If I were to begin with a formal history of the Museum’s eighty or so gallery exhibitions on filmmakers, film studios, and international filmmaking since 1939, this might make for a dull start to our Burton blogs. Instead, here’s my personal story of how MoMA’s Tim Burton began.
In fact I can tell you the precise moment when the idea popped into my head. It happened on July 31, 2005 (my birthday by the way), at an 11:00 a.m. screening of Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at the Kaufman Astoria Stadium 14 Cinema in Queens, NY. Today, now that all of the single-screen neighborhood movie theaters I spent my childhood in are gone, my favorite place and time to go to a movie is a large multiplex at the earliest morning screening when the melancholy of the deserted, over-sized spaces somehow speaks to my feelings of nostalgia for past movie-going experiences.
That Sunday the wide halls of the Kaufman Astoria stretched out ahead of me, leading from one theater to the next like the eerily empty streets in a favorite 1962 film of mine, the post-apocalypse sci-fi The Day of the Triffids. The buttery smell of stale popcorn was fragrant, and as usual a few sleepy ushers were slowly sweeping up the last of the trash from the night before, when rowdy crowds had jammed the place. Also as usual, I lingered on my way studying the posters for upcoming films, critiquing the graphics and considering which I might like to propose adding to the Department of Film’s collection. In the theater, an acre of vacant seats around us seemed to ripple in the air-conditioned breeze. I was with my companion George Kirkikis, by the way, plus thirty or so other people—those morning audiences always seem to consist of a couple with a child, at least one young and one older male and female pair, a small group of eleven- or twelve-year-old kids, and a loner guy or two.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory began. It opens with one of Burton’s signature mechanical contraptions, this time mass-producing Wonka chocolate bars to the beat of another exceptional Danny Elfman score. I was instantly hooked. Once the “golden tickets” had been won by the five not-really-so-lucky kids, and we’d been treated to the “Wonka Welcome Song” and the spectacle of dozens of colorful, singing, animatronic puppets bursting into flames, Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka leads the kids and their parents into his candy factory. As he led them down a long, purple-walled, red-carpeted hall—which would eventually inspire the striped “Monster Mouth” hallway that greets visitors to MoMA’s Burton exhibition, shown above—it happened. I had what a nun and grade-school teacher of mine used to call a “light dawns on a marble head” moment.
With the second or third line of banter between Wonka and the children, I suddenly thought of Corpse Bride, Burton’s other 2005 feature, released only a few months before. I instantly made a comparison between Corpse’s Gothic qualities and the Psychedelic Pop Art of Charlie, and this triggered the realization: “Tim Burton—we should be presenting Tim Burton at the Museum.” I’m told I actually said this out loud.
In any case this sudden thought was just the beginning. As it’s turned out, privileged moments, discoveries, and a few scholarly adventures lay ahead for my colleague Jenny He and me. But those are for next time.