Tuesday, July 19, 2005

DISORDER AND EARLY SORROW. Saw Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I can’t speak to its faithfulness to the book, which I haven’t read – my Dahl knowledge is restricted to The Big Friendly Giant and a corking old mystery story called "Man from the South"—but I can say that it is perfectly consistent with Tim Burton.

Burton has great showmanship, and I used to think that his less successful efforts, like Sleepy Hollow and Planet of the Apes, were the ones where it ran away with him. If he had a better artistic track record than Cecil B. DeMille, I figured, it was only because he had a proper arts education, and thus was compelled to channel his Barnumite gusto into whatever style he deduced was appropriate. My favorite of his films, Ed Wood, may be as low-key (relatively) as it is because Burton internalized the real Wood’s club-footed style, which disarmed his usual apparati and left the wonderful story, relationships, and acting to provide the special effects. (In my second favorite, Batman Returns, the script is so absurdly florid that even Burton in full effulgence can do no better than match it.)

Charlie’s style is perhaps Burton’s most egregious hodgepodge since Mars Attacks!. The references range from the Dickensian 19th Century to some Warchowskian future. The property’s big problem -- how to make sense of the parents’ grotesquely underscaled reaction to their children’s disfigurement -- is completely ignored; the grown-ups just stand around looking stupid while their kids are inflated, discarded, extruded, etc. Burton even sticks on a new ending that, while fine in itself, seems to reduce the eventful voyage through the factory to a grisly joke about Willy Wonka's father issues. At one point even the usually game David Kelly ran out of ways to register astonishment at all the marvels, and looked positively wrung out.

I enjoyed it nonetheless. I'm not sure why. It may be that Burton has exceeded Mach Roy, the velocity at which showmanship overrides my objections to -- well, anything. It is an embarrassing admission, but the guy might have just outgunned my intellect. Me like pretty colors and Danny Elfman!

Or it may be that Burton's logic is subtler than it looks. Seen this way, the bad old world really isn't so much different from era to era -- only the art direction changes, if not as capriciously as here. The children's come-uppances are no worse, though more accelerated and fanciful, than what any greedy, over-ambitious, self-centered, or plain depraved kids might experience in the world outside their parents' control; and their parents' reactions only look strange because they're having them on the spot, instead of wondering stupidly at kitchen tables years later where they have failed. And Willy Wonka's psychology may be perfectly sound, given his intolerable burden of pleasing children, and the child he has steadfastly determined to remain, with sensory palliatives that never fill their, or his, bottomless need.

<wonkavoice>Well! That sounds kinda creepy, doesn't it? So maybe you wanna just get yourself down to the movies and see for yourself. 'Kay?</wonkavoice>

UPDATE. Corrected name of Dahl story I read as a kid. I found "Man from the South" (which I had previously confused with Bloch's "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper")in one of those Alfred Hitchcock collections popular in my youth. They usually had titles like Stories to Make You Plotz or something like that; mine was called Spellbinders in Suspense (this is what my copy looked like -- without the Hitchock autograph, of course -- though there are apparently alternate versions). Spellbinders had "The Most Dangerous Game," DuMaurier's "The Birds," the Dahl story, stuff by Edgar Wallace, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Agatha Christie, etc. This is what we had instead of Harry Potter, folks, and it was just fine.

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