When I was not quite a teenager, I went through a phase during which I couldn’t get enough of Tim Burton’s film Beetle Juice. Over and over I delighted in the fantastically weird images (the lowering by crane of Delia Deetz’s zebra-striped, frond-shaped sculpture, which aptly animates and traps her in the end; the plummeting of dead newlyweds, Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin, off of the front porch and into the dun-colored world of the sand worm; or their shrinking into the confines of the model in which Beetlejuice lives). I loved the black and white palette, splattered as it was so garishly with the red of Delia’s lipstick, Beetlejuice’s shirt, the crimson wedding dress in the end scene. I loved the characters, unlike anything I had ever seen before. Remember Juno, Davis and Baldwin’s ‘afterlife case worker,’ whose cigarette smoke slowly seeps out of the hole her tracheotomy wound left in her neck? Or Otho, Delia’s perfectly round flour-faced art dealer? And of course there was Beetlejuice himself, the ambulance-chaser/snake oil salesman/dirty old man type ghost, played brilliantly by Michael Keaton. (If you have somehow missed Beetle Juice, Keaton’s performance alone is worth your time.) Thinking about it now, I have to believe he inspired at the very least the look of Heath Ledger’s Joker.
But more than my love for the world of the film, I watched Beetle Juice for Lydia Deetz, the Robert Smith-haired teenage daughter, played by Winona Ryder. I liked her because she was perfectly cynical and depressed. “I am alone, ” she writes in a suicide note. Then crosses it out and tries again, “I am utterly alone.” My parents weren’t eccentric, or at least not in the same ways, and I had not been dragged away from my home, but I, like every other pre-teen, felt myself alone in the world, outcast and put upon. When Lydia surprises Davis and Baldwin by being capable of seeing them creep around in her mother’s designer sheets (no one had yet noticed the ghosts), she can only explain it in this way: “I’ve read through that Handbook for the Recently Deceased. It says, ‘Live people ignore the strange and unusual.’ I, myself, am strange and unusual.” At 12, I took heart in Lydia Deetz’s strangeness, it made me feel less alone.
Last month, I went to see the Tim Burton exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Filling four large rooms, is storyboarding and other early inspiration for his films, a slew of movie paraphernalia. Johnny Depp’s costume from Edward Scissorhands looms over the back of the show. There is a bunch of very early work, short films and first attempts at cartooning.
My favorite, though, were the dozens of spastic sketches and drawings of the most wonderfully weird and creepy characters; people with jutting chins or bulbous heads, beady eyes or errant limbs. All the strange and unusual, I realized, as I looked around the jam-packed room, all of us.
The exhibit is up through April 26 (go online to reserve a viewing time; you can’t get in without one), but if you’re not within traveling distance to MoMA, you can see virtually all the works on display here.
Bio: Katherine Dykstra is the nonfiction editor at Guernica. Her interview with author and Pulitzer Prize-winner Sheryl WuDunn will appear in Guernica’s January 15th issue. Read her last recommendation “here”:https://www.guernicamag.com/blog/1387/rec_room_katherine_dykstra_pus/.