Wednesday, June 06, 2007

"This Is My Art, and It Is Dangerous": Sculpting Space in BEETLEJUICE

"My rap is that I can't tell a story. That's been a fairly common thread of criticism for me, so I've heard a lot that my films look nice." —Tim Burton, IGN Film Force interview

At first blush, Beetlejuice seems to unspool with free-associative comic setpieces, dream logic cascading over a strange if solid, and spare skeleton of plot. The greater contours of Beetlejuice’s story then, a hot-brained, frantic perversion of Topper, are not so difficult to grasp. The sweet but dull ("Nice and stupid, too") Maitlands (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis), newly married, childless and at peace in small-town Connecticut, are killed in a freak car accident, return as ghosts, have their home invaded by unctuous New York yuppies, the Deetzes (Catherine O’Hara and Jeffrey Jones). After failing to cut through the red tape maze of afterlife's mad bureaucracy, they enlist ne'er-do-well mercenary haunting expert, Betelgeuse. His methods are effective but violent, and Betelgeuse nearly destroys the Deetzes, before the Maitlands have a change of heart after bonding with alienated young Lydia (Winona Ryder, all dark eyes framed by glossy ebony hair). The rebel spirit is dispatched and the families learn to exist in harmony.

That is the major furniture of Beetlejuice's plot, but the story seems confounded with an unheard of mass of clutter, carefully wrought but illogical detail, as if scrabbled together from curio shop elements with which Tim Burton could not part. The strongest cord among Beetlejuice's corkscrewing lines of plot, tracing a path for its lead characters similar to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, itself a restyled variation of the Orpheus myth, is the journey of Adam and Barbara Maitland. It is the story of sweet-natured squares, like Brad and Janet before them, adrift in a chaotic underworld that challenges their sense of order, affronts their morals and picayune view of the universe and its physics, and eventually transforms their cut-and-dried normality. The afterlife is imagined as a mazelike bureaucracy of incomprehensible rules and constant roadblocks, constructed of junkheaped illogic designed only to demonstrate that the afterlife is full of frustration and petty problems as life. Seeking guidance and how-to haunted house advice, the Maitlands venture into a waiting room of the damned, deal with surly desk clerk Miss Argentina, cope with bylaws about scheduled appointments, and help voucher allotments and are eventually led to a particularly un-helpful meeting with their case worker Juno (Sylvia Sidney). Because it is the pleasure of the plot to bedevil the Maitlands as they try to sort out a constantly shifting and expanding set of rules, it is by design that as the spectator hovers on the heroes' shoulders, we are constantly fooled, startled and thrown for a loop by whatever lurks around the next bend of Beetlejuice's carnival ghost house.

It is a matter of production reality that the script began as a straight horror project, titled The Maitlands, with Wes Craven at one time attached, and that in present dark-ride comedy form, Michael Keaton as Betelgeuse was unleashed to improvise as he desired, ashcanning nearly all his scripted dialogue. So it may very well be that some alternate dimension Beetlejuice plays out in a more traditional three-act clear line of action and arcing character, or at least through a glass less-darkly.

One step forward for a closer look, and the plot seems a jumbled stew, raising more questions than it offers answers. The governing laws of the fantasy story are never made explicit, though continually probed they never articulate themselves, but instead blossom into wild, dangerous new flowers. When the Maitlands step outside their home, they are transported to an alien desert landscape and threatened by skyscraper-sized double-mouthed Sandworms, but why? When she pulls Adam back into the kitchen, Barbara shrieks that he's been gone three hours, Juno blithely tells the couple they've been sitting in the waiting room three months... Why does time seem to ebb and flow inconsistently between spirit realms? Did Betelgeuse say the Sandworms live on Saturn? Why does Adam have a model of the town, Winter River, in his attic? Why does Betelgeuse materialize in the model, only to be stuck inside? Why do the other ghosts encountered in the waiting room — from choking victim Ferndock, to a big game hunter with a shrunken head — maintain the forms of their bodies at the moment of death, when drowning victims Adam and Barbara are not even wet? Why can Betelgeuse do so many tricks beyond the grasp of the Maitlands? Character motivations seem likewise arbitrary or driven by archetype. Why do the Maitlands have a sudden change of heart and invite the Deetzes to share their home? Is summoning Betelgeuse for assistance a bad or a good choice? What kind of peace is actually made between the Deetzes and Maitlands? Why do the Deetzes constantly hang out with their interior decorator? Apart from clearing Betelgeuse from Connecticut, how is the plot resolved at all? "I can't 'bring the ghosts', Dad, they're not here," moans Lydia. Sensing that no one can ever fully grasp the laws of Beetlejuice, Charles chortles in fear and embarrassment: "Every time she says that, the paint peels and some wild creature tries to kill us."

Something carefully threaded and aliteral is happening beneath the hand-sculpted lumpy surface. We may notice it when interior designer Otho (Glenn Shadix) mentions in his first scene that he was once a paranormal researcher ("Until the bottom dropped out in '72"), and jokes in the dinner party scene that in the afterlife suicide cases become civil servants. Otho is kidding, and does not know better, but the only suicide case ghost we've seen, is indeed Miss Argentina, the irritable desk clerk in the social services office of the damned, who flashes her scarred wrists at the Maitlands to demonstrate Beetlejuice's only clear message: being dead really doesn't solve anything. Tim Burton, incapable, unwilling, or disinterested in adhering to the sleek construction of classical Hollywood cinema plots, eschews most rules of three-act structure and clearly delineated motivation. A different logic is at play, burying plot points and character shifts in throwaway dialogue, organizing information through free-association, the logic of a child at play, of Freudian dream-work. Tim Burton uses the rhyme schemes, rhythmic repetitions and motifs of poetic logic, and avoids rigid literalism and enunciated explanation. Connections, callbacks, fractured mirror-images crackle along underground cables connecting moments and ideas throughout Beetlejuice.

One of the film's major concerns is the boundaries and shaping of physical space, how it defines us, how we attempt to dominate space, how space may be navigated, and its boundaries negotiated. The main characters, a menagerie of colorful types, personalities, and professions, are all defined by their relationship to and their desire to claim mastery of concrete spaces. Most of the characters actively practice the manipulation of space, through the plastic arts and photography, or careers and hobbies focused on real estate, homes, buildings and geography. Beetlejuice gradually reveals a universe of spheres of reality, but while happy to dip in and out of intersecting planes, never proposes to draw a map of its underworld. Instead, the concrete, familiar world of the living is systematically eroded by ever expanding and contracting, fluxing, strobing dimensions, until it loses primacy and stability. A hierarchy of power and importance to these dimensions, of micro or macrocosm is neither implied nor laid bare, and destabilization of the rules is truly the order of the day. Any attempt to chart the worlds of Beetlejuice as parallel, spirals, or nesting-dolls will fail, and the fussy need to schematize is exactly what the film has been designed to demolish. The effect on Adam and Barbara, and ultimately everyone who passes through their house on the hill in Winter River, is woozy hysteria; this pervasive sense of mad, disordered play ends up infecting the entire ordered universe of the characters. This methodology allows Burton to build an unstable, baffling universe for his players but ultimately provide them with a means of self-revelation. "Live people ignore the strange and unusual," explains Lydia Deetz, quoting the film's Handbook for the Recently Deceased. As the only character able to read and take to heart the dense truths of the frustrating book, she has made sense of this simple maxim, where Barbara could only fluster "'Can't' or 'won't'?! ... God! This book is so stupid!" The Maitlands refuse the knowledge of the book, because as it is for Antoine Roquentin in Sartre's Nausea, the glimpse behind the veil is not immediately liberating so much as disturbing.

The interplay of scale, self-contained worlds, and wobbly geography between them, is summated in the opening shot(s). A helicopter-shot flyover of Winter River, Connecticut zips above the trees and quaint houses below, the big black, glowing superimposed credits distracting the spectator from two dissolves between shots. The view comes to rest on the isolated three-story house on a sandy hill on the outskirts of the small town, and for a moment, something subtly uncanny about the building is echoed on the soundtrack as Danny Elfman's oom-pah score belches out a death rattle. A massive brown spider stretches its legs over the peak of the roof, and for a few otherworldly frames, as Harry Belefonte's voice in diegetic music begins wafting over the scene, no one can be positive what we are seeing, whether the spider is supposed to be an outsized creature-feature beast attacking a detailed but quaint miniature effect, or something other. A hand enters the frame, gingerly assists the normal-scale spider from the roof, and draws it up to Alec Baldwin's curious face. He prods the spider, mutters "That’s a big fella. Woah!", carries it to the window, through which we may glimpse the town duplicated in the model, and gently tosses the tiny home-invader to the breeze. This introductory scene serves as an establishing shot of the Beetlejuice multiworld, the town's big map transitioning to the little map of the model, confusion of interior and exterior spaces to arachnid invasion to size-evaluation ("big fella! Woah!") to salvation to portal-crossing to death-plummet. It is in one sense an "establishing shot" of the town and house, but on reveal, occurs contained within the perimeters of the space it pretends to establish.


Nice fuckin model.

The house on the hill is the engine which drives of all Beetlejuice's drama, the struggle to possess and control it the central concern of the players, and it is a depot through which every dimension intersects and meets. Adam reads with exasperation from the Handbook the crucial statement on spatial power dynamics in Beetlejuice: "Geographical and Temporal Perimeters: Functional perimeters vary from manifestation to manifestation." This bears out and the ghostly Maitlands find themselves barred inside their home. That is the functional perimeter they defined for themselves in life, and it restricts them in death.

Beetlejuice's is a universe of infinite, transmutable spaces, and the multitude of eternally shifting transition points between them. The core players, rather than reveling in this open-air existential freedom, trap themselves and others in the skein of time and space by their own attempts to tame the plasticity of space in plastic forms. Everyone is in a mad dash to stamp their ownership all over the house. In a remarkable sequence as the house is being newly remodeled, Burton telescopes between several distinct playing fields, implies their contiguity, then complicates it. Outside the house, the tidy green yard is transformed into a street fair of burly moving men and landscapers, officiated by Delia Deetz, a shrieking and pinwheeling blur of red, black, white. Inside an army of workers steam and scrape the wallpaper, turning the landing leading to the attic into a foggy corridor of hell. In the kitchen, Charles Deetz halts the movers from hauling his own possessions so he may enjoy the sanctuary of the home the Maitlands built and make a cup of tea. Restricted to the attic, Adam and Barbara attempt against all hope to maintain the illusion of control, Adam laboring on his model as Barbara hangs the wallpaper Adam gave her in their first domestic-bliss scene. Gradually, four portals open and connect these isolationist spheres.

Lydia investigates these areas with her camera, passing unmolested through the mess, the only person with a natural curiosity as to why the attic is inaccessible (Charles will later scoff that there can't be ghosts in the attic: "Attic's locked!"). Jane Butterfield (Annie McEnroe), only known living associate of the dearly departed, rolls up in her sedan, and, tellingly, hands a skeleton key to Lydia ("that key will open any door in the house"). Lydia questions Jane, and her query, "what happened to the people that lived in this house?" makes the girl in black the first to care about the souls which occupied the space. Jane's daughter sneers "they drowned" and shutters herself into the car by squeaking closed the automatic window. Jane makes a final weak claim over the physical property — "I single-handedly decorated that house" — before driving off, out of the movie. In distant echo of Psycho's Detective Arbogast, invoked twice in Beetlejuice, Lydia makes her way up the stairs to the attic. As Adam and Barbara brace the door to their sanctum closed, the previously unseen television flickers to life and another portal opens.

Betleguese appears to the Maitlands in a parody of grassroots local cable TV commercials, replete with chintzy flashing ad copy and moronic jingle ("I'll eat anything you want me to eat!/ I'll swallow anything you want me to swallow!"). Mesmerized by the apparition's claims to help those who "want to get rid of them pesky living critters", the Maitlands fail to recognize the soundstage on which Betelgeuse mugs and prances; the broadcast is coming from inside the model Winter River, the same stretch of space that falls between the attic door and the television is revealed by the screen/portal.


How am I supposed to relax if you people won't leave me alone?

Just prior, Charles dangles a teabag over a mug in the kitchen, while outside Delia screams at crane operator who suspends one of her massive, spinal-cord shaped sculptures over the house. The jagged green stone shatters through the Maitland's window, disrupting the shuttered domestic space, the cozy curtains and sink invaded by the Deetz's objects. The sculpture falls to the ground, pinning Delia against the house, and from this cage of her own devising, she gasps "this is my art, and it is dangerous! Do you think I want to die like this!?"

In the attic, the scene climaxes as Adam consults the Handbook, and draws a chalk outline of a door on the brick wall, which swings open to reveal a realm of streaming lime-green light. The light pours under the door cracks, illuminating the pale screen of Lydia's wide-eyed face, and the Maitlands step into its enveloping glow, disappearing for three months. As they stand before the light, they mirror the cover of the Handbook. The door slams shut. These four portal entrances — the attic window, kitchen window, television and door — all open by means of artistic apparatus: camera viewfinder, sculpture, filmmaking, chalk drawing. The subtle differentiation is that throughout Beetlejuice the plastic arts are depicted as commodified and petty attempts to circumscribe power — or at least depicted with ambivalence — while the peculiar ontology of photography lends it a more accurate index to the truth of space and form. In this extended sequence, Lydia probes with her camera, ears and eyes and a key, and makes her first visual contact with the Maitlands, only to be halted, cut off by the brute force of the car window, the attic door, a screwdriver. Charles, Adam, Barbara find themselves frustrated by interior decoration. Delia is nearly crushed by sculpture.

The Deetz and Maitland conflict, by their perception, is first over the ownership of the house, then panic over the interior decoration plans, heightened by the contrasting Country Mouse/ City Mouse tastes of the pastoral New English couple and the yuppie New York interlopers. The Maitlands slowly accept that given their situation, they might be willing to share the home "with people more like you were", as Juno observes. The families are in the end not so dissimilar in their obsessions. They have all fetishized the house, and begun branching out in attempt to master the town at large. The understanding they eventually reach is sparked by the machinations of brooding angel Lydia / trickster demon Betelgues; these twinned characters force the Deetzes and Maitlands to confront their character deficits, return primacy to caring relationships, and exist comfortably in space and time.

Before death, the Maitlands already use the isolated house on the hill to shut out the world around them; when their happy vacation alone is interrupted by Jane, who wants them to sell the house to a family with children, Barbara shoves Jane out the back door, and Adam closes the roller blind of a basement window in her face. When they find themselves unable to leave the house as ghosts, Adam muses that "maybe this is heaven."

Prissily dressed in a tucked-in flannel shirt that turns his body into a black and white grid, and constantly cleaning his glasses, Adam models the town below his house, attempting to master the space by mapping it in miniature. The model is not an effort to preserve the quaint burg or better understand its history, and Adam exhibits marked disinterest in the actual Winter River except as it can be captured by the model. On a run down to his business, Maitland Hardware ("I need a part for the model!" is the motivation, of course), Adam can only convince Barbara to join him if the trip to town is brief, and he then ignores the rambling of Old Bill, the ancient townie barber who sits out front of the neighboring main street shop. Adam jogs in and out of the store as fast as he can, blocking out Old Bill's history lesson about laying of the hardware store's foundation in 1835, and an anecdote about the mayor's long-haired son. Old Bill could provide Adam a wealth of information about the buildings in town and the personalities that shaped them, but Adam pays no attention to anyone but himself and Barbara, in the process losing meaningful connection with the town. Barbara likewise is focused on domestic chores and homemaking, seen in life only washing dishes, dusting, and exchanging honeymoon gifts with Adam, wallpaper and wood-finishing Manchurian Tung oil, an arsenal for home decoration.


... having plummeted off the Winter River Bridge.

As the Maitlands make their winding way back to their fortress of solitude, Adam jokes/suggests leaving town for Jamaica, finally distracting Barbara's eyes away from the road. She closes her eyes to begin saying "There’s no place like—" and screams. As if the town rises up to assert itself, the couple crashes the car, and they are destroyed by the town's geography, plunging off the covered bridge over the Winter River.

When they discover they are invisible to the living, Adam tries to comfort his panicking wife, telling her "Barb, honey, we're dead. I don't think we have very much to worry about any more." But the truism / joke at Beetlejuice's center being that death "solves" nothing, Adam's fussy and meticulous boundary mapping and replication of reality continues in death. He becomes frustrated that he cannot figure the proper placement for his and Barbara's headstones in his mini-cemetery. Homemaking is so engrained in Barbara that once dead, she refutes Adam's happiness at being trapped inside, since the vacuum cleaner is imprisoned in the garage: "It's impossible to clean anything properly! ... If it were Heaven, there wouldn't be dust on everything."

Before the Deetz's grand entrance, they are alluded to when Jane raves to Barbara that she's gotten an offer on the house "from a man in New York City, who only saw a photograph!" pointing up the specialized nature of photography in the film ("Jane, don't send people photos of our house," sighs Barbara). The reason the affluent Deetzes want this hick town refuge is withheld till late in the plot — real estate developer Charles has suffered a nervous breakdown and needs a place to relax, dragging his daughter and second wife along to Connecticut — but Jeffery Jones' portrait of a shattered Type A neurotic trying to live the rural life conveys the data before it's explained.

Charles has been mastered by the buildings he assesses and purchases, and he attempts to right himself by stepping into Adam's empty shoes. He not only buys the Matiland homestead, but convinces Delia not to remodel Adam's study, tries to dress in casual wear, and pretends to read Adam's homeowner magazines. He takes a stab at Adam's bird watching hobby, but finds himself confronted by a natural order that repulses him: through the binoculars, Charles sees the a woodpecker eating vile yellow goop, (the spider Adam chucked out the window?), and is repulsed by the life and death realities that haunt his new home and do not correspond with the Audubon prints he flips through, murmuring "hmm. Birdies!" The commidification of space which caused Charles' breakdown takes such deep roots that on entering the house, he plops in a rocking chair and vibrates nervously while sniffing that he's "perfectly at ease", and immediately makes plans to tear out the kitchen plumbing to enhance domestic comforts. He sets aside the study as a safe haven, but uses binoculars and telephones to reach beyond its walls. When bird watching fails, Charles trains the binocs on a nearby church and compulsively begins feasibility analysis — "bad roof... gooood parking!" — and calls real estate magnate Max Dean (Robert Goulet) to outline his plan: "We could buy the whole damn town!" Like Adam attempting to grip Winter River by duplicating it in his attic, Charles can never be perfectly at ease. Max Dean, patronizing his frazzled colleague, hits the crux of the issue on the nose without realizing it, and shoots back "Great. Now we got a whole town full of nowhere."

Though his efforts to redefine himself and to simply chill out fail time and time again, Lydia sums him up when she meets the Maitlands face to face. Charles will never leave the house simply because he "never walks away from equity." It is surely greed motivating Charles, but too it is the need to feel comfortable in space which he believes he can only achieve through ownership and isolation. When he feels he's lost the house to Delia within moments of their arrival, he begs "let's just leave this room alone, OK?", and when Lydia knocks on the same study door, he groans "how can I relax when you people won't leave me alone?"

Charles recognizes this kinship to Adam when he learns the house is haunted, and enters the attic for the first time. Of all the Deetzes, Charles is most awed by the model Winter River. "It's the whole damn town", he gasps in reverence, echoing his plea for Max Dean's financial backing. When the reinvigorated developer decides that perhaps he can use the haunting to increase his property value, he plans a new method of expanding his ownership of the town, intending to rebrand Winter River as a supernatural theme park and paranormal research center. For a presentation to Max Dean, he believes the experience of the town itself is not enough, and the occasion "requires a sense of presence!" The solution is to move Adam's model, now claimed by Charles, to the living room, snapping it in two in the process. In his sales pitch, Charles usurps Adam's role as store owner, as he exclaims "d-CON is on its knees to sponsor the Insect Zoo! Here! In the old hardware store!"

The presentation speech also sees Charles praising an artist as "the genius who gave us the talking Marcel Marceau statue!" The Marceau and d-CON throwaway jokes point back to critical themes and plot elements in Beetlejuice. The image of insectoids entrapped in the fusty confines of the Maitland's lives is a condensation of Betelgeuse’s dilemma. The image of a quiet genius of movement bound in unhappy form by a sculptor invokes Lydia's. The battle waged is less about the house than the families involved believe.

Delia Deetz, failing sculptor, in Beetlejuice’s endless catalogue of characters attempting to stake a claim on every concrete object they encounter, asserts her ownership of space by aesthetic domination. Her principle craft is sculpting, physically molding plastic objects. Though she pleads to her husband "you know I'm only truly happy when I'm sculpting," the activity is apparently not the joy of creation but of domination of forms and commodification of the arts; when a disinterested moving man cradles a piece resembling a three-legged brain, she spits "be careful, that's my sculpture! And I don't mean 'my' as in 'I bought it', I mean I made it. It's my sculpture." Her greatest panic episodes — and she is nearly always in angry panic — include the plaintive wail "do you think I want to die like this?" while pinned beneath her work: she does not want her art to assert its own power, she wants to command the object. The greatest affront to her dignity is when her agent, Bernard (Dick Cavett), informs her "I've consistently lost money on your work", which offends her more deeply than when he calls her a flake.

Delia's sculptural impulse, rooted in power and money, extends to a passion for interior decoration that aligns with her sidekick Otho's, and is in practice less about decor than overhauling the space itself to bend it to her will. Moments after entering the house, confrontations with Charles reach a head, as he insists he's here to relax, "not to trash the place!", and Delia melts down and lays herself bare, shrieking "If you don't let me gut out this house and make it my own, I will go insane, and I will take you with me." As she tours the house with Otho, trading remarks confusing interior and exterior/ nested spaces ("Oh look, an indoor outhouse"), and inscribing her power on the walls by spray painting "MAUVE" in huge letters, the fey decorator tsks that the house allows "no organic flow-through", and Delia agrees. If the house is to be made palatable, Delia's method is to erase all traces of Adam and Barbara. This impulse is fundamentally at odds with her husband's desire to slip into the Maitlands' abandoned lives like a second skin; Delia would rather turn the country home into a major summer art center, recasting Winter River as SoHo. So when Lydia, alone in her bedroom groans "God, how can he stand that woman?", the answer is that no one can. In the adjoining room, Delia is passed out in a Valium stupor, and in the televised wrestling match — our glimpse of the screen shows a pair of hands kneading his opponent's face like clay or bread dough — on the bedroom monitor, the announcer shouts "WIN! WIN!", as if pep-talking the sculptor-social climber even in dreams.

The reshaping of the Maitlands' home proves so severe that they cannot recognize it when returning from other adventures. Otho resculpts and reorders spaces in both his efforts as consultant on interior decoration and the paranormal. In mirrored scenes, Otho sniggers to Charles about payment for his services, first the remodeling: "You're lucky the yuppies are buying condos this year so you can afford what I'm going to have to do to this place", then spirit summoning: "if I'm properly motivated". Financial power and prestige motivate all the adult New Yorkers of Beetlejuice, but Otho's special perversity is to slice through resistant spaces at an angle; to exploit the blind spot, because he invariably fumbles a head-on approach. Otho's path of stylish demolition is to violate interior / exterior boundaries seemingly for the sake of doing so. He first enters the house through a living room window, netted in the blinds and flailing as Charles asks "why can't you come through the front door like normal people?"

The front door, Otho explains, "is bad luck", though it is surely the designated point of entry, and the worming contrarian streak in his every movement begins to break down the structure of the Maitlands' world from the inside out. The ghost-story reversal high concept of Beetlejuice is that inoffensive Everyman spirits have their home haunted by strange living creatures. Otho refigures the house as the inside of a crypt, cool gray walls with stone-fleck paint effects on every surface. At the end of a critical dialogue between the Deetz parents on what to do with their haunted house, Otho enters in smoking jacket and shades. The camera steps back to reveal a new patio jutting from the side of the building, shielded by a single wall and window, as if the rest of the house had melted away, confusing the inner and outer spaces. When Otho finally agrees to produce the Maitlands' ghosts in visible form, Charles sneers a question that summates Otho: "What are you going to do, viciously rearrange their environment?" Otho, who attacks the boundaries between realms, tries to force entry but ultimately cannot dissolve the power of those spaces. When assisting Charles in relocating Adam's model town, Otho comprehends how it may be rent apart — "It's sectional! Get it at both ends!" — but just moves Betelgeuse into the midst of the party.


Open this door you dead people or we'll bust it down
and drag you out by the ropes you hanged yourselves with!

The rules which force the dead into different planes may be arbitrary and perhaps there is no hierarchy of where one is Supposed To Be, and so it is for the living. In Beetlejuice’s system, matter and energy cannot be destroyed, and when bodies are forced out of one space it is to be squished into another, like toothpaste back and forth. Being dead doesn't solve anything because the question of escape is stymied: you can leave, but wherever you go, there you are. Adam and Barbara are required to spend a century haunting their house, and in the meantime if they leave, are sent to Saturn. If eaten by a sandworm, one ends up back in the afterlife waiting room. The Deetzes cage the Maitlands on the top floor, and from there they may be forced out the window, where they dangle when the attic is invaded, or run for cover in the green light behind the brick door, or squeezed into the tiny-huge world of Adam's model. Barb and Adam are given a behind-the scenes peek when they move through a crazy-quilt tiled hallway lined with infinite doors, doors of all size, shape, doors with twisted bars, with handles and swinging double doors. A similar image in The Matrix Reloaded, a power-corridor of backdoors into the worldwide computer simulation of The Matrix implies a freedom of limited choice that may be exploited to solve problems, numerous secret passages popping out into the same giant room. There is no telling on what dimension, time or reality a door will open into from the underworld corridor of Beetlejuice, but entering it is certain to solve nothing. The Maitlands see behind only two doors, one leading to the Deetz-ravaged house, another to the Lost Souls Room.

"A room for ghosts who have been exorcised. It's death for the dead... It's all in the Handbook. Keep moving," instructs the janitorial staff. What happens in the Lost Souls Room, what torments one undergoes, if there is a way out, are mysteries Beetlejuice never deigns to reveal. What is key about this mournful sidetrack is that it makes explicit the endless tail-chase of anyone looking for an end, an escape hatch. Being dead really doesn't solve anything, and the sign in the waiting room reads NO EXIT.

The two lighting rod characters of Beetlejuice's plot are Lydia and Betelgeuse, and if the adults squabbling over the house are playing out their control issues over prime real estate, the girl and the ghost are in their separate ways trapped by the spatial manipulations of others. Whatever other family instability and understandable dislike of Delia she may be feeling, Lydia frequently demonstrates that she does not share her parents' lust for bending space to her will, does not equate ownership with the ability to be comfortable in a space. Lydia repeatedly expresses understanding and empathy for the ontology of spaces. She enters the house on a rolling platform, presumably shoved by moving men, as if she is a possession the Deetzes are relocating. Lydia, camera in tow, looks about admiringly at the house, soaking in the spirit of the place, while her parents immediately discuss ripping it apart to feel comfortable. That night, she will be one to chime in "I think we should keep it the way it is." Her angst certainly does not come from moving away from home, as Delia notes that Lydia was miserable in New York "and you can be miserable out here in the sticks. At least someone's life hasn't been upheaved."

Everyone's life has been upheaved in Beetlejuice, everyone has tried to resolve a sense of anxious rootlessness by literally and figuratively investing in property. Charles' attempt to cheer up his daughter is naturally to offer her property of her own, and promises a photography darkroom. Lydia, in celebrated gloom-slogan, explains her internal life in relation to a cloistered space, and photography paraphernalia: "My whole life is a darkroom. One. Big. Dark. Room." Shut-in pale and sleepless, Lydia is misunderstood because being perceptive is an anomaly. When she explains that she can visualize the spirit world because she is strange and unusual, Barbara just blinks and shoots back a bewildered "you look like a normal little girl to me." While Delia seeks to "gut out this house" and Charles intends to tear out the plumbing for starters, and to load the furniture trucks with everything the Maitlands owned, Lydia takes one admiring look at a black spider, spinning its web on the staircase banister, and evaluates: "Delia hates it. I could live here."

How are these ideas linked, spider/ Delia hates it/ I could live here? Lydia is not merely tickled by the gothic touch of the spider, or taking joy in seeing Delia miserable, but identifying with the spider, which has constructed its own web within the perimeters of the staircase railing. She relates to a creature bound inside the structure, which creates its own space within the space. This admiration for the craft of living within a confined space, sympathy for others bound inside makes Lydia instantly attractive to both the Maitlands, and to Betelgeuse. The girl bonds with the Maitlands, first spotting them through her camera from outside the house, then in her bedroom, as she snaps Polaroids off Adam and Barbara wearing sheets, thinking she is documenting her parents doing "weird sexual stuff" and ordering them back into their own bedroom; but the photography reveals the truth ("No feet!"), or at least a revealing perspective on the truth, and asks if they look like the ghouls of Night of the Living Dead, implying that a motion picture, even fictive, could provide a better reference point for reality than the sheets that are essentially sculptures capturing the Maitlands' forms. Though Lydia is impressed with the effort of Adam's model ("You did this? You carved all these little houses and things?") it is likely that she defends Adam's work — when Charles plays with a toy car on the tiny street, she sighs "Dad, don't!" — because she recognizes it is the life labor of a fellow shut-in with problems: it is when Barbara tells her that they haven't left the house since the funeral that Lydia finally gasps "God! You guys really are dead!" It's not the funeral itself so much as the severely restricted geographical perimeters.

Betelgeuse, spastic, elastic, earthy and exhibitionistic among this carnival of repression, possesses utter irreverence toward all familiar rules. "Come to think of it," he chortles, "I don't have any rules!" While Betelgeuse is able to fully manipulate plastic objects, including his own form, disobey gravity and proportion, and interact with the living seemingly at will, he is not limitlessly powerful, and is no less restricted than the rest of the population. Betelgeuse makes it clear that something else is binding him, that the rules hold sway even if we would rather they did not. His feats, which elude the Maitlands, terrorize the Deetzes and nearly drive Lydia to suicide, only occur in the confines of the spaces in which he has been granted permission to perform. The Ghost With the Most is an ectoplasmic hand-grenade to lob into enemy territory, and the rest of the time is trapped, helpless, and elsewhere. What is Betelgeuse’s natural state? Where has he spent most of his millennia? The scant backstory Juno provides the Maitlands does not say, but she hints at his imprisonment, explaining that he can only be "brought back... by saying his name three times", and cautions that "he's been sleazing around your cemetery." But Juno does not indicate the Winter River cemetery. She glances at Adam's model.

Betelgeuse’s first physical appearance in the film is underground in a litter-strewn, candlelit tomb, revealed in a tilt down from a hovering matte-shot of the house and hill at dusk. Given the free-floating perspective of the obvious special effects shot and the eye-warping bait-and-switch of the opening credits, when Betelgeuse appears, there is no definitive way to know where we are at the time. As Adam will cautiously deduce when the Maitlands finally brave the invocation of Betelgeuse’s name, only to be sucked into a new world, "I think... we're in the model." Betelgeuse spends most of the film in the model, as if caged by the sheer will of the little town's repressive energy, a binding dam against the tidal wave. When unleashed, he takes elaborate, inventive forms, giant snake, flying and pretending to ride an invisible motorbike, switching outfits at will, possessing Barbara, and projecting a dozen knife-spikes from his torso, but Betelgeuse’s most intense display of personal frustration and loss of control is directed at his capture in space. Adam and Barbara chicken out of employing him after a manic job interview, and ditch the scene of the model, Barb, throwing a tantrum in unfamiliar terrain, shouts "home, home, home!" Betelgeuse, screaming up to the sky, calls the would-be god-sculptor of his tiny prison a loser, kicks over a model tree, and kinda-sorta proud of himself spits "nice fuckin model!" When he punctuates by honking his crotch like Harpo Marx's bicycle horn, the effect is like a flailing insect sinking into amber. Trapped.

Betelgeuse and Lydia are the catalysts for change, and their meetings cataclysmic. Opposite in extreme, he is sanguine, she is melancholic, but Betelgeuse and Lydia share mutual longing to cross thresholds and be set free. After setting eyes on her, Betleguese evaluates "the only one I can deal with is Edgar Allan Poe's Daughter. I think she understands me!" While visiting the attic to hand-deliver her suicide note, Lydia finds Adam and Barbara absent, and the room occupied only by the miniaturized incarnation of Betelgeuse. In one of Beetlejuice’s more sober moments, Lydia considers Betelgeuse’s offer to teach her the secrets of how to cross over into the spirit realm(s). The ancient ghost begs her assistance to escape, the girl looks to some indistinct point on an imaginary horizon, and wistfully sighs "I want to get in." Betelgeuse’s self-interest dissipates for a split-second, and they connect across worlds, but he can only ask: "WHY?" Betelgeuse wants out, because he is stifled and wants to disrupt others, Lydia wants to move to a space where she feels she Belongs. Their motivations are reversed, but the desire is the same, the self-help failure known as a geographical cure. Lydia even intends to commit suicide at the same map locale as Maitland accident, and plots the point of her death on a threshold structure that spans the river and road, as she plans to throw herself from the covered bridge

These two travelers into unwelcoming territory begin the avalanching chain-reaction resolution of Beetlejuice. The Maitlands leave Juno's office for the last time, heading for home down the corridor of possibilities, having received their assignment to resolve the plot, halt the violence to order which they've set in motion by releasing Betelgeuse, and reveal themselves to the Deetzes. But having been spun through the trials of at least a dozen planes of reality — Winter River and its model, the house in two configurations, Earth and Saturn, the waiting room and the attic, the Lost Souls Room — and dealt with all the spatial manipulators, the Maitlands have gathered all the steam they need. In the hallway, their faces twisted into mutant shapes to become the monsters that the ghost community demands, Barbara instead accepts the parental role that she rejected at the beginning of the film. “Adam, I want to be with Lydia,” she says, and this is suddenly more important than corking Betelgeuse’s bottle or retaking the house, or preventing the Deetzes from revealing the truth about the afterlife to the living world. “Can’t we rebel or something?,” she asks, calling into question how important the established order had been before the adventure began.

The perimeters have been broken. Otho steals the Handbook, Charles has stolen Lydia’s photos of the ghosts, Max Dean has arrived from New York, and so on. The solution the Maitlands strike is not to reestablish whatever restrictive boundaries exist, but to move across them with experience and a sort of wisdom. They learn, essentially, to take advantage of the ripples in reality that Betelgeuse exploits, but without the bio-exorcists’ defining disconnection with humanity: to coexist in space. With the plethora of strangely criss-crossing spaces, Adam and Barbara begin to think laterally across all the spaces they have inhabited.


Mystery Slot.

There are passages through the worlds of Beetlejuice through which we never pass. A truck-flattened office worker, suspended from cables in the social work office disappears into a mysterious black slit in the wall, constructed only for him, and leading to areas unknown. The myriad doors in the checker-tiled corridor remain closed. The space most frightening, for it appears to be no space at all, is the Lost Souls Room, infinite free fall up, down, every which way but defining form. These are the stakes, when Otho begins the exorcism in the narrative climax. A trinity of dangerous rituals — sacrifice, exorcism, and marriage — are the crisis points ending the film, all designed to trespass over the boundary which most deeply divides Beetlejuice, the trench between life and death.

The constant disorientation of shuttling between shrinking, growing worlds, strange passages between kitchen and other planets, the conflict with the Deetzes and Miss Argentina’s warning that "if I knew then what I knew now, I wouldn’t have had my little accident" snowball into the Maitlands’ rescue of Lydia. Intervening before she frees Betelgeuse who has promised to instruct her to the other side, Barbara shakes Lydia from her death wish: "Being dead really doesn’t make things any easier." "Listen to her on this one, Lydia, this is something we know a lot about," Adam agrees, as he struggles to warp his face back into a palatable shape.

On their first visit into the model to meet with Betelgeuse, the Maitlands must dig below the surface of the artificially built world, as they quite literally exhume Betelgeuse from the pint-sized graveyard. Wielding shovels and tearing through layers of textured rubber grass, corkboard, cardboard and Styrofoam, Adam is forced to investigate the materials on which his psychic reality is constructed. There may be nothing so mundane as "lessons" buried down there, but the Maitlands are given first-hand experience in the film’s metaphysics. Whatever space one inhabits has its own very real stakes. Action and object in one space may cross over and effect another. e.g. – Betelgeuse lures a Winter River housefly into his Tiny Town grave with a wonky-scaled Zagnut bar, and eats it. Barbara picks up the mini-geuse to scold him for turning into an Alaskan pipeline-sized snake and finds he can still fight back by popping blades from his body. The ghosts in the waiting room, burnt to char, cut in half, dangling sharks from limbs, all carry into the afterlife the scars of their lives.

The cover of The Handbook for the Recently Deceased depicts a family of travelers, in the style of 1950s roadmap, self-help or religious pamphlet graphics, on one side of a divide, looking to the clouds and sun on the other side. Armed with this span-leaping guide, Otho’s ritual zaps Adam and Barbara out of the attic and onto the dining room table, sculpting them back into corporeal bodies, which promptly begin to rot. The spell he recites contains, for our purposes, an important verse pertaining to the tension between the value of creating forms and destroying them: “As sudden thunder pierces night / As magic wonder, mad affright / Rives asunder man’s delight / Our ghost, our corpse and we rise to be.” This is the path to the Lost Souls Room, forced into a space, and into a shape where one cannot abide, and does not belong. And there the Maitlands begin to putrefy and die in their wedding clothes.

The mad plexus of Beetlejuice arrives at this point, where to stop Otho’s exorcism and save the Maitlands, Lydia has to marry Betelgeuse. Pause and consider this apparent impasse, which is everyone’s fault, including the rules of the berserk universe. A bargain finally struck for his services, about to unleash his wrath, Betelgeuse smoothes his hair, dusts his sleeves, shoots his cuffs, and announces into the camera that it is finally "showtime." The forth wall is nearly rent apart.

Like a deus ex miniature Betelgeuse rises from the model already reshaping his form as an amalgam of musical mobile, carousel, carnie barker and midway game. He lambastes the Deetzes infestation of the town, shouting "Welcome to Winter River, Connecticut, museum of natural greed!", and makes short work dispatching Max and Sarah Dean by blasting them through the roof off a freshly materialized Test Your Strength contraption. Where they have gone, where the holes in the ceiling lead, none can say. Impressive before as he played with the free-associative possibilities of objects, transforming the staircase handrail into a coiling serpent body, Betelgeuse unleashed is virtually a force of vengeance in the name of tortured objects. To capture witnesses to the ceremony, the ghost enlists Delia’s sculptures themselves, which wriggle to life, coiling like living shackles around the Deetzes bodies. Betelgeuse remolds the fireplace simply by winking his eye in its direction, and it shrugs into a cockeyed trapezoid as a squat ghostly priest steps through the new portal. The groom unloads a torrent of sight gags from his musty pockets, and in his final display of power to utilize well-placed portals makes his last error. As the Maitlands attempt to stop the wedding, Betelgeuse casually banishes them to less-convenient spaces. Adam is transported into his model, and given an opportunity to redeem its creation. Barbara, who began the journey most frustrated by a lack of clear-cut Heaven and Hell organization to the afterlife, is sent to Saturn.

Sidetrack: in an earlier moment, Adam and Barbara watch Lydia show her spirit photography to Delia, who isn’t buying it. "Those are pictures of ghosts?" and taunts the girl because she hasn’t been the subject of a status-confirming Vanity Fair cover photo – if one photo tells the Truth over another, it is a matter of personal truth. Adam is confused as to why Delia can shrug off the images. "Adam," Barb chides, "you had a photo of Bigfoot." He stares at her seriously. "My photo of Bigfoot is another story."

Back inside the model, Adam enters a toy truck, the truck Charles earlier flicks across the model tooting "beep beep!", and barrels down the street. The man who died in the 1:1 scale version of the town drives the car straight off the table, successfully spanning the space between two worlds, bending the borders between spheres, and surviving the automobile drop that killed him. The truck slams into Betelgeuse’s foot and bursts into flame. As he hops around with a transdimensional hotfoot, Betelgeuse looks to the ceiling and shrieks. Barbara, riding atop a sandworm, plunges through the roof, busting a hole through at least three worlds – Saturn to the house on the hill and back to the waiting room, where Betelgeuse is returned when the worm consumes him – as the Maitlands inventively traverse the spaces that have trapped them.


Our Ghost, Our Corpse, and We rise to be.
The bride throws her bouquet.

It is because Tim Burton has constructed his screen space so clearly that this rich nonsense may be free to run on its own internal, infernal logic. A celebrated sequence in Beetlejuice, in which the Maitlands possess the Deetz’s dinner party and force them to sing "Day-O", see-saws across the axis of action, creating a disorienting sense that something is going terribly wrong with the space itself. The one-sheet poster depicts a massive Betelgeuse sitting on the house, or a half-sized Betelgeuse and tiny Deetz family inside the model... or something, but clearly the hallucinatory sense of space and scale is key to understanding Beetlejuice.

The story does not unlock an answer to every problem it poses. Beetlejuice proposes that the universe is built on principles that will forever frustrate our very natures. So being dead, after all, really doesn’t make things any easier. But in the upbeat coda, the Maitland and Deetz families have found strategies to make it more bearable, perhaps the best they could ask. The house, now shared, is shown in a state of decoration flux, possibly being restored to Jane Butterfield specifications, possibly not. The Maitlands remain stuck indoors for a century, but Adam’s model, now relocated to the living room, provides a way out. Lydia ventures into Winter River to take photos of the new town hall for Adam’s reference, and picks up paint. With his surrogate daughter’s assistance expanding his formerly solitary hobby, Adam appears to recognize that he misses the community he was replicating in the first place.

Upstairs, Charles peruses not a homeowner magazine, but a new volume by the Handbook authors, titled The Living and the Dead. He cheerily echoes Adam’s earlier lament that it “reads like stereo instructions!” Charles has at least in this glimpse, found a means of empathizing with the Maitlands rather than buying their lives and slipping into the den. Our last peek at Delia is as she unveils a new sculpture, which terrifies her husband into a backwards tumble. Her only figural piece depicts Betelgeuse in snake form. In self-fulfilling prophecy, Delia has finally frightened someone with her sculpture, but for its power as an object of art.

This final reordering of domesticity is capped by Adam’s benevolent display of all the power Betelgeuse displayed and arguably misused. Where Betelgeuse, as Juno explains, does not work well with others, for the Maitlands, human relationships have returned to the center, not the structure around them. As a reward for getting an A on her math exam, Adam levitates Lydia by the stairwell, pumps the happy, booming voice of Harry Belafonte singing "Jump in the Line" through her frail, pale form, manipulates the pottery and chairs to beat a rhythm, and tearing a special portal through worlds, transports a team of green, ghostly football players as backup dancers.


Already perfectly at ease.

This piece focuses on just a few of the movie's throughlines, but Tim Burton's vision is filled to bursting, and the spectator has a choice of which to pick up, among the bright festooning of ideas, images and curios, littering the film; among its chief preoccupations, Beetlejuice uses characters' musical and fashion tastes as plot points. The film has a Gnostic fixation on the power of naming and mysticism of words. It is concerned with concepts of the American nuclear family, the process of growing into adulthood, reality and representation, and with art movements versus art trends. It inverts and toys with various ghost story traditions. All of these paths eventually point back to the same concerns: how we make sense of life and death, the strange continuities, miserable, joyful and riotous, between their borders. Lydia, home at last, surrounded by people who care about her well being more than a house, as Mr. Belafonte says, goes up in the air, and down in slow motion.

6 comments:

Nick said...

that was fantastic. i could not believe, first of all, the sheer fact that you had written an entire analysis of beetlejuice... and i couldn't stop reading. that had to have been a good twenty minutes. well done.

i came across your post while searching for the phrase "talking marcel marceau statue". before that, i had read an article about marcel marceau THE MIME who just passed away. i had never understood the joke before.

- Nick

Chris Stangl said...

Thank you Nick. I admire Marceau's work a great deal, and while it's a funny line in BEETLEJUICE, was never quite sure what the joke was doing there. The conventional wisdom is always that Tim Burton's films are so idiosyncratic and half-baked that at best they make an "internal" kind of sense... but nobody seems willing to unravel exactly what's happening in that internal logic.

Besides, I've seen BEETLEJUICE in the neighborhood of 150 times; after that, any movie's bound to take on a life of it's own, since it's pretty much got a permanent residence in your brain.

AHR said...

I came across this page in a similarly arbitrary fashion, searching for the exact wording of Juno's quote about Beetlegeuse not working "well with others".

I ended up reading the entire essay. It really is a phenomenal analysis. I've watched Beetlejuice more times than I can remember, but rarely all the way through in one sitting. Now, I WANT to go back and watch it in it's entirety, since this critique has given me a lens through which to view the thematic consistencies in what I confess I always saw as a wonderful but almost impenetrably chaotic movie.

PS: The reason I was looking for that quote was to check a reference in mc chris's Beetlejuice tribute song. You might enjoy it, it's on mc's MySpace listed as "secret song": http://www.myspace.com/mcchris

Annotated lyrics are up on my site: http://www.geekanerdblog.com/2008/04/shrimp-glove-face-plant-mc-chris-pay.html

Anonymous said...

That was a great analysis and summary of the "plot". I was doing a visual search on Sandworms from the movie and started to read. I couldn't stop and was surprised that it was so long and still very insightful. Great job!

dr said...

I've seen BEETLEJUICE in the neighborhood of 150 times

Does it keep getting funnier, every. single. time. you see it?

And I agree with the others: I have to watch again with some of these geospatial vs interpersonal ideas in mind.

lunke13 said...

What a great analysis of the movie! I've watched BeetleJuice hundreds of times and it still remains my favourite movie. I found this while looking for a picture of the "Draw a Door" scene which is my favourite part, and I've often fantasised about being able to draw a door and escape to another world. I found your picture and got sucked into reading the whole article! I never really counted the amount of portals/ stages of existance there are in the movie, and now I just want to watch it all over again. Your analysis of the characthers is spot on. Great work.