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Alice in Chains: Tim Burton in La-La Land 

"I'm misperceived as a dark person: I'm not dark"

Saturday, Mar 6 2010
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Between the candy-colored, kid-friendly billboards sprinkled across urban areas and the hipster music blogs hyping soundtrack contributions from the Cure's Robert Smith, it's been hard to peg exactly whom Tim Burton's live-action/CGI hybrid Alice in Wonderland was actually made for. Even curiouser, in a recent story titled "Disney Invites 'Goths' to the Party," The Wall Street Journal trumpeted the studio's partnership with alterna-retailer Hot Topic as part of an effort to direct "its marketing firepower at young women and teenage girls, particularly those who gravitate to darkly romantic entertainment like the Twilight series."

Having tumbled down the rabbit hole of the Alice in Wonderland press junket and landed in a luxury hotel suite opposite Burton himself, I tell the 51-year-old filmmaker that I was surprised Disney would make a concerted effort to push his new film, a loose adaptation of the Lewis Carroll fairy tale, to teenage Goths — because hasn't he always made fairy tales for teenage Goths? Having naturally served the black-lipstick crowd for 25 years, was it really necessary for him to calibrate his new film to suit the tastes of the latest brand of moody youth with disposable cash?

Shielded by blue-tinted wraparound glasses topped with a graying, chaotic mop, Burton theatrically sinks his head into his hands before launching into a sputtering rant. "I wouldn't even know what that means. I saw part of Twilight on a plane. It's like — well, it's like Alice in Wonderland. It's, like, surreal. It's, like, WHATEVER! I focus on making the movie, and I leave the charts and the graphs and whatever to the ..." He pauses for effect, leans forward, curls his fingers into the rabbit ears of the heavy-scare quote. " 'Experts.' "

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There is usually something suspect about marketing to a willfully disenfranchised audience, but this sort of thing has long been part of Burton's brand. For two and a half decades, Burton has made his living defining and redefining so-called Goth aesthetics ... within 13 studio-funded movies that have collectively grossed well more than $1 billion. There's something of an old-school auteur quality to his career, with an important twist. If classical Hollywood directors like Vincente Minnelli and Douglas Sirk snuck subversive ideas into salable mainstream packages, Burton does the inverse: He brings "darkness" to the surface, and it stays there — ideologically, his films are inevitably traditional. "I'm misperceived as a dark person," Burton says. "I'm not dark."

Though discrete images resemble the original Wonderland illustrations by John Tenniel, the film that Burton's Alice most vividly calls to mind is Return to Oz, the 1985 Walter Murch effort that did away with the Technicolor song and dance of the 1939 Judy Garland classic and reclaimed the Gothic potential of Frank L. Baum's books. Murch's film catches up with Dorothy six months after her initial adventures. Scheduled for electroshock therapy (when Auntie Em hears Dorothy's tales of flying monkeys and walking, talking tin men, she naturally assumes her niece is nuts), our heroine flees and travels back to a land she's been to before, a now-bleak, decayed Oz, to save her old friends from new nemeses. The film was a legendary bomb, hurt immeasurably by reviews appraising it as "too scary for kids," but its somber vision of paradise lost has aged well — Disney's planning a DVD re-release this year.

In Burton's film, girl hero Alice (Mia Wasikowska) has aged into a young woman, on the verge of marrying a rich nerd. Plagued by visions and uncomfortable in Victorian high society, Alice flees her engagement party and travels back to a land she's been to before — a now-bleak, decayed Wonderland, called Underland (apparently, Alice's young ears misheard the first time). Like Murch's reimagining of Victor Fleming's classic, Burton's reimagining of this classic takes place in a once-wonderful fantasy land, sapped of magic and color by fascistic rule, a mentally "different" heroine the only hope. But it's hard to imagine Burton's film sparking a Return to Oz–style outcry for its disturbing content. Alice preaches the same, benign gospel of most of Burton's films, from Edward Scissorhands to Ed Wood: Nonconformity is good (although in practice it's mostly confined to fashion, as when Alice complains about wearing a corset), and ad hoc families are structured around varieties of rebellion rule. In a Burton film, whatever fantasyland he's visiting, conquering life's hardships is as simple as finding your tribe.

Given the trifecta of technical ingenuity, thematic conservatism and box-office bombast that most of his films have hit, it's surprising that Burton hasn't had more Academy recognition. His films are routinely nominated for technical Oscars, for their art direction, makeup and costumes, or Danny Elfman's scores. He's directed a single Oscar-winning performance (Martin Landau's Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood) and earned a single nomination of his own, as director of The Corpse Bride. He makes a broad show of how little the awards racket means to him.

"I watched so many movies as a kid — everything except for good ones." He jumps to his feet and gestures wildly at the window of the hotel suite, toward Hollywood Boulevard, where the red carpet leading to the permanent home of the Academy Awards is surrounded by columns bearing the names of each Best Picture winner since Wings took the first trophy in 1928. Walking between those columns, Burton says, "I realized, I never saw those movies. I never saw Academy Award–winning movies. I was fascinated, like, 'Oh, shit — those won?' "

Having turned the noble plight of the outcast into big business, Burton fancies himself an outsider for life — and thus the perfect person to speak for disaffected youths. " 'Nobody's gonna tell me what to do' — that's kind of how that crowd is. They're individuals. That's how I was, I felt like kind of an isolated, depressed loner."

Burton is legitimately still something of a loner, in that no one else has a career quite like his. A dozen years younger than David Lynch and half a decade Quentin Tarantino's senior, he doesn't really have any generational peers in American cinema; he's also one of the only auteurs to come to prominence in the late '80s/early '90s without having paid his dues in indie film. He's internationally revered as an artist — he'll top the jury at the Cannes Film Festival this May, and MoMA in New York recently launched a massive show dedicated to his paintings and cinematic imagery — and he earned that respect by making blockbuster movies designed to spawn toy lines and fast food–marketing tie-ins.

When I ask if he's ever contemplated doing a film outside the studio system, Burton cackles. "I have a lot of friends who do indie movies, and the thing you quickly realize is, either way you go, you got a problem. You gotta get your money from somewhere, whether it's an evil corporation, some studio or some crazy fucking businessman."

For Burton, the "evil corporation" is clearly the lesser of the two evils. And anyway, as Burton would say, whatever — it's not like it's his intention to Goth up otherwise wholesome brands. The way he sees it, Alice in Wonderland was Goth enough before he got to it. "Actually, I'm always surprised when you look at most great children's literature — it's fucking weird. They think I'm dark? You got a smoking caterpillar, you got all sorts of shit going on, and it's, like, I'm dark? What do you think I wanted to do this for?

"Now, if I said to Disney, 'Okay, listen, we're gonna focus on the mercury poisoning of the Mad Hatter' ... I mean, it's a Disney movie. Whatever. I get it. I'm an adult."

The filmmaker may have an inimitable style, but he's never not willing to put it to the service of a larger brand. Whoever Alice might have been made for, Tim Burton, unusual among aging auteurs, never makes a movie just to please himself.

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