Lightbox Unveils Tim Burton's Exquisite Corpus
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Lightbox Unveils Tim Burton’s Exquisite Corpus

Tim Burton poses in front of one of the sculptural commissions featured in his new exhibition.

It’s easy to grimace at the Lightbox’s new Tim Burton exhibition. It’s especially easy when you show up for a sneak preview to find the kinds of self-styled teenage outcasts who have sustained Burton’s popularity for more than two decades lined up hours in advance to get his signature on books they just purchased from the Lightbox’s adjacent gift shop.
Like Led Zeppelin and caring about what strain of pot you smoke, Tim Burton’s films always seem to appeal to the same demographic, regardless of time or place. Any pimply twelve-year-old boy or would-be goth girl can get behind the suburban outcast fabling of Edward Scissorhands or adorn themselves in Jack Skellington logo t-shirts in a bid for middle school distinction. But because Burton’s films so rarely to make stabs at maturity (ostensible exceptions: Sweeney Todd, Big Fish, and his deeply compassionate masterpiece, Ed Wood), these fans never really ripen with Burton. They outgrow him.
But to walk through the exhibition itself, to become immersed in its seven hundred pieces of pseudo-gothic, pseudo-surrealist Burtonalia, is to see past all the self-conscious weirdness and trademarked gothic candy striping.

Like Pee-wee Herman, star of the director’s breakout feature, Burton’s sensibility is one stuck somewhere between immaturity and adulthood. And Burton’s gloomy brushstrokes and expressionistic doodles betray a resonant melancholy and wide-eyed whimsy that is more deeply felt than all the curlicued kooks and quirks combined.

This Balloon Boy sculpture, which Noah Cowan describes as “the Wal-Mart greeter of the exhibit,” welcomes visitors in the Lightbox lobby.

Opening this Friday, Tim Burton—yes, the Tim Burton exhibition is called “Tim Burton,” making no bones about its bottom line—is a cinephile’s angsty adolescent daydream. Based on the 2009 MoMA exhibit, the Lightbox’s installation of Tim Burton reorganizes the flow of the MoMA show, orienting less around the chronology of the pieces themselves and more around the progression of Burton’s filmography.
To that end, the exhibit is bookended by pieces from Frankenweenie (1984), Burton’s thirty-four minute featurette, and Frankenweenie (2012), the full-length remake currently in production. In between are commissioned sculptures (the most remarkable being a black-light carousel), pencil sketches of the Joker from Batman (1989) and Large Marge from Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985), short film installations, Johnny Depp’s tortured soul bondage suit from Edward Scissorhands (1990), a razor kit from Sweeney Todd (2007), pencil drawings of Vincent Price, assignments from grade school composition classes, Polaroids of the artist’s dog, sketches from unrealized projects like Trick or Treat, and much, much more.
“We’re expecting this to bring folks into TIFF Bell Lightbox,” said artistic director Noah Cowan. And he’s right to be so optimistic. Tim Burton was the MoMA’s third most popular exhibit, bested only by Matisse and Picasso. With Essential Cinema winding down, the Lightbox needs another reason to put asses in their exceptionally cozy seats, with the obvious hope being that people paying to see the exhibit will be converted into card carrying Lightbox members (a Lightbox membership card also grants its lucky holder one free admission into the exhibition).

At yesterday’s press conference. From left to right: MoMA curator Rajendra Roy, Burton, and Lightbox artistic director Noah Cowan.

For Burton himself, the idea of a gallery exhibit showcasing his sketches, puppets, and concept art struck him as slightly out of character. “I never really went to museums or anything,” he says before adding, “Maybe wax museums.” It may sound a bit like false modesty. The very scope of the exhibition may make it seem as if Burton had been compulsively cataloguing everything he’d done since he was a preteen. But he’s more clutterbug than curator, possessive of the packrat-ish instinct to never throw anything out.
One item presumed lost, and touted as “the Holy Grail of Burtonalia” by Cowan, is Hansel and Gretel, a 1982 Burton-directed Disney Channel special that recasts the classic fairy tale as a kung fu kiddie movie (call it Brothers Grimm meets Brothers Shaw). Having aired once on television, the project was assumed lost by many, but the whole half-hour special ends the Lightbox tour, welcoming diehard Burton-heads eager to enjoy it (or willing to endure it, depending on how permissive you are of Burton’s more unchecked strain of weirdness). “If I’d been there at another time I’d never have been able to do what I did,” says Burton of his brief stint with Disney in the early 80s. “They were so directionless as a company. They were trying to move into the modern world but weren’t quite ready for it yet. So I got opportunity to play around a bit, to try some things that were off the track.”

At one point during the press conference, Buton’s iPhone went off. The ringer, fittingly, was the Elfmanesque sci-fi tone that comes with the phone.

Hansel and Gretel may be Burton’s holy grail not just because of how rare it is, but because it effectively articulates the tension he tries to play out in most of his films: that of a filmmaker with a refined outsider persona struggling to express himself within the confines of a studio system that may not permit it. That may overstate the case, considering how lucrative Burton’s films have been. Just look at all the Jack Skellington logo tees, Tragic Toys, and last year’s Alice in Wonderland, one of the most profitable films ever made in the history of the medium.
Burton may just be a case study in how weird Hollywood will let a filmmaker be, with many of his more recent films reducing his aesthetic and design sensibility to the familiar upholstery for the latest Johnny Depp vehicles. But Tim Burton, the exhibit, gives a wonderful sense of just how imaginative Burton’s designs can be. And whether or not they’ve merely been sold off piecemeal to bait the pre-Twlight half-goth tween set, Burton’s still succeeded fantastically in making the world of stuffy adults bend around him.
Just like Pee-wee Herman.
Photos by Christopher Drost/Torontoist.
Tim Burton opens Friday, November 26 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West) and runs until April 17, 2011. To add to the Burton-mania, the Lightbox will also be screening Burton’s films throughout the run of the exhibition, including the “Burton Blitz,” a marathon of all of his films (and two by collaborator Henry Selick), from Pee-Wee on through to Alice, kicking off at 7 p.m. on Friday.