Provoc-Auteur: Lars von Trier

19 April 2014

Lars von Trier

He has won the top prizes at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival and has been kicked out of the Cannes Film Festival. He once described himself as ‘a simple masturbator of the silver screen’ and he later developed an avant-garde filmmaking manifesto with a set of rules that were referred to as a Vow of Chastity. He is the Danish writer and director Lars von Trier and his latest film is the glorious and unwieldy epic Nymph()maniac.

Lars Trier grew up in Copenhagen making short films on a Super 8 camera. His parents were communists, nudists and did not believe in setting boundaries for their children. By the time Trier enrolled in the National Film School of Denmark he had developed a love of cinema and a desire to break its conventions and rules. While at film school he adopted the aristocratic ‘von’ into his name, just as Erich von Stroheim and Josef von Sternberg had once done.

After achieving considerable success with the films he made at film school, von Trier achieved international recognition with Europa, which was released in 1991 as the third part of his Europe trilogy after The Element of Crime (1984) and Epidemic (1987). All three films are visually striking and dreamlike works that distort generic conventions and display von Trier’s experimental approach to storytelling and film style.

After the success of Europa, von Trier co-founded his own production company Zentropa Entertainment and made two seasons of The Kingdom (1994 and 1997). Shot in atmospheric sepia hues; the hospital-set series blended soap opera with supernatural horror as if Twin Peaks were crossed with General Hospital.

In 1995 von Trier founded the Dogme 95 Manifesto with Thomas Vinterberg (A Celebration, 1998). Dogme 95 stripped down cinema to its raw components to remove the intrusion of technology and special effects. Some of the rules included only shooting on location, only using handheld cameras and only using sound recorded on location.

Von Trier adopted Dogme 95 techniques and its overall grainy and handheld look for all the films in his Golden Heart Trilogy, but only the middle film, The Idiots (1998), was completely compliant. Following a group of social agitators who challenge the status quo by acting like they are developmentally challenged, The Idiots is one of von Trier’s most difficult and controversial works.

The first film in the Golden Heart Trilogy was Breaking the Waves (1996). Starring Emily Watson as a woman whose religious faith makes her believe that being sexually used by other men will help restore her injured husband, it is the beginning of von Trier’s exploration of suffering women. In the third Golden Heart Trilogy film, the musical Dancer in the Dark (2000), Björk plays a factory worker who makes extreme personal sacrifices to ensure her son gets an operation to halt the onset of a hereditary blindness condition. Both film are emotionally devastating and essential viewing.

Von Trier next intended to make the USA – Land of Opportunities Trilogy, but to date only two films have eventuated: Dogville (2003) starring Nicole Kidman and Manderlay (2005) with Bryce Dallas Howard replacing Kidman as the reoccurring character between the films. Shot on large stages with the majority of the setting being represented by painted lines and labels, both films are inspired by the theatrical productions by Bertolt Brecht where the artifice of the drama is made explicit. Also in the spirit of Brecht, both films are highly critical of aspects of dominant culture. Dogville explores issues of class in America while Manderlay examines race. And of course, the female protagonist goes through terrible ordeals.

In 2003 von Trier also made the fascinating documentary/experimental film The Five Obstructions where he challenged filmmaker Jørgen Leth to repeatedly remake his 1967 short film The Perfect Human. Von Trier has since announced he would do something similar with Martin Scorsese. However, the film that most surprised audiences was 2006’s The Boss of It All, an office-based comedy that demonstrated that von Trier is not serious all the time.

Von Trier’s most recent films form the Depression Trilogy. Starring Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe, 2009’s Antichrist is von Trier’s most visceral film with unforgettable imagery depicting the cruelty of the natural world where the psychological violence suffered by grieving parents spills over into physical violence. The depression that overwhelms Kirsten Dunst’s character in Melancholia (2011) similarly manifests in the real world in the guise of a rouge planet on a collision course with Earth.

Finally, there is Nymph()maniac where a beaten and bloody woman played by Charlotte Gainsbourg describes a series of sexual misadventures that lead to a point where she is punished for her presumed sins. It continues the themes and overt use of symbolism from Antichrist and Melancholia, but it is also bursting with the humour of The Kingdom and The Boss of it All, the high-levels of self-awareness displayed in Dogville and Manderlay, and the pathos of Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark. It is bewildering, confrontational, inventive and constantly unpredictable – much like von Trier and his extraordinary career of pushing buttons and boundaries.

Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 455, 2014

Thomas Caldwell, 2014

Tim Burton: The Exhibition

29 September 2010

Into the Weird and Wonderful Mind of Cinema’s Most Popular Outsider

Tim Burton at Tim Burton: The Exhibition

Tim Burton at Tim Burton: The Exhibition

There are three defining aspects about the entrance to Tim Burton: The Exhibition that express the core ideas about the world of filmmaker Tim Burton. Running from 24 June to 10 October 2010 at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), the Burton exhibition begins with you entering through a giant cartoonish monster mouth to go down into ACMI’s appropriately dark screen gallery. The big mouth is more comical than menacing, reflecting Burton’s love of both absurdity and horror. Violence in Burton’s films is often the punch line to a joke but always in a way that reflects the darkly humorous tone of classic fairy tales rather than any sort of post-modern ironic violence.

The next element you encounter as you walk into the Burton exhibition is a projection of a giant spiral with weird animated characters swimming through it. Not only is the animation something that could have come straight out of a cheesy-hypnosis scene from one of Burton’s beloved B-grade films of the 1950s and 60s, but it presents us with the idea that we are going into the vortex that is Burton’s subconscious and that is the subconscious of an adult man who still has a childlike view of the world.

Mars Attacks! artwork from Tim Burton: The Exhibition

Mars Attacks! artwork from Tim Burton: The Exhibition

Inside the actual exhibition you get a further indication of Burton’s dark and playful comedic style where several drawings indicate his lifelong obsession with the macabre and his morbid sense of humour. The clip playing from Mars Attacks! (1996) of the white dove of peace getting zapped by the aliens and the clip from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) where the animatronics attraction (which is clearly a parody of the famous Disney “It’s a Small World” ride) bursts into flames, are classic Burton. Both are wickedly funny scenes but both are also moments where something innocent goes horribly wrong. The Burton childlike view of the world is not all delights and adventure but something sinister too.

Another key element to the entry of the exhibition is the publicly displayed Batmobile from Burton’s Batman films. As one of the first things that visitors to the exhibition will see, the Batmobile reminds us that despite having pursued his very personal artistic vision throughout his career, Tim Burton is a bankable director and Hollywood success story. His films have broad appeal across mainstream audiences and the various subcultures that have adopted him. Burton’s playfulness, love of retro pop-culture, Gothic sensibilities and reoccurring themes of the outsider, problematic parental figures and concealed identity have resonated widely, making Burton one of the most popular and accessible of the auteur directors.

Screen EducationThis is an excerpt from an article printed in issue 59 (Spring 2010) of Screen Education. The full article contains a closer look at the entire exhibition and the reoccurring themes in Burton’s films.

Read Cinema Autopsy’s profile of director Tim Burton

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Appraising Polanski

9 September 2010

Reflecting on the career of filmmaker Roman Polanski

Roman Polanski

Roman Polanski

Few filmmakers have actually lived lives of controversy and drama that threaten to eclipse what they have depicted on screen, as has Roman Polanski. The infamous filmmaker has experienced incredible extremes of success and tragedy in his life. He has made several highly acclaimed films including the art-house psychosexual thriller Repulsion with Catherine Deneuve in 1965, horror classic Rosemary’s Baby with Mia Farrow in 1968 and the revisionist neo-noir Chinatown with Jack Nicholson in 1974. However, Jewish/Polish Roman Polanski spent part of his childhood in the Krakow Ghetto, he lost his mother to a concentration camp during the Holocaust and in 1969 his pregnant wife Sharon Tate was murdered by the Charles Manson Family.

Then there is the statutory rape charge that prompted Polanski to flee to France from the United States in 1978 in order to avoid imprisonment. The charge was in fact the result of plea-bargaining from original charges laid by a grand jury that included rape by use of drugs. Polanski’s victim was 13-year-old Samantha Gailey. Just like the fictional British Prime Minister character in Polanski’s latest film The Ghost Writer who can’t enter the UK where charges of war crimes await him, Polanski cannot enter the USA as he will be arrested for those outstanding abuse charges.

Polanski was creative from a very early age, stating in his 1984 autobiography Roman by Polanski, ‘Art and poetry, the land of imagination, always seemed more real to me, as a boy growing up in Communist Poland, than the narrow confines of my environment.’ He began his career in Polish cinema as a child actor and after World War II when went to film school, he continued his pre-war job as an actor. Even to this day Polanski stills acts not just in his own films but for other directors.

His first feature film as a director was Knife in the Water (1962), a tense Polish psychological thriller about a young married couple who invite a hitchhiker to go sailing with them for the day. As they set out, the attractive hitchhiker becomes increasingly forward with the wife, creating a very tense and uncomfortable situation. Knife in the Water introduced Polanski’s favourite theme of sexual anxiety where characters are tormented by the threat of infidelity and the violence that can result from sexual jealousy.

Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion (1965)

Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion (1965)

Polanski’s next feature film was 1965’s Repulsion, an English language film made in Britain with Catherine Deneuve in the lead role as Carol, a sexually repressed woman whose childhood fear of intimacy, sex and men causes her to have intense nightmarish hallucinations. Repulsion is a film of striking imagery used to convey Carol’s anxieties as she locks herself away in her small apartment. As she increasingly loses her grip on reality giant cracks start appearing in the walls, the apartment seems to grow larger and eventually actually arms grow out of the wall to grope her. It is an alarming film that combines a strong art-house aesthetic and intellectual curiosity in psychoanalysis with borderline exploitive subject matter.

Repulsion is not only a masterpiece of psychoanalytic cinema but it truly announced the arrival of Deneuve as an international star. While she had already charmed cinema-goers in The Umbrella’s of Cherbourg (1964), it was Repulsion and then Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour (1967) that defined her icy, mysterious and remote-beauty persona.

Remaining in Britain Polanski next made Cul-de-Sac (1966), featuring Donald Pleasence, which continued his previous themes of sexual anxieties becoming accentuated by tense situations and confined spaces. Cul-de-Sac also revealed Polanski’s sense of humour at the absurdity of the human condition, especially with Pleasence’s completely neurotic performance. Polanski’s sense of humour was also apparent in his Hammer Horror inspired 1967 film The Fearless Vampire Killers (originally titled Dance of the Vampires) although the film was significantly recut for its American release to make it more farcical than Polanski had intended.

Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby (1968)

Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby (1968)

Polanski’s arrival in Hollywood owed a lot to the infamous producer/playboy, and at the time studio executive, Robert Evans. The New Hollywood era of filmmaking was at its height and Evans saw the potential to merge Polanski’s European sensibility with genre cinema. The result was the horror classic Rosemary’s Baby, which similar to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) brings together the horror elements of its source novel with the director’s own psychological preoccupations. As Polanski explains in his autobiography he wanted Rosemary’s Baby to have a loophole: ‘the possibility that Rosemary’s supernatural experiences were figments of her imagination.’

After Sharon Tate’s murder Polanski fell into a deep depression and didn’t release another film until The Tragedy of Macbeth in 1971; at the time the most graphically violent cinematic adaptation of a Shakespeare play. The famous New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael viewed its copious amounts of flowing blood as Polanski expressing his horror and anger at his wife’s murder. However, Polanski always denied this, writing: ‘Most American critics assumed that I’d used the film for some cathartic purpose. In fact, I’d chosen to make Macbeth because I thought that Shakespeare, at least, would preserve my motives from suspicion. After the Manson murders, it was clear that whatever kind of film I’d come out with next would have been treated in the same way. If I’d made a comedy, the charge would have been one of callousness.’

Jack Nicholson in Chinatown (1974)

Jack Nicholson in Chinatown (1974)

Polanski’s next film was the largely unseen absurdist comedy What? featuring Marcello Mastroianni and set in Italy. When he returned to Hollywood Polanski made Chinatown, the film that after Rosemary’s Baby he is best known for and after Repulsion is the film generally considered his greatest masterpiece. Starring Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and John Huston, Chinatown beautifully recreates the look and feel of the classic film noirs of the 1930s and 1940s. Nicholson plays a private investigator who gets involved in a power struggle over water rights. Being a film noir he also gets involved with a mysterious woman (Dunaway) and being a Polanski film she has a traumatic past of a sexual nature.

Polanski’s final film before he abused Gailey and then fled America was the French production The Tenant, which has been loosely described as the final part of his ‘Apartment Trilogy’ following on from Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby. This time, however, Polanski cast himself in the role of the neurotic and paranoid character who becomes increasingly unhinged over his obsession about his apartment’s former tenant – a young woman who attempted suicide.

During his self-imposed exile Polanski’s career has been less consistent. Tess (1979), his adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles starring Nastassja Kinski, was generally well received while his 2005 adaptation of Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist went by relatively unnoticed. His adventure film Pirates was a major career low but he wowed audiences with his 1994 adaptation of the play Death and the Maiden, a powerful study of justice, revenge and truth starring Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley.

Polanski returned to his favourite theme of sexual obsession with Bitter Moon (1992), starring Emmanuelle Seigner, the French former fashion model whom Polanski married in 1989. Prior to Bitter Moon Polanski gave Seigner her first notable acting role in Frantic (1988), opposite Harrison Ford. One of Polanski’s more straightforward generic thrillers Frantic is an extremely entertaining film about an American man whose wife goes missing while in Paris. Polanski would return to conventional genre films with the less-effective 1999 occult mystery-thriller The Ninth Gate (with Seigner appearing opposite Johnny Depp) and now with The Ghost Writer.

Adrian Brody in The Pianist (2002)

Adrian Brody in The Pianist (2002)

It was 2002 that Polanski made The Pianist, his most significant film since Chinatown. It was his first and so far only attempt to directly respond to the horrors of the Holocaust, which he experienced first hand as a child. The Pianist won multiple awards including the Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or and Academy Awards for Polanski’s direction and Adrian Brody’s lead performance. What separates The Pianist from other Holocaust films is its focus on the everyday aspects of what Brody’s character does to simply survive. The camera views events from his perspective so that the audience witnesses what is happening often at a distance as if crouched below a window and peering out onto the street.

Polanski has been in and out of the news again over the past 12 months after his arrest last year in Switzerland, a country that unlike France was prepared to put Polanski under house arrest and extradite him back to the US for trial. The French authorship rights agency Société des Auteurs et Compositeurs Dramatiques (Society of Dramatic Authors and Composers) created a petition for his release on the ground that he is a ‘renowned and international artist’ and that extradition ‘will be heavy in consequences and will take away his freedom’. A number of highly acclaimed filmmakers signed the petition including Woody Allen, Pedro Almodovar, Wes Anderson, Darren Aronofsky, Jonathan Demme, Wong Kar Waï, Emir Kusturica, David Lynch, Michael Mann, Alexander Payne, Martin Scorsese, Tilda Swinton and Wim Wenders.

In 12 July this year the Swiss authorities did release Polanski but on the basis on new doubts regarding prosecutorial and judicial misconduct during the original trial. The 2008 documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired certainly alleges that a heavily biased judge had too big an influenced on the original case and that is what compelled Polanski to flee in the first place.

Roman PolanskiThere is little doubt of Polanski’s significance as a filmmaker but the very ugly reality of what Polanski did to a 13-year-old girl continues to hang heavily over his career, regardless of legal technicalities. It is theoretically possible to appreciate his films in their own right but not always so easy to do so in practice. Samantha Gailey did not deserve what happened to her and Polanski’s considerable achievements as a filmmaker will never change that.

An edited version of this article originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 361, 2010

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Through Tim’s Looking Glass

14 March 2010

The life, times and twisted tales of  Tim Burton, director of Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood and Alice in Wonderland.

Tim Burton on the set of Corpse Bride (2005)

Tim Burton is a lucky man. While most other film directors have to choose between pursuing their personal vision or conforming to the commercial demands of Hollywood’s studio system, Burton has been able to do both. His dark, gothic fairytales – filled with freaks, outsiders and loners – are not the types of films that typically result in box office gold…and yet, somehow, they nearly always do.

Burton has always operated within the mainstream studio system, but has enjoyed an almost unheard-of freedom to pursue his strange, psychologically twisted stories of characters living on the fringe of society. A large proportion of Burton’s fan base certainly see something of themselves in the boy with scissors for hands, the traumatised masked avenger, the cross-dressing Z-grade filmmaker and, now, a 19-year-old girl named Alice who is at a crossroads in her life and doesn’t feel like she fits into society.

Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, derived from stories and characters in Lewis Carroll’s 19th-century novels Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, promises to deliver exactly what Burton fans have come to expect from the iconoclastic filmmaker. Burton’s favourite music score composer, Danny Elfman, is on board, regular Burton actors Johnny Depp (as the Mad Hatter) and Helena Bonham Carter (as The Red Queen) are present, and the film’s lavish production design and hallucinatory special effects are all set to marvellously create the surreal world that Alice finds down the rabbit-hole.

After the dark and violent Sweeney Todd (2007), Alice in Wonderland is a return to the more family-friendly mode of filmmaking that Burton has previously favoured with films such as Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005). As well as Depp and Bonham Carter (to whom Burton is now married), Alice in Wonderland also features actors Anne Hathaway, Stephen Fry, Little Britain’s Matt Lucas, Alan Rickman, and horror film legends Christopher Lee and Michael Gough.

Tim Burton directing Mia Wasikowska on the set of Alice in Wonderland (2010)

In the lead role of Alice is an Australian actor, Mia Wasikowska, whom Burton describes as having the quiet strength and old-soul quality that is necessary for his interpretation of Alice. As a young woman at an age of immense emotional turbulence, and in a time when the pressure to get married would have been very strong, a curious and adventurous girl like Alice would have felt detached from the world she lived in. Such qualities make her the perfect Burton protagonist.

Now 51, Burton grew up a bit of an outsider himself. The suburban landscape of Burbank, California, which he later parodied in Edward Scissorhands (1990), may have had the same stifling effect on Burton that Victorian society did on Alice. As a child, Burton was an introvert who sought refuge in darkened cinemas, watching horror and monster movie triple bills. Through these films, the young Burton identified not with the heroes or victims but, rather, the monsters whom he regarded as misunderstood.

Burton’s obsession with misunderstood monsters and outsiders will be on full display for Australian fans at the Tim Burton exhibition, which opens in June at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne. Coming direct from The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the exhibition will include a collection of artworks and objects from Burton’s films, a full retrospective screening and public lectures by the man himself. Many of Burton’s drawings, paintings and puppets will be on display – going all the way back to the start of his career, working as an animator at Disney in 1979.

"Untitled" (Creature Series), Acrylic on canvas by Tim Burton, 1992

At Disney, Burton made a film that was dedicated to his childhood hero, the classic horror actor Vincent Price. Vincent was a short black-and-white stop-motion animation about a young boy who copes with his banal life by imagining he is Price, living a tormented life inspired by the writings of Edgar Allan Poe. Clearly a deeply personal work for Burton, the film was made more special when Price agreed to narrate it. Price and Burton became extremely close friends, with Price’s role as the Inventor in Burton’s Edward Scissorhands being the horror maestro’s last on-screen appearance (Price died in 1993).

At the age of 26, Burton was already known in the film industry as a unique and innovative voice. When Warner Bros. decided to make a feature film for Paul Reubens’ popular Pee-wee Herman character, from the television series Pee-wee’s Playhouse, they approached Burton. The childlike Pee-wee character and the surreal world he lived in was a natural fit for Burton’s feature film debut, which gave the world a taste of what was to come.

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was the beginning of Burton’s long-term collaboration with film score composer Danny Elfman. While Elfman has many other credits to his name, including creating the theme music for The Simpsons, it is his work with Burton for which he is best known. Elfman has scored all but two of Burton’s films. and his use of lush orchestrations and choir vocals captures the combination of playfulness and dark undertones that visually and thematically define Burton’s work.

Burton’s follow-up film, Beetlejuice (1988), starred Michael Keaton as a malevolent bio-exorcist whom a recently deceased couple call upon to rid their home of the yuppie family that has just moved in. Beetlejuice established Burton’s dark comedic sensibility and love of fantasy. His warped vision of the afterlife and its macabre inhabitants were created through an inventive use of production design, special effects, prosthetics and stop-motion animation.

"Untitled" (Trick or Treat), Pen and ink, marker, and collage elements on board by Tim Burton, 1980

While some of Burton’s trademark visual flairs do appear in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, they are on display in force in Beetlejuice, especially his uses of striped patterns, weirdly angled frames, and coiled and twisted features of the natural world. Taking the dark, shadowed, oppressive aesthetic of German Expressionism and combining it with the anarchic dream-logic of Surrealism, Burton’s films are distinctively sinister and playful in their design.

Although Burton’s career had so far been successful, it was his treatment of Batman that really blew him into the stratosphere of Hollywood royalty. Long before Christopher Nolan rebooted the Batman saga with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, Burton gave birth to the modern superhero film with Batman (1989) and then its superior sequel, Batman Returns (1992). With Keaton starring as the tormented Batman and Jack Nicholson as the Joker in the first film, and then Danny DeVito as the Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman in the second, Burton’s Batman films returned mainstream credibility to superhero narratives.

While many credit Nolan’s Batman films for returning the character to his dark origins, Burton’s films were, at the time, seen to be doing the same, taking their inspiration from recent highly acclaimed comics by Alan Moore (Watchmen) and Frank Miller (300). While keen to distance itself from the camp 1960s television series, Burton’s Batman films nevertheless combined macabre black humour with larger-than-life villains. His films also contained deep psychological insight into the fractured identities of its leading characters, and the way they reflected different aspects of Burton’s beloved loner personality.

Johnny Depp in Edward Scissorhands (1990)

In between Batman and Batman Returns Burton made the first of his two masterpieces: Edward Scissorhands. It also remains Burton’s most personal film, in which one of the misunderstood ‘monsters’ from his beloved old horror movies has to face the prejudices and banality of suburbia. Edward is a modern-day Frankenstein’s monster, whose inventor died before replacing the giant scissors at the ends of his arms with real hands. Burton cast Depp to play the lead role, starting their long director–actor relationship. Edward Scissorhands is a near-perfect film with its blend of romance, horror, comedy and satire; its extraordinary production design; Elfman’s glorious score and Depp channelling Burton’s childlike outsider persona.

After Batman Returns, Burton resurrected an old project that he began while at Disney: the stop-motion musical fantasy The Nightmare Before Christmas. While being conceived by Burton and bearing his distinctive visual stamp, Burton ended up handing the film over to Coraline director Henry Selick, who brought to fruition the story of Jack Skellington, the king of Halloween Town, who is sick of scaring people and becomes obsessed with Christmas.

Burton’s next project saw him reunited once more with Depp to make his second masterpiece: the biopic Ed Wood (1994), about filmmaker Edward D Wood Jr, who is widely regarded to be the worst filmmaker of all time. During the 1950s Wood made notorious clunkers such as the cross-dressing exploitation film Glen or Glenda (Wood himself cross-dressed), and the sci-fi horror film Plan 9 from Outer Space.

Johnny Depp and Martin Landau in Ed Wood (1994)

Instead of ridiculing Wood, Burton’s Ed Wood is an affectionate and respectful film about a director whose vision and enthusiasm would not be dampened by any obstacles (including a significant lack of talent). Burton possibly saw a bit of himself in Wood as they shared a similar taste in movies, and both befriended a famous horror actor and gave them their last onscreen appearances (Burton with Price; Wood with the legendary Dracula actor Béla Lugosi). They were also both attracted to society’s fringe dwellers. Maybe Burton felt lucky that, unlike Wood, he was able to creatively refine and channel his visions into products that were embraced instead of reviled.

After Ed Wood, Burton’s films temporarily lost some of their edge, and for the late 1990s and early 2000s his films didn’t quite reach the same heights as his earlier work. His all-star 1996 flying saucer spoof, Mars Attacks, was a fun homage to the types of paranoid 1950s Red Menace films that Wood would have loved, but it was a one-joke film (though admittedly a very funny joke). Burton followed up with Sleepy Hollow (1999), a dark and violent retelling of Washington Irving’s Headless Horseman story with several nods to the classic British Hammer Horror films. In 2001, Burton made a ‘reimagining’ of the 1968 film Planet of the Apes and, despite being visually impressive (to be expected with any Burton film,) it was easily Burton’s weakest.

Helena Bonham Carter with Tim Burton on the set of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

In 2003, and following the death of his parents, Burton directed Big Fish. Often-overlooked, it is one of Burton’s most emotionally rewarding films, dealing with the power of storytelling with a strong father–son reconciliation theme. After taking on an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s beloved novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), Burton returned to the familiar terrain of stop-motion animated gothic fairytales with Corpse Bride (2005). This was followed in 2007 with an adaptation of the violent melodrama Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street from Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s 1979 musical. A Danny Elfman score was absent, due to the presence of Sondheim’s original music, but Sweeney Todd was still classic Burton with its combination of black humour, stylised violence and quirky fantasy sequences.

Now, in 2010, Burton shows no signs of slowing down. Alice in Wonderland has fans worldwide in frenzied anticipation, and the feature-length version of his 1984 short film, Frankenweenie, is in development for a potential 2011 release. Not bad for an introverted kid who dared to dream of a world where the loners and freaks who hid in the shadows were the heroes. The world of Tim Burton just keeps getting curiouser and curiouser.

The Tim Burton exhibition is at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne from 24 June until 10 October 2010. Alice in Wonderland was released 4 March 2010.

Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 349, 2010

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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5 reasons why Cinema Autopsy loves Clint Eastwood

4 February 2009

With two new films playing in Australian cinemas it seems only right that Cinema Autopsy should dedicate an entire post to the iconic actor and great filmmaker that is Clint Eastwood.


1. He is The Man With No Name

The Italian director Sergio Leone, famous for his “Spaghetti Westerns”, made six truly great films and three of those stared Eastwood as The Man With No Name character. The first of these was A Fistful of Dollars (1964), a western remake of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai classic Yojimbo (1961). A Fistful of Dollars established Eastwood’s steely gaze, witty one-liners and capacity to burst into action at any moment. His seductive, unpredictable capacity for sudden violence means that you can’t take your eyes off him. Eastwood dominates the screen and continued to do so in For a Few Dollars More (1965) and then The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), the film that leaves no doubt about the greatness of Eastwood and director Sergio Leone.

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Focus On: Jim Jarmusch

10 November 2005

Jim Jarmusch is one of America’s few independent directors who has never yielded to the temptations of Hollywood, despite working with some of the world’s greatest actors. His frequent use of black and white photography, dry humour and interest in marginal characters have made Jarmusch the epitome of cool. With his new film Broken Flowers (starring Bill Murray) due to be released late this year it is timely that his previous films have now been made available on DVD.

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The Master of Consensual Manipulation

25 July 2003

Contribution to The Question Spielberg: A Symposium

The films of Steven Spielberg are often derided for their populist appeal. However this quick judgement is often made without an attempt to examine why Spielberg has maintained such a high level of box office success over the past three decades. Prominent in Spielberg’s filmic style is his mastery of techniques of cinematic manipulation, techniques that paradoxically have made his work both commercially successful and critically undervalued. Yet Spielberg’s trademark use of swelling music, emotive dialogue and intimate close-ups, and his thematic concern with family trauma, innocent children in a hostile world, and the child who never grew up, contribute to a powerfully engaging and satisfying filmic experience.

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