'Batman's' Tim Burton loves life's ambiguities

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Though hardly an underground filmmaker, Tim Burton has a style that could well be described as subterranean -- and not just because he makes movies in the Batcave. Mr. Burton might be the world's most successful practitioner of a new form of filmmaking: latent cinema.

Although on the surface, at the level of narrative, Mr. Burton's movies are often vague and amorphous, underneath they're stuffed with all sorts of intriguing themes, patterns, metaphors, associations.

The Burbank, Calif.-born director of "Pee-wee's Big Adventure," "Beetlejuice," "Edward Scissorhands" and two "Batman" films is the first to agree with the consensus that he doesn't know how to tell a story.

And while he hasn't quite found a way to fuse his stories and subtexts so that they enhance each other, what Mr. Burton likes best about making movies are all those weird little underlying connections between his characters and ideas.

"I know it drives people crazy, but I can't help it," he said with a laugh. "Besides, everything is just too categorized these days. People try to fit everything into these structures.

"I'm all for opening it up -- for filmmakers, for studios, for people, for critics. I'd just like to see a bunch of different kinds of movies -- some with stories, some without. I know which ones I'll do."

Along with his resonant characters and fantastical visuals, the density of the subtexts in Mr. Burton's movies has probably contributed to their popularity. His films always have made money. They stand up to repeated viewings because you find new things in them each time.

"Whether people 'get it' or not, we certainly think a lot about the stuff that goes into them," Mr. Burton said. "I mean, my movies look stupid, they look ridiculous, they seem to be semi-incoherent in terms of plot. And some people stop right there.

"But you don't want to get weighed down by that and that alone. And that's why there's a slight rambling quality to them that life has, too. I don't know. I certainly think about layers and textures and enjoy that -- for anybody who wants to see it.

"I'm completely blown away if anybody likes anything [that I do]. But after [the success of] 'Beetlejuice,' I said to myself, 'You know, people don't necessarily need this traditional Hollywood structure to go along with something.' "

Mr. Burton, 31, said he resisted the idea of doing a second "Batman" movie for years, until "One morning, I woke up and something interested me. I didn't care if it was a sequel or what it was."

And what interested him most, he said, were the half-human, half-animal characters: Batman (again played by Michael Keaton) and his nemeses, The Penguin (Danny DeVito) and Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer).

"That's what I liked about this one, the animal people. 'Cause I've been getting into the theory of how we're all animals in a way. I'm sort of fascinated by the root of that. People forget that we are animals and we are on this planet . . . and we're weird.

"On one side we're human and we think we're intelligent. On the other side, we've got these animal impulses. And the point is not that we should succumb to our animal impulses but that maybe understanding them would help us understand racism, understand sexism, understand territorialism, understand why we're so weird.

"In 'Batman,' the characters and the villains are all symbols for something. You know, duality with Batman and The Joker. The animal thing with Batman, Penguin and Catwoman. I think that's why I love and got into these characters -- not so much because I love comics, but because I feel a sort of connection with this sort of material."

In 1989's "Batman" and again in "Batman Returns," the $l characters are psychologically fractured, struggling to understand and integrate the different facets of their identities. And Mr. Burton sees a correlation between their dilemmas and the process that everybody goes through in finding who they are.

"There's a kind of push and pull with these characters," Mr. Burton said. "They're kind of like: 'Do I want to do this or do I want to do that? Am I this or am I that?' That's the way I always feel, and that's why I like those characters."

The protagonists of Mr. Burton's movies have all been "weird" or fringe characters, out of step with the mainstream. And that's precisely why Mr. Burton and his audiences identify with them.

"I've been categorized my whole life, and I can't stand that," Mr. Burton said.

"Racism and sexism are the most intense forms of that kind of behavior, obviously, but it goes beyond that. It filters down to 'You're weird.' Or 'You're good at sports. You're not good at sports. You're smart. You're not smart. . . .'

"I remember in school, there were kids who were looked on as the weird, retarded kids. And they were the most intelligent kids in the school. How much of that goes on in life? A lot."

Mr. Burton said he is discovering various patterns and associations buried in "Batman Returns."

Mention the striking parallels between, say, The Penguin and Richard Nixon -- a slope-nosed politician with a non-photogenic face who employs a team of expert "image handlers," keeps a secret "enemies list" and mounts a "dirty tricks" campaign against his opponent -- and Mr. Burton chuckles with delight.

"I think that's what I like about [the world of] Batman. It's heightened, and it's modern," Mr. Burton said. "It's of the time. It's even more of the time than I realize sometimes. I don't see some of the connections until after the fact."

And in some ways, "Batman Returns" proved to be ahead of its time. A scene with carnival characters looting downtown Gotham ("Burn, baby, burn!" The Penguin screams) and the city politicians' demagogic responses in the aftermath are eerily like what happened during the Los Angeles riots, although the movie was filmed months earlier.

"The Penguin has an off-the-cuff line: 'This is a time of healing,' " Burton said. "It's so weird. That was chilling."

People often comment on the "darkness" in Mr. Burton's movies, particularly the "Batman" films. But Mr. Burton, whose Warner Hollywood Studios office is cluttered with grotesque little props from his ghoulishly funny pictures, said he doesn't dwell on it much.

"I just take it for granted," he said. "I mean, this is 'Batman.' Where is it supposed to be set? Hawaii?

"Look at American culture and the way they treat death," he said, glancing at the copy of the "Handbook for the Recently Deceased" from "Beetlejuice" beneath the glass of his coffee table.

"It's so rigid and spooky. And that's why I love the [Mexican] Day of the Dead stuff that I have at home. You see other cultures that embrace it and have humor and sadness and everything. There's no way to understand it, so they kind of explore it in ways that are wonderful.

"It's metaphors, it's folk tales, it's myths, it's fairy tales -- it's all of those kinds of things that help you understand or at least integrate the abstracts of life."

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