(Tim Burton, USA, 1988)


It’s 3 o’clock, give or take a year. There is an indescribable film swirling before my eyes – a great flux of particles, energies, effects, parallel universes. This film means nothing, or at least nothing worth talking about (Time magazine tried to redeem it by invoking the theme of a bridge between life and death, but that’s just a fuddy-duddy pretext). It’s a film which sets in motion a thousand zippy passages between different spatial zones, textual zones, topics and tones. The film is Bettlejuice, directed by the great Tim Burton, and it will strike you as either the silliest, most trivial film of the decade, or the best and most revitalising cinematic event since … (fill in the blank to your desire).

In the wake of the 1988 Illusion of Life conference in Sydney (and its consequent book), one is inspired to make Beetlejuice into an exemplary case of a live-action picture which is truly (on the philosophical and aesthetic, not just special effects, plane) a work of animation. To call the films of the Coen brothers, Sam Raimi and Tim Burton live-action cartoons can mean much more than simply that they are hyper-stylised and show off an encyclopaedia of pop culture references.

For there is a grand and suggestive opposition waiting in the wings: if naturalistic cinema is dedicated to exploring the surface of things in such a way as to reveal the inner soul and will which moves people (an unbearable being-ness), animation cinema treats everything (bodies, objects, film frames) as so much dead, inert matter to be moved, hurled around, choreographed in sound and image.

Everything in Beetlejuice, from the plot upwards, corresponds to this idea – indeed the film’s (and its pivotal teenage character’s) notion of a crowning, ecstatic finale is to be literally elevated and animated, made to produce gestures and emit pre-recorded sounds. This film is heaven – perhaps the only kind of heaven open to us these days, a non-transcendental heaven constituted wholly of material exchanges between energy-sources, memory banks, particles of popular culture.

And hell? Same deal: a non-apocalyptic, overcrowded public service for superannuated Hollywood stars, where the dead unceremoniously bear the traces of their physical extinction (tyre tracks, cancerous lungs, shrunken heads).

In this merry dance of the dead which is Beetlejuice, you will no longer be able to tell the difference between special effects that are designed for the purposes of horror and those that are designed for laughter. This is a wonderful feeling, and a marvellous Möbius-like invention. The prodigious action of this film, the action of its generic and textual invention, is fugitive, difficult to account for critically, but nonetheless powerful and liberating. You’ll be humming that Harry Belafonte song when you go.

MORE Burton: Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Ed Wood, Edward Scissorhands, Mars Attacks!, Sleepy Hollow, Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure

© Adrian Martin August 1988

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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