Thursday, January 14, 2010

Tim Burton at MOMA

...a-a-a-and....we're back.

Holidays are done, work is back in full swing, and the world is back on tilt. Mostly.
I spent most of this week in Manhattan at a conference that ran Monday-Tuesday, and my week was marathon stretches of standing and sitting 8-12 hours at a time. In all of the hundreds of thousands of air miles I've logged in business travel in the past 12 years with this company, this, for whatever reason, was my first trip to NYC. It was almost all work and no play (and even most of the play was work), but, outside of work, it was worthwhile personally just to wander around Manhattan for a few days.

As soon as we crossed the bridge to the island, my internal radar completely shut down in the cement and glass labyrinth (as did the GPS on my phone). I got plenty of exercise walking in friggin' circles trying to find things that were only a few blocks away. Bizarre.

The old architecture in Manhattan is wonderful, but the closeness and intensity and controlled chaos of everything there--not to mention the absolutely random way people walk around yelling threats and insults at each other for fun--made me aware of just how far culturally the west coast is from the east coast. I'm a pacific guy, and I suspect that no matter where I go, I always will be. NYC is too stressful for me long-term.

Also, I hate traveling that far, as it kills so much time. I did, however, finish reading Nicholson Baker's The Fermata (which is a bizarre, EXTREMELY sexually-charged, but clever book), and wrote down about six pages of notes on a new book I want to start later this year.
On the last day, I booked a later flight out, hoping I would have time to go see the Tim Burton exhibit at MOMA. I was able to spend about 50 minutes there (after wandering around for fifteen minutes to get five blocks from my internal nav is comically bad--like, Three Stooges movie bad. If I ever give you directions, do the opposite), which was just enough time to see pretty much everything but the movies and video shorts.I wish I had my own pictures to show you (MOMA didn't allow cameras, and my phone doesn't have one for sneaky-pix), but I've included some from the web.

It started out with some of his early sketches in school, some for contests and homework (complete with teachers notes). It was, as you can imagine, typical work from a schoolkid. Interesting, but not oh-my-god-this-kid-is-a-genius work. It did begin to show his early interest in creepy images, malformed creatures and, interestingly, a strong emulation of Mad Magazine's Don Martin.

As it progressed, his work became more refined--monsters became more layered and fully-formed, and some of his signature design features started to appear (stitches, stripes, sharp angles, sullen eyes), and his angst started to flow more into the pictures. Honestly, that was about as far as I expected to see his drawings and paintings go--I had seen some of his work on his website many years ago and it was more interesting from a story and character standpoint than as what I would have considered "good artwork". See Stain Boy, Oyster Boy.

I was very surprised and very happy to see some of his more refined work--some, I think, made before and during his early movies, some after, some very recent. There is some really amazing stuff there. His teenage feelings of seclusion in suburbia take full, grotesque shape in images of spider-legged monsters wearing human torsos with party hats; big, fat Momma-Monsters sporting dozens of limbs with mutated children dangling off of the ends like little traps; houses and rooms bent and twisted and cracked like scenes from a nightmare. Scattered throughout the exhibit were large statues--some by Burton himself, some designed by others based on his sketches--which were the physical realization of some of his drawings. Those were really wicked--an six-foot tall robot stretched out floor-to-ceiling, a gigantic, twisted, Beeltejuice-style carousel playing bizarre, slowed down Danny Elfman-inspired music. Really cool stuff. The entrance itself was the maw of a snaggle-toothed, branch-hair monster.

Scattered between the artwork were LCD screens looping many of his short movies, like Frankenweenie, Vincent, Stainboy, and a bunch of others that I'd never heard of--some looked like footage from college or playing around with prop and stop/go effects in the backyard with a Super 8. They screened pretty much his entire full-length motion picture catalog throughout the week in the museum theater.

At the end of the ride was the coup de grace for fans of Burton's movies: his conceptual sketches of characters like Edward Scissorhands and Sweeney Todd and Jack Skellington and Large Marge, notes made while writing the screenplays, and a lot of props. Some that stood out were the inflatable arms from Beetlejuice (that rolled out from Keaton's body and had giant hammers on the end), actual motion capture models used in filming of Nightmare Before Christmas (including Jack, Oogie, and Sally), pretty much the entire cast of Corpse Bride, a full suit from Edward Scissorhands, the argyle sweater from Ed Wood, Catwoman's suit, the Headless Horseman's cape, and a lot more.

What I found most amazing about the exhibit was how clearly it showed that the weird stuff you see in his movies like Beetlejuice and Nightmare Before Christmas are really accurate, minimally translated iterations of what comes out of his head. The crooked doorways and gloomy ambiance of the offices in the Neitherworld from Beetlejuice are almost exactly taken from his early sketches, as are the hanging trees in Planet of the Apes and the rolling ducks from Batman.

Really amazing stuff. I was just randomly lucky to be able to see it--but, if you have the chance, don't miss it. I think it runs through April. Go early, though. I got right in at 10:30 when they opened, but when I left an hour later there was a long line to get in.


Natalie L. Sin said...

That looks like a wonderful exhibit! I"m jealous : )

Jeremy D Brooks said...

It was very cool. Still had an art-gallery feel, but with some creepy flair, black lights here and there, wonky music, etc.

Jamie Eyberg said...

My 7 yr old daughter would have been gushing. She is a fan of just about everything Burton. I think the only one she hasn't seen is Pee Wee's Big Adventure.

Jeremy D Brooks said...

My kids love him too. Pee Wee is the only one they didn't like. I suspect you have to be a little older to appreciate that movie for the sheer irony. They just thought it was a horrible kids' show.

Aaron Polson said...

Oh, Tim Burton. He's shaped so much of what I've loved at the theater for the past 20 years.

Jeremy D Brooks said...

Same here...I think it's a Hollywood anomoly that he even gets to work on these big budget projects, but it's a rare glimmer of hope for mankind to know that people still pay to see his movies.

Awesome story you posted this AM, BTW. Really powerful stuff. Is that from a WIP or is it pub'd somewhere?

Cate Gardner said...

Planet of the Apes aside, I adore Tim Burton. Jealous, jealous, jealous.

Side note: I've always wanted to go to New York but as I get claustrophobic in crowds, I don't think it's the best idea.

katey said...

So, so much brilliance. Thanks for taking the time to write that up. Writing dark stuff as we will, the man can't but be an inspiration.

Art and creepiness in one place. It's like home for me. Shame I couldn't get up to NYC while it was there! D'oh!

Jeremy D Brooks said...

It was very, very cool...I wish everyone could see it.

Anonymous said...

I just devoured this post, living vicariously through you. This would be am absolute dream of mine. Thanks so much for writing about it!


Jeremy D Brooks said...

Happy to...I know a lot of my friends are fans, I wanted to share it while it was fresh in my mind.

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