Beetlejuice – 1988 – dir. Tim Burton
You often hear that movies are a “visual medium,” but a list of the most popular movies that emphasize the power of what is seen would start off with animated children’s films, comic book adaptations, and Transformers. Though at times their avid visual invention can become glorious spectacle, ideologically these movies usually limit themselves to reiterating conventional bromides about love and loyalty winning the day or tolerance being a virtue.
But what would a film be like if it reveled in dazzling entertainment without also resorting to moral comfort food?
Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice is a sort of answer to that question. It begins with characters who might tout those warm and fuzzy “universal truths”: Adam and Barbara Maitland are about as wholesome as the tiny countryside town they inhabit. After accidentally driving off a bridge, they return home, dazed but apparently alive, until a consultation with a local mirror suggests that all is not right. They’re dead, it turns out, and what’s more, they’ve been condemned to haunt their house for the next century or so.
Enter the New Yorkers. Rich and irredeemably urban, Charles and Delia Deetz are moving in to the Maitlands’ house with their daughter Lydia (a very goth Winona Ryder), and their first order of business will be to rip it apart under the guidance of avant-garde interior designer Otho. Though Charles dabbles as a nature enthusiast, he’s the kind of guy who toasts by saying, “May your buildings go condo,” and whose natural inclination is to turn the town into a theme park. The Maitlands are as disgusted as we are and plan to scare the snobs away.
The tension of the movie might have just been the clash between these caricatures of urban superficiality and rural roots. To his credit, Burton doesn’t engage this rather tired dialectic: Beetlejuice doesn’t seem to have any interest in teaching the urbanites a lesson about the charms of the unrefined. Nor does the director vilify the Deetzes, who come across as more vapid than evil. In the end, we’re not going to get a moral from this movie, which seems designed instead as a vehicle to move us through Burton’s spectacular visions. As the A.V. Club’s Scott Tobias put it, “What Burton does best is appropriate gothic imagery and German expressionism for entertainments that are, for the most part, much lighter than they appear.” Instead of platitudes, we get calypso.
As in so many Burton creations, there is a kind of magical realism in the air. When the Maitlands try to frighten the Deetzes by making them dance like puppets, instead of being horrified, they’re charmed by the raw exoticism of the experience: Aren’t these ghosts just too much fun? In a clever twist on the idea of the local and genuine being exploited by the rich and ostentatious, Burton has the Deetzes see the spirits as a folksy accent on their country living experience.
It’s a funny conceit, but if the Deetzes aren’t going to learn how to get in touch with their pastoral selves, we the viewers are still lacking a cause to get behind. It’s about this time that the titular Betelgeuse shows up and offers his services to the Maitlands. Played by Michael Keaton in one of his best performances, the “bio-exorcist” is somewhere between a complete ham and a grubby sleazebag, but he seems to be Adam and Barbara’s last chance to get rid of the upper class twits occupying their house.
There is a hint that Betelgeuse might represent an ethnic figure when Adam misremembers his name as “Betelmeyer,” and the movie title anglicizes the spelling as though Betelgeuse were immigrating to America. But nothing else suggests that the Betelgeuse-Maitland-Deetz dynamic is going to have any meaning in terms of class or social structure. Instead, it becomes clear that Betelgeuse works in the grand trickster tradition; his loftiest goals are just to make some raunchy jokes, ruin everybody’s day, and maybe get laid in the process.
Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight at times recalls Keaton’s take on the character. (The connection may have been first noted by critic Nathan Rabin and seems, in any case, retrospectively really obvious.) Not only do the two look alike, but they share a purpose: These guys are both in it for the trouble. The difference between the movies is that Beetlejuice has no greater moral narrative to fit its deviant into.
That may sound like a criticism, but it’s really a compliment. The Joker’s ethos of derangement is actually a motive and philosophy developed along the length of Dark Knight, but it doesn’t end up getting much of a fair hearing. Between the Joker’s vicious disruption of the existing order and Batman’s righteous struggle for the good, we’re inevitably going to chose the latter.
Here, however, we find that rooting for the villain is pretty much what Burton seems to want out of us, since he hasn’t given us a more compelling character or theme. Neither the Deetzes nor the Maitlands really learn anything over the course of the film, other than that it is possible for the living and the dead to coexist peacefully. That isn’t exactly a resonant message.
Instead, we’re left to feel that Betelgeuse is actually the star of the movie that is, after all, named after him. This is a guy who does slapstick even when pursuing his own agenda, as though getting his way were secondary to pointing out to us the absurdity of the world. In the final countdown of the film, seconds away from fulfilling his goals, he babbles digressively as though playing to an offstage audience. If even Betelgeuse can’t take himself seriously — and if he’s the most charismatic and vivid character in the movie — then his trickster perspective becomes the ethic of the film. And that’s a heck of a lot more fun than Transformers.