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Do We Give Too Much Kudos to Established Directors?

There was (as ever) a rather interesting piece in the Guardian a few weeks back which suggested – what with Alice in Wonderland and Shutter Island coming out within weeks of each other and dominating film discussion in March – perhaps we tend to focus too much on established directors like Burton and Scorsese.

Because it’s one thing for a studio to take a project and market it with such frenzied hyperbole that for a week or two seeing it becomes all but obligatory for anyone wanting to remain a la mode. It’s quite another for film-goers to convince ourselves we need to see that same project through an increasingly forlorn belief in its director as a still-vital and relevant force. Whatever the implications of Burton’s Alice may be for exhibitors and all that newly-installed 3D technology, the nuts-and-bolts issue here is surely the length of time any once-great film-maker is given in the cinephile heart purely on the basis of dusty triumphs a decade or more in the past.

I thought it only fair to wait until I had seen bother of those big films to comment. Being entirely honest, I don’t think it’s entirely reasonable to lump Burton and Scorsese together as some sort joint proof of that assertion. In fact, I’d argue the two are very different sides to the same coin.

Is Burton picking his own creative bones dry?

The implication is that the popularity of these two iconic film directors is unfairly dominating the multiplexes and monopolising pop culture consciousness:

Two extravagantly gifted film-makers whose gothic whimsy (Burton) and grand set pieces (Scorsese) have become brands for hire, both men seem to have made almost identical Faustian pacts with the mainstream by submerging their talents in a string of adaptations and remakes at once overblown and oddly empty, packed with ho-hum spectacle but not much else. So as we take our place in the cinema queue in the weeks ahead, we’re left with a choice of two variations of the same basic flavour. Either way what we’re paying to see is a ghost story – the promise of a spectral glimpse of the directors who so wowed us way back when.

I think the writer certainly has a case when it comes to Tim Burton. Alice in Wonderland is a film that can be described as ‘Burton-esque’. Yes, I just made up a word, but the fact that you know exactly what I mean is perhaps the best indication that Burton hasn’t really ventured too far outside his comfort zone since Mars Attacks a decade-and-a-half ago. Watching Alice in Wonderland, it was hard to see any hint of Lewis Carroll making it to screen, amidst the clear influence of swords-and-sorcery fantasy epics on Alice’s “the chosen one” narrative and the incredibly gothic and distorted perspective which could only ever really be Burton’s.

I love Burton. I adored Sweeney Todd. I even have a soft spot for The Legend of Sleepy Hallow. However, there’s no way to deny that the director hasn’t ventured outside his comfort zone in quite sometime. And, with rumours suggesting his next project may be either a revisionist version of Sleeping Beauty or a ‘historical’ biopic of Abraham Lincoln’s oft-ignored time as a vampire-slayer or a relaunch of The Addams Family, I don’t think he’ll be leaving it anytime soon.

Which is a shame, because he does have range. One can detect his hand at work in Ed Wood or Batman or Beetlejuice or Edward Scissorhands or even Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, but they all seem more distinct and unique in tone and style than most of his later work. Instead, with his two loveletters to Ed Wood in the mid-nineties serving as a handy bisecting line, most his modern work has been decidedly “samey”. I hope I’m not alone in my dream that Tim Burton might one day make a movie that would be completely unexpected. It’s common for film analysts to point to Batman and Batman Returns as films that Burton was clearly uncomfortable making, but I lvoed them because of that. Because they are very different from anything else in his filmography.

It would be great to see, for example, Burton direct an actual Abraham Lincoln biopic or a romantic comedy in his own way. Okay, I’m not assuming they’d be great by default, but that I’d anticipate them more and they’d probably seem more vital and energetic than his current string of movies. Which is odd, because Burton is drawing from a huge variety of sources – Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd and so forth – but he pitches them all as part of the same subgenre. The subgenre of Burton.

Score one for Scorsese?

On the other hand, I consider Scorsese’s Shutter Island an all the more risky proposition. I imagine that more people hate Shutter Island than Alice in Wonderland, and I can understand why. Anybody seeing “A Tim Burton Film” at the start of the credits wouldn’t be surprised by Burton’s take on the classic story. On the other hand, there is relatively little in Scorsese’s back catalogue which hints at the trashy pulp underpinnings of Shutter Island. I’d almost suggest that Cape Fear might be the closest match, but only barely – in the same way An Age of Innocence barely foreshadowed Gangs of New York.

Yes, Scorsese isn’t doing anything new. My grandad would love Shutter Island, because he loves the kind of movies that influenced Scorsese making it. But there’s a difference between Burton producing the same film for countless years and Scorsese bringing a master’s touch to a classic film recipe. Shutter Island won’t change the world, but it demonstrates that Scorsese still has it in him to try new (for him) things and to play outside his comfort zone rather than playing it safe.

I’d suggest that Scorsese is the kind of director who deserves his place in pop consciousness. He’s the kind of director who deserves to still be the focus of discussion and debate. Surely those directors willing to go out on a limb deserve attention, support and encouragement. I agree in principle with the general thrust of The Guardian’s argument. There is a risk of focusing too much on conventional directors making boring and conventional films – enforcing a boring monotonous sameness across pop culture, effectively squeezing new and vital talent out of the market. I can understand and appreciate that.

I don’t think it’s fair to write off Scorsese as one of those boring and convential directors. He isn’t exactly guerilla film making, but h is willing to take risks when it comes to making movies. Of course the generation who grew up with the pre-existing legends of Raging Bull and Taxi Driver will argue that he isn’t as relevent as he once was – that The Departed can’t compare to Goodfellas, for example – but I’d argue that the generational gap skews things. We can honestly talk about and compare his current output with his vintage classics when both are equal in our perception – when there isn’t a great divide of “then and now”. In a decade, possibly two. In the mean time, he’s still making some of the very best films out there, and I think he deserves credit and recognition for that.

Why he can’t receive that recognition and credit alongside the up-and-coming talent is beyond me.

5 Responses

  1. Burton has been mailing it in quite a lot lately, but Scorsese?! No, that’s not even fair.

    • Amen on that. Scorsese does what he does because he honest-to-god loves it. And, to be honest, is there a better reason for someone to make movies?

  2. Nice article. I know what you mean about Burton..I haven’t seen Alice yet..which probably says something in itself. A few years ago I’d be waiting eagerly to go see a new Burton movie. In a way, it seems unfair to complain that his style is ‘samey’ when it’s such a unique style, and one that has been used to create some fantastic films. But I think, like you say, Burton is probably capable of tackling a different type of movie, and I’d be impatient to see that, rather than Alice, with all it’s 3D effects and Johnny Depp quirkiness.

    • Okay, maybe you’re right – ‘samey’ is a bit harsh, particularly when it isn’t the same as anything else on the market. I just do wish he would move a little bit outside his comfort zone.

  3. Tim Burton IS a good director and I can’t deny that but he keeps making the same medicore films time after time and we forgive him because of the brilliance of his earlier work. In my opinion, Burton hasn’t made a good film since Big Fish and I say that as someone who loved Sleepy Hollow (and was shocked to hear a lot of people hated it).

    Burton goes over the top to make a film Burtonesque (to borrow a word) but sometimes that is to the detriment of the film. Alice in Wonderland was a CGI OTT mess because of it as Burton seemed to spend more time making sure he had his stamp on it than establishing characters and plot.

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