's stop-motion animated feature Corpse Bride as an influence on current club fashion.
Burton might be both an influencer and an influencee, grabbing elements of youth culture and pushing them along. "I think Tim has always been at the forefront of style, often accidentally accelerating its popularity," Ricci says.
Take his late-career examination of the Victorian era, which includes Sweeney Todd, Corpse Bride and last year's Alice in Wonderland. This Victorian period coincides with a renewed fascination with late-19th- and early-20th-century culture among young people. In San Francisco the Edwardian Ball, a celebration of the work of Burton influencer Edward Gorey (where kids show up in Edwardian fashion), began to take shape. Club kids in L.A. were heading to parties like Malediction Society in neo-Victorian attire, including waistcoats and top hats.
Inside LACMA, it's difficult to deny the similarities between Mackinnon & Saunders' puppet of the Corpse Bride's inadvertent groom, Victor Van Dort — with a suit cut so slim that it manages to accentuate the character's thinness — and many young, club-going gents.
Ricci notes that Burton did incorporate Victorian influences before the '00s: "I do remember a young Winona wearing a red Victorian bridal gown in Beetlejuice."
But Burton's recent films also have gone on to help popularize neo-Victorian style. "We definitely saw an uptick in our Alice-related items last year after the film was released," Ricci adds. "Teacup necklaces, striped stockings and bold colors are always adored by Burton's fans, who sometimes exclaim that they envision themselves a 'steampunk variant' of one of his characters."
Meanwhile, Alice herself is also an influence on the Lolita look, which first came into vogue in Japan in the 1980s but only later made waves in the United States, around the same time the neo-Victorian look took off. Though Lolita style borrows from a variety of eras and styles, it often includes a Victorian element
"Almost every person I know who is into the Lolita fashion is also a fan of Tim Burton," Lolita aficionado Nicole Eng, who attended the May 29 exhibition opening, tells the Weekly in an email.
Eng notes that Burton's Lolita connection can't be pinpointed to a specific film, but it's his overall "aesthetic of the slightly creepy, slightly misshapen adorable characters" that holds appeal. With gothic Lolita, one of the style's many variations, there's an innocent, yet haunting, doll-like quality to the look. "Both [Burton and Lolitas] are finding the charm in things that are slightly out of place to the current."
Eng points out that the popularity of Burton's work in the Lolita community is such that beloved Japanese brand Metamorphose temps de fille released a Nightmare Before Christmas collection, featuring a knee-length, full-skirted jumper-skirt and capelet set in the same thin stripes that marked Jack Skellington's outfit.
"I know that he must be aware of it, but I am not entirely sure if Tim Burton's work has been influenced by Lolita directly," Eng says. "I feel like his style of charming, creepy macabre merely drinks from the same fountain."
Inside the exhibit, Burton is portrayed as an iconoclast whose unique vision is fueled by his suburban isolation as a child and a hefty diet of unconventional pop culture interests. His fans outside the exhibition, however, make it clear that Burton is a keen observer who has an innate understanding of the various subcultures that have sprouted up in cities and suburbs across the country.
Different fans may prefer different aspects of his work, but they share the intensity of devotion that may not be ending with the current generation of teenagers. At the opening events, there were quite a few people with very small children dressed in Nightmare Before Christmas garb, which has its own large section in the gift shops at Disneyland and California Adventure.
"I have a 3-year-old that already appreciates some of the more age-appropriate films and shorts, and we aren't the only ones," Ward says. "I expect there will be a lot more Tim Burton fans in the future."
The large, well-hyped exhibition of Burton's work, which began life at New York City's Museum of Modern Art, was finally set to open in the director's hometown the next day. But in many respects, Burton's fans give an even greater insight into the artist's work than the collection does. They cross subculture divides, indicating both the diversity of his own influences and the range of his appeal. They're frequently as stylized in appearance as his films, dressed in a manner that may be out of synch with what's currently considered hip but that identifies them as part of a larger, trend-bucking movement.
Later, Plascencia met Burton and gave him the cat. "He said, 'Oh, my God, you made this for me? Thank you,' " she recalls. "He was really happy."
Aguirre didn't get to meet Burton. He gave up his spot in line to a stranger — 26-year-old Joana Ward, who drove up from the city of Orange, arrived at 6 a.m. and was still so deep in the crowd that her fate was uncertain. "I went to the back of the line to the last 200 and I counted all the people and said, 'Who is a big fan?' " Aguirre says.
How big of a fan is Ward? She had Burton sign the inside of her forearm with the intention of having the autograph tattooed.
Also near the front of the line were Erika Gleim, Natalie Zhao and Jonathan York. Gleim and Zhao are UCLA students, and York works in the video game industry. They had arrived at 11 p.m. the night before, and befriended Plascencia and Aguirre.
"It's a weird bonding experience," York says. "We might not ever see each other again. Who knows? At the same time, for the last 12 hours that we've been together, we're kind of like family."
Can you imagine any other big-budget Hollywood filmmaker commanding such a massive response? Perhaps George Lucas could, but that's dependent on whether fan anger over the Star Wars prequels got in the way. This was a reception fit for a rock star, not a director, and certainly not an artist. It was like the greeting of a rock star from another decade, an era when people still camped out for concert tickets that would sell out in less than 20 minutes, and still went to Tower Records for signings from bands who played stadiums.
There was a strange mix of nostalgic and modern at LACMA's opening- weekend events. The late-20s and early 30s crowd, people like Plascencia and York, recall seeing Burton's first major film, Pee-wee's Big Adventure, as children. Then there are the teenagers, Gleim and Zhao, who weren't even born when Edward Scissorhands was released but clearly have a love for that film and other early Burton works, as well as a fondness for newer films such as 2007's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
The exhibition drew crowds of people straddling decades. On Saturday, a girl hoping to meet Burton, dressed like a 1950s starlet, sat on a blanket covered with the skulls associated with punk band the Misfits. On Sunday, at least a dozen teens roamed through the museum courtyard in T-shirts boasting the names of bands that broke up years ago, the rest of their outfits looking completely 2011. Men and women strolled across the plaza in neo-Victorian vests and corsets. Every now and then, a girl walked by dressed in old-meets-new gothic Lolita fashion, with its full, midlength skirt and ruffled details. Parasols were a popular accessory.
The CalArts-educated Burton often is thought of as the consummate outsider, a perspective fueled by his suburban upbringing in Burbank. He fuses this outsider status with commercial films, movies with big budgets and the backing of Disney and other Hollywood studios. His choice of actors, from Johnny Depp to Christina Ricci to his partner, Helena Bonham Carter, has leaned toward the unconventional. Danny Elfman, his longtime composer of choice, was new to film music when Burton hired him to score Pee-wee's Big Adventure. His band, Oingo Boingo, may not have made Top 40 inroads but were wildly popular in L.A., where they played an annual Halloween show until 1995.