If hearing there's a Tim Burton exhibit at New York's Museum of Modern Art conjures up visions of a bunch of movie stills, costumes and assorted props — well, you're probably going to be disappointed by the show that wraps up its five-month stay in the Big Apple on April 26.
But you'll probably be the only one who's disappointed. While plenty of pieces will call to mind movies like "Edward Scissorhands," "Batman" and "Alice In Wonderland," plenty have nothing to do with what's been shown on screen during Burton's 25 years as a feature-film director. Many of the 700-plus items on display at the midtown Manhattan museum, in an exhibit that has attracted some 450,000 visitors thus far, have little to do with Tim Burton the film director, but everything to do with Tim Burton, the artist and visionary.
"He had all this material under wraps," says Jenny He, a curatorial assistant in MOMA's department of film and one of the two people, along with museum curator Ron Magliozzi, who organized the exhibit with Burton's enthusiastic co-operation. "Some had been seen in small gallery shows, but most had never been shown at all. We wanted this material that was really just personal projects, projects he'd work on while he was doing his public films. A lot of the stuff we have on exhibit has nothing at all to do with his movies."
"Tim Burton," spread over 4,500 square feet of exhibit space, includes an impressive array of objects, ranging in size from a 3-by-4-inch painting of a character named Stitchboy — a "forlorn little character," He says, who has yet to appear on the big screen — to such imposing works as the 33-by-22-inch "Untitled (Sally Parts)," an oversize Polaroid photograph of dismembered doll parts that looks like something out of a prosthetics manufacturer's nightmare.
Visitors are welcomed by seven pieces created especially for MOMA by Burton while he was working on his most recent project, the 3-D version of "Alice In Wonderland," a film that spent several weeks last month atop the box-office charts. Because the director spent so much time working on computers while making the movie, He says, Burton relished the tactile experience of "actually working with his hands." While walking through the exhibit, visitors can hear snippets of music specifically written for the exhibit by frequent Burton collaborator Danny Elfman.
For a filmmaker whose reputation rests largely on films with a sinister, almost otherworldly air (think 1989's "Batman," 1993's "Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas" or 1999's "Sleepy Hollow"), He says, there's an optimistic populism to Burton's work that is usually overlooked. Burton is not, she insists, any sort of dark lord or gloom monger.
Putting together the exhibit "totally upended my perception of Tim as this dark, Gothic, macabre filmmaker," she says. "In fact, he is more of a pop, impressionistic, optimistic filmmaker."
Happily, Burton's movies are far from totally ignored, He assures his fans. In addition to numerous storyboards and character sketches (including an especially off-kilter Joker that looks more Heath Ledger than Jack Nicholson), there are dolls created by special-effects master Stan Winston for "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." There's a replica of the deer topiary from "Edward Scissorhands" — the original, while it still exists, proved too fragile to move, He says —- using foliage from the same Ohio nursery that provided the original.
There are even untitled drawings that suggest Ronald Reagan and Joey Ramone.
But it's the unexpected pleasures of "Tim Burton" that stand out, He says, the drawings and other representations of creatures his fans have never seen. Her personal favorite, she says, is a small painting called "The Last of Its Kind." It shows a tiny creature, three circles and four spindly legs invoking "that misunderstood, outcast theme" Burton so often plays on.
"The feeling of persecution that this little creature has just jumps off the canvas," He says. "It's hard to resist."