Recently, as I watched the San Antonio Spurs pummel and demoralize the Oklahoma City Thunder, I was pummeled and demoralized myself, as I was smacked with a halftime commercial for the upcoming movie Alice Through the Looking Glass. Combine this with the recent rumors of a Beetlejuice sequel, and the conclusion is inescapable: it’s sixteen years into the twenty first century, and we haven’t learned a thing. Tim Burton just isn’t going to go away, and apparently there’s nothing that we can do to make him go away. (I know that the new Alice isn’t being directed by Burton, but he’s responsible for it in the same way that Nixon was responsible for the depredations of Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy.)
The man is seemingly bulletproof; no number of Rubberstamped, predictable, underperforming movies can stop him. “Tim Burton” is a firmly established pop culture brand, and it hardly matters that he hasn’t directed a good movie since the end of the last century. (I do make a partial exception for Big Fish, which wasn’t good, but was at least an ambitious, honorable failure. It also seemed to take something out of Burton; he’s never tried anything nearly as serious since.)
How did it come to this? Back in the day, I liked Batman, Ed Wood, and The Nightmare Before Christmas as much as anyone. I was initially underwhelmed by Mars Attacks but later came to appreciate it. Now, however, I greet the announcement of every new Tim Burton project in precisely the same way I greet every new American commitment in the Middle East: “Oh God — we’ve already done this, and it never works!”
What was the turning point? Please. Do you really need to ask? For me as for countless others, it was Planet of the Apes, my friend, Planet of the Apes. I looked forward to seeing that movie, I truly did. But then… I saw it. Did you ever thirstily twist the top off a gallon jug (fatally failing to check the expiration date), and take a great big swig of sour milk? It’s something your mouth never forgets.
The thing is, while the Planet of the Apes remake wasn’t a good movie, the bulk of it wasn’t “I’ve finally had it with this bleeping guy” bad, either. For most of its length, it was just mediocre; it wasn’t terrible enough to permanently degrade my perceptions of the man who made it. What pushed it into that dread category was the legendarily awful conclusion, the surprise ending that didn’t so much provide a pleasurable twist as it broke the collective necks of the movie, the director, and the audience. You know what I mean.
But it didn’t have to be that way. Just one more twist after the twist would have brought things back to where they needed to be and made all things well. The right road would have been taken, the perilous pass would have been negotiated successfully. Tim Burton’s career would have proceeded onward and ever upward. He would have gone from triumph to triumph. He would need five fireplaces to have enough mantlepiece space for his Oscars, and his name would now be a byword for brilliance instead of a punchline. If it just hadn’t been for that ending…
Fortunately, in this era of director’s cuts and DVD extras and re-remakes and retrofitted special effects and alternate endings, it’s not too late. Planet of the Apes can still be salvaged, Tim! (And thank God I’m here to tell you what to do.) Let’s pick it up with the last shot of the film…
The camera slowly pulls back from the tableau of a stunned Mark Whalberg standing before the simian Lincoln Memorial. Fade out.
Fade back in on the luxurious Hollywood office of producer extraordinaire David O. Selznick. The legendary mogul is sitting behind his enormous desk, reading a script. Seated across from Selznick, nervously awaiting his chief’s reaction, is the screenwriter.
David O. Selznick
Screenwriter: Well, Boss, what do you think?
Selznick: I give you six months and ten thousand dollars and this is what you give me? Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’ Hara are monkeys?!
Screenwriter: But Boss –
Selznick: But nothing! Faulkner, whoever told you could write was nuts! Get out and stay out!!
Selznick contemptuously throws the script into the wastebasket, as a disconsolate William Faulkner trudges out of the office, his dream of making big money in pictures shattered forever. As the door closes behind the writer, Selznick listlessly picks up a piece of paper from the desk; he looks at it for a moment and lets it drop. He slumps in his chair and buries his face in his hands. The camera moves in on the paper, which we can now see is a telegram informing the producer that his recently cast Scarlett O’ Hara, Vivien Leigh, has been fatally run over by a streetcar in New Orleans.
Selznick: What am I going to do? What am I going to do?
Selznick lays his head on the desk and begins to sob quietly. At that moment, the door opens and his secretary enters.
Secretary: Mr. Selznick, the last girl for the new Scarlett O’ Hara tryouts is here.
Selznick: What’s the use? Oh well… send her in.
The secretary exits, and a moment later fresh young ingenue Kim Hunter enters. Selznick stares fixedly at her for several moments, and then a light of hope begins to dawn in his eyes. He reaches into the wastebasket and retrieves the discarded script. He walks over to a table where his untouched lunch sits and brings back a basket of fruit and sets it on his desk, motioning for Hunter to sit. He leans forward and smiles charmingly.
Selznick: Banana, my dear?
Tim, it’s yours for free. Get in touch with me through Black Gate, any time, day or night. I’ll be in my room, watching Mars Attacks.
Thomas Parker’s last article for us was Alone at the Edge of the World: The Witch.