Thursday Rethink 9: Tim Burton is a Hack

Dark Shadows still 1
Dark Shadows still 1

The Proposition: Tim Burton is a hack director.

The Background: With the recent release of Dark Shadows, I’m again reminded of Tim Burton’s presence in the world of cinema and irritated by the very vocal proclamations of his genius by kooky fans. Burton is a director with a large fan base, one that seems to consist of people who think they like things that are “weird.” Most people’s favourite Burton movie is A Nightmare Before Christmas, which, while undeniably bearing the stamp of Burton, is equally the creation of stop-motion genius Henry Selick, and thus not a perfect image of his artistic ability. Of course, these are the same people that would hate a David Lynch or a Werner Herzog film, so they don’t actually like weird films. This is because Burton doesn’t produce truly weird, interesting works of art, but commercial products targeted at the mainstream, intending to make them feel unique and interesting while actually giving them derivative stories and tired visuals. Burton is a hack director. A hack may have some filmmaking talent, and may make the occasional good movie, but overall a hack has no strong artistic vision or talent for storytelling. A hack makes movies only for money.

1. Tim Burton doesn’t know how to tell a story. While I can appreciate a few of Burton’s film (Ed Wood is great and Beetlejuice has its charm, mostly due to Michael Keaton’s performance), they almost all fall apart in the story department. Burton is so obsessed with visuals that he neglects the narrative threads of his films. Batman and Batman Returns seem to have little to no interest in their titular hero. Sleepy Hollow becomes incomprehensible by the end. Planet of the Apes is a convoluted mess with a preposterous twist. Big Fish is sentimental hokum. Sweeney Todd relies solely on the strength of Stephen Sondheim’s music. Alice in Wonderland devolves into a mundane battle sequence climax. There is no finesse to Burton’s storytelling because he has never paid any attention to his stories. You know what kinds of directors don’t care about story? Hollywood hacks.

2. He is the definition of a commercial filmmaker. Anyone who says that Burton is a director who has never compromised his artistic credibility and sold out is seriously confused. He is the definition of a sell-out, and has been almost from the beginning of his filmmaking career. Of his first three movies, one was an adaptation of a beloved TV show (Pee-wee’s Big Adventure), one was a big-budget comic book adaptation (Batman), and one was a family horror comedy that spawned an animated television series (Beetlejuice). In fact, the only reason Burton was chosen to helm Batman was because the studios considered him such a bankable director. Burton has never deviated from being a commercial director (Ed Wood was his one non-moneymaker, and it was a prestige flick). He’s a safe director for a studio to hire since his latest film, Alice in Wonderland, made over a billion dollars worldwide.

3. His visuals are ugly and unoriginal. In my review of Alice in Wonderland, I described Burton’s visual style as Gothic grotesquery. I think this summarizes his aesthetics fairly well. Burton is obsessed with things that are ugly, vulgar, Gothic and morbid. While none of these things are inherently bad, Burton isn't interested in expanding his visual palette or exploring any meaning in the grotesquery of everything. His visuals are solely affectation, a strange stamp added onto a film to give it the semblance of originality. However, there has been nothing original about Burton's visuals since Beetlejuice. From then on, he has merely retread the same ground. He is not a director who has grown over the years. As well, his visuals are muddy. His shots are crowded. He doesn’t have a sense of clarity and flow in his camera movements. The world of Alice in Wonderland was prime for visual splendor, but all we got in Burton’s version was derivative ugliness. If you really think Burton has an original vision, I need only ask you this: why does every movie he makes with Johnny Depp requires Depp to wear preposterous pale makeup and silly outfits?

So, what do you think?