Tim Burton is a Lot Funnier Than His Marketing Managers Let On

11/20/2009 11:44 AM |

My colleague Benjamin Sutton should have a fuller review of this show up soon, but in the meantime here’s a brief impression:

Burtons Cupid

Though Tim Burton has a few comedies, or at least comedy-hybrids, on his director’s resume, his name doesn’t conjure thoughts of hilarity: instead, he is known as the Modern Master of the Macabre, the social misfit with an imagination toggling between the eerie and nightmarish. And so the highlights of the new MoMA lifetime retrospective, which features film screenings and several galleries of sketches, storyboards, video projects and movie artifacts, aren’t the pieces that conform to the familiar conception—in which the curators revel reductively—of the troubled artist eager to reject the suburban manicurerie of his youth, though die-hard fans (often with hair of unnatural hues) will appreciate the rarae aves: the Vincent models behind glass, the Batman hoods, the commercials, music videos, early work for television, recent flash animation projects, and the career-spanning character sketches, so rich that they make one wish some of his live-action features (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory especially) had been animated (by hand) instead. No, the most revealing works adorning the museum walls are the sketchbook pieces that reveal an intimate lighter side, particularly those in a series from the 80s that might have felt at home as single-panel cartoons in a magazine circulated only in the afterlife.

Many of these simply crack crass, sometimes absurd, jokes. In “Never Shoot a Constipated Poodle,” a man holding a pistol recoils as shit-shrapnel bursts forth from an exploded toy pooch. In another, two entwined lovers are united by Cupid’s arrow—indeed, it has lodged itself between their skulls, their faces fixed in agonized howls. A mass of El Greco-esque demons spill from a grotesque man’s mouth, signifying bad breath. A woman, extending a brain in the palm of her hand to a lobotomized cretin, asks, “I believe this is yours?” The middle finger on the crudely traced outline of a hand offers insight through a thought bubble: “I’m the only one who can produce an offending gesture.” In these private sketches, and many others like them, Burton sheds the morbidity of his pop-culture persona, revealing that he didn’t find youthful refuge only in the grim and ghastly—in German expressionism and Universal monsters. He found it in juvenile gaggery, too.

MoMA’s Tim Burton exhibit opens to the public this Sunday and runs through April 2010. Click here for more info