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The world of cinema can be an extremely exclusive place; it’s tough as hell to break into, with poor film school graduates slaving away, fetching coffee for the producers, ordering lunch for the crew, making certain “problems” (actors’ prostitutes) “disappear” (use your imagination), hoping that one day they can get an executive to take a look at their brilliant script. And, well, the sad fact is, even for those who do break into the business, the work can be nearly soul-destroying, with studio interference taking what may have been a unique, personal idea, and transforming it into a cookie-cutter work of commercialized trash. However, there are a lucky few who have found a way to speak in their own voice and, for the most part, keep it that way, either by working independently or proving that what they have to say can draw in the crowds. And, as it turns out, these people are often total weirdoes.
His role as director of Edward Scissorhands and producer of The Nightmare Before Christmas has made him a cultural icon for the generation. Of course, that’s a generation that spends way too much of mommy and daddy’s money at Hot Topic and thinks that wearing ridiculous shirts that say “I’m not crazy, the voices in my head told me so” makes them cool as hell, but when one considers his unique aesthetic style and decidedly unhinged approach to certain cinematic topics, it’s tough not to recognize that Tim Burton has done an excellent job of crafting some truly strange films.
Burton was raised on a steady diet of classic science-fiction and horror movies, particularly those produced by legendary studio Hammer Film Productions. Eventually, he took his love of German Expressionist imagery, characters whose sanity is often slightly in question, and an outsider’s demented view of the modern world and applied it to whatever project Hollywood had for him. Although few will argue that Christopher Nolan’s recent efforts with the Caped Crusader are anything less than stunning works of psychological and visual realism, one has to admire what Burton did with Batman. After all, the last time the character had been on screen, it was in the form of the infamous Adam West television show, which, well… let’s not lie to ourselves here, not even for the sake of nostalgia. As a depiction of Batman, Bruce “my parents were murdered before my eyes when I was a young child” Wayne, it didn’t exactly do the subject justice. Burton, on the other hand, wasn’t afraid to go to dark places, both literally, in regards to his visual approach to Gotham City, and figuratively, in his treatment of Wayne as a loner who may be as mad as the villains he pursues. It may not possess the crime film realism that recent audiences have come to associate with the character, but at times, it can be damn operatic.
With Edward Scissorhands, aside from providing future emo kids with their favorite movie for the rest of time, Burton proved that he doesn’t need an urban setting to design a world that is simultaneously completely foreign and uncannily familiar. We recognize his take on suburbia, with its nosy neighbors, perfectly manicured lawns, and endless gossip, but we aren’t as familiar with ominous castles brooding in the distance, nor are we as willing to accept new residents who could perform complicated surgery with nothing more than their hands.
By maintaining a constant tone all his own, love him or hate him, Burton has established himself as a man without peer, much like the characters (Batman, Edward Scissorhands, Willy Wonka) that he has brought to the screen.
Oh, Richard Kelly. If your two most recent releases, Southland Tales and The Box, are any indication, the spark of promise that you displayed at the beginning of your career may be fading as swiftly as M. Night Shyamalan’s talent. However, we’re still willing to give you a pass, if only because of the fact that you somehow managed to bring Donnie Darko to audiences everywhere.
Anyone who has seen that film knows that it’s not an easy sell. Some viewers walk out of it thinking it was the stupidest thing they’ve ever seen; giant bunnies, a protagonist with about as much enthusiasm as someone who’s been recently lobotomized, time vortexes, 80s music…it’s not exactly easy to make sense of. However, it is those very elements that attracted other viewers to its mysteries. Be it the high school students who reacted to its shockingly sympathetic portrayal of the pains of adolescence, or the cult fans who have spent years debating the implications of the plot, the nature of the film’s reality, etc., Donnie Darko is a weird movie that, somehow, has generated a tremendous following.
Unfortunately, the slow burn of success that took his small independent film and turned it into an underground 2001: A Space Odyssey may have resulted in the young filmmaker getting too ambitious. His next project was Southland Tales, which Wikipedia describes as a “science fiction/drama/black comedy.” Uh, right. True, Donnie Darko had those elements as well, but its budget was considerably smaller. Southland Tales, on the other hand, is an epic searching for prescience but severely lacking in focus, tying together various strands of current events and pop culture in an effort to create a work of speculative fiction that mirrors our times. The result is disastrously uneven, but, the fact that Kelly was able to get two films of this nature greenlit at all indicates that he is the kind of director who, if given another chance behind the camera, can create pictures that are vastly different from the traditional studio fare. We can only hope that Donnie Darko wasn’t merely lightning in a bottle.
In the realm of weird directors (whose work at least gets seen by a substantial amount of people), David Lynch most certainly reigns supreme. Indeed, he may be one of the few directors whose work is so vastly original and impossible to categorize that he has his own adjective, “Lynchian.”
While most filmmakers attempt to break into the business by starting off with a project that has some degree of commercial appeal, hoping that the success of that picture will allow them to devote their energies to other, more personal projects once the studios trust their vision, Lynch opted to kick off his career with the nearly inexplicable Eraserhead, a surrealist nightmare about urban paranoia and babies that look like a cross between a dinosaur and an alien.
While the films of Tim Burton and Richard Kelly could at least be described to an extent, Eraserhead defies all attempts at classification.
Even when working in such traditional genres as science fiction or the biopic, Lynch has chosen odd subjects, adapting Frank Herbert’s classic novel Dune and telling the life story of Joseph Merrick in The Elephant Man.
Lynch directed one of his most popular films with Blue Velvet, the story of a college student who returns home to care for his father, only to discover that what seems to be a traditional American small town actually harbors bizarre sexual secrets.
Turning his attention to the world of television, Lynch produced the show Twin Peaks, a one of a kind program that has developed a cult following throughout the years for being equally off the wall.
Known for his frighteningly disturbing imagery and bizarre use of the narrative structure, Lynch has proven that there is simply no one out there who makes movies even remotely like he does.
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