“A pale, frail-looking, sad-eyed man with hair that expressed much more than last night’s pillow struggle… I remember the first thing I thought was, ‘Get some Sleep,” writes Johnny Depp, a long time associate actor of Tim Burton, in his forward to Burton on Burton (Burton, Salisbury and Depp, Burton on Burton x).
The image that Depp puts forth is that of a man-child who inspires through his camera, images of gothic landscape and images of demonic clown along with the Dickensian downheartedness and loneliness of a socially unaccepted protagonist as in Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Burton in his work puts forth an absolute mess and as self-described as “happy-go lucky manic-depressive” (Breskin), in the same way, like his physical description penned down by Johnny Depp. Tim Burton has brought forth a style of films that transcends conventional genre and explanations (Burton and Fraga vii).
In his first short film, Vincent, Berton recalled the tale of a young man who dreamed of becoming a prince but was trapped in his suburban home, the story of a fairy tale gone wrong.
This shows his love for the queer and the odd. Laurent Tirard points out that Berton “grew up fascinated by vampires, zombies, and cheap horror films,” which created an everlasting influence on his romanticizing with the “weirdness as embodied by all sorts of hilariously marginal creatures” (Moviemakers’ master class: private lessons from the world’s foremost directors 91). Berton is particularly definite in portraying these magical creatures and he almost becomes the spokesperson of the queer.
His movies are visual poetry that shows the beauty behind the demonic and the beast-like creatures. Burton himself confessed that the ideas he gets are a “little too dark” that represents his personality’s “negative side” (Tirard 94). So how far are the ideas and images reflected in the films created by Berton reflects the real him, and how has come out of the influence of his upbringing and childhood.
Alternatively, is it that Berton sees things in a dark, gothic, manner, almost like a vision that renders a novel portrayal of the comic book characters or those from classic texts? Burton’s genius as a creator is skillfully described by Johnny Depp as “an artist, a genius, an oddball, an insane, brilliant, brave, hysterically funny, loyal, nonconformist” (Burton, Salisbury and Depp xii).
These qualities penned down by Depp about Burton are true and are reflected in his films. In this paper, an attempt is made to understand Burton as a rebellious and nontraditional artist and filmmaker.
This paper is a study of the life and work of Tim Burton. The paper tries to understand what Burton spoke through his films and how and why he was influenced to make such dreamlike (almost nightmarish) movies that transcend viewers into a gothic paradise of satire, horror imagery, and a post-modern rendition of classic fables and texts. Burton’s movies ushers a new culture of film that inspires awe as well as amazement.
His use of animation in movies to portray whimsically magical creatures that were otherwise marginalized in the original story points to a new marginalized world. The paper takes a deep look into Berton’s early life had an impact on the films he made. Further, the paper also analyzes the movies of Berton and tries to unravel the mystery elements of the movies and bring out the salient features that make Berton’s movies belong to a very different class of its own.
Tim Burton was born on 25 August 1958, in Burbank, California (Lee 13). Burton belonged to a lower-middle class family and had a younger brother. Burton as a child was an introvert and felt like a misfit in the suburban society. He grew up listening to punk rock and watching cheap horror movies.
His early idol filmmaker was Vincent Price. Though Berton did not shine in traditional academics, his artistic talent and penchant for creativity surfaced early when he used to paint decorations for his neighbors during Christmas and Halloween to make money. Later, at the age of 18, Berton received a scholarship to attend California Institute if the Arts.
In 1979, Burton joined Disney as an animator and started working on his first project Te Fox and the Hound. Then he started working as a concept artist but his ideas were rarely used as it was considered too dark for Disney’s peppy image. In 1982, he directed his first short film Vincent, which was a stop-motion animation film about a seven-year old boy.
From the very first movie Burton exposed audiences with his unique visions and gothic imagery that later became signature style for the filmmaker. In 1984, he made Frankenweenie that recounted story of a young Victor Frankestein who breathes life into his dead pet dog. It was not until 1985, after leaving Disney; Burton received commercial success with the movie, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.
This movie built his initial reputation as a commercial filmmaker. Burton’s love for the horror and weird continued with Bettlejuice (1998) which was a bigger commercial hit. This movie brought Burton to international fame as it won an Oscar for best make-up. Burton’s fame erupted more with the release of the 1989 Batman movie.
However, Burton’s artistic talent as a filmmaker was established with Edward the Scissorhands in 1990. This movie reiterated the significant dark imagery typical of Burton’s movies. The film was based in suburban America of Edward, a maddeningly original character, who had been artificially created. The movie brings in along with Edward, a typically suburban American life in the 1950s with stereotypical pulp fiction characters.
His other films released in the 1990s were Batman Returns (1992), Ed Wood (1994), Batman Forever (1995), Mars Attack! (1996), and Sleepy Hollow (1999). In the 2000s, Burton directed movies like Planet of the Apes (2001), Big Fish (2003), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), Sweeny Todd (2007), and Alice in Wonderland (2010). These films received mixed critical reviews and popularity. However, Burton’s ability to create a unique form of film that brings forth a vision of the dark and queer cannot be doubted.
Every film has been categorized to represent various facets of the culture, gender, biographical, etc. are discussed in greater detail when we try and understand what Burton’s movies speak of in the next section. Burton’s movies are believed to be his expression of his rebellious nonconformist attitude, his love for the queer, and influence of pop culture and art. The paper will analyze a few movies by Burton to understand what he tried to express as an artist and what influenced his non-conventional style of filmmaking.
Art, Pop Culture, and Burton
“I think best when I’m drawing.” – Tim Burton (McMahan 20)
In his early childhood at Burbank, Burton was a product of a “benignly dysfunctional family” (Burton, Magliozzi and He 9). He had an “odd” relationship with his father. In his early childhood, Burton describes himself both as a practical joker and an introvert (9). His favorite pastime was to hibernate to his room and eventually moved in with his grandmother. Burton was never a reader, even of comic books as he felt there were too many words and “Drawing and visual media were his pain-relievers” (10).
The early childhood scrapbooks of Burton demonstrates that even as a boy Burton was a voracious consumer of the pop culture through his collection of greeting cards, lists of sci-fi and horror movies, sketches of his favorite star Vincent Price, and posters that he created for horror films (Burton, Magliozzi and He 10). His collection of newspaper cartoonists such as Henry Syverson (Saturday Evening Post), Gahan Wilson (National Lampoon), and Angelo Torres (Mad Magazine) show his interest in the satire of the culture and the conventional.
All these cartoonists brought forth their caricature of the American way of life through wry witness of the battle of the sexes, cultural satires, and adult cartoons. These cartons left a lasting influence on Burton’s sensibility through his efforts to imitate their drawing styles. His school assignments also helped in inculcating the pop artist in Burton.
In 1975, an assignment was given to Burton to write a paper on “Humor in America”. It was apparent that Burton from his very early childhood wanted to be a non-conformist, a rebelled against the “ordinary way of life” that Burbank fathers so cherishingly upheld (Burton, Magliozzi and He, Tim Burton 10).
Burton was then accepted at CalArts that provided an unique opportunity to him to explore and exploit his artistic talent. Though his classroom sketchbooks contain conventional still lives and art instructions, but it provided Burton with the environment to explore many possibilities of his rebellious imagination that helped him create creatures such as “bizarre aliens, humanoid insects, and battling dinosaurs.” (Burton, Magliozzi and He, Tim Burton 10).
His artistic talents were dubbed to be “the kind of raw talent the Disney instructors expected could be trained to serve the company.” (Burton, Magliozzi and He, Tim Burton 10) Burton’s graduation project a four minute animated film named The Stalk of the Celery Monster (1979) showed a story of a mad torturing doctor’s chamber to a dentists’ clinic. The short movie is a whimsical sketchbook that demonstrates his love to merge the gothic with the real world.
Burton had a close connection between his visual and performing art. Art no doubt had a lasting impact on the way he conceived his films. His inspirations came from the cartoon strips from newspapers from his early childhood to the cartoons that studied women, men, and couples, and watercolor and pen and ink renditions of the 1980s.
Burton through his love of art and the weird created a pop Cubism. In the 1980s Burton created a wonderfully pencil illustrated animation. These represented his ability as an adept storyteller whose voice was overshadowed by Gothic characters and visual effects.
Burton as a child was introvert and in a maintained a socially alienated life. His characters right from the very beginning (e.g. Vincent , Edward Scissorhand, etc.) shows that he had a “loner mentality” (Burton, Magliozzi and He 13).
He was greatly influenced by the Pop Surrealist culture that evolved during the phase of Burton’s childhood and his professional career in form of tattoo art, pinups, comics, toys etc. this art form removed itself from the conventional modern abstract paintings and art to demonstrate a more representative art form.
Burton too was influenced by the Pop Surrealist culture that developed during the time and its influence can be remarkably found in his films and personal projects such as his paintings (e.g. Blue Girl with Wine, 1997) and his extra-large Polaroid photographs (Burton, Magliozzi and He 13).
It is believed that the flow of the fluids in his films as in the rivers of chocolate in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) or the gushing blood from Sweeny Todd: The Demon barber of Fleet Street (2007) represent Burton’s homage to the Pop Surrealists. Further in his depiction of physical mutilation in characters such as “stitched Sally, the tattooed Blue Girls or the pierced Pin Cushion Queen” (14) in Nightmare, Burton reveals his affiliation to the punk body art capturing the pop Surrealist art. He adopted other pop Surrealistic characters:
In line with the figurative nature of Pop Surrealism, Burton delights in the exaggerated manipulation of the body. Japanese transformation toys were important early influence and his drawings often picture anthropomorphic creatures – part man, animal, and machine – in the grip of some transformative emotion.
His attention to the creature-like qualities of his characters is a way for him to access their humanity: the cartoon concept art for Batman and the Joker emphasized their damaged psyches; the drawings of Edward Scissorhands’s sinister bondage gear and jack Sellington’s freakish emaciation translates to their soulfulness on screen. (Burton, Magliozzi and He 14)
Most of Burton’s characters a hidden behind masks and armors that re-emphasizes the “creatures lurking within” as observed in the expressionist attire in the Batman series, Planet of the Apes, Sleepy Hollow, and Scissorhands.
Another specific character of Burton’s work is its carnivalesque nature. Often his movies presents an imagery of a circus or a fair ground entertainment. This carnival inspired drama is present in movies like Batman trilogy, Pee-wee, Beetlejuice, Mars Attack!, and Charlie.
The presence of puppets, toys, clowns, scarecrows represents his love for the carnival and circus entertainment. Further, his sensibility for the carnival is reinforced with use of contrasting primary colors, stripes, and question marks. Typical of Burton’s movies, a carnival, a parade, or a large sign usually attracts sinister intentions.
As observed in many of his movies a merry parade ends in a scene of mass destruction, as is Batman. A visit to the chocolate factory in Charlie leads to corrupt and physical abuse. In Nightmare Burton even suspects, Santa Clause as a “colorful clown” and the Christmas holiday too is put under scrutiny. Burton’s affinity for clowns as the most misunderstood creatures puts forth the human hypocrisy and duplicity and opposing the stereotypical believes of man (Burton, Magliozzi and He 14).
His movies are strewn with scenes where there are direct conversation between adolescent and adulthood that actually rebels against authority. And the last, but most notable aspect of Burton’s creativity are his heroes who are creatures of varied spheres be it a forsaken loner sculpting ice and shrubs in Scissorhands or surviving the Wonderland or slitting throats. They are always a fair glimpse into the artistic and imaginative mind of Tim Burton.
An interesting term has been coined by Alison McmAhan, author of the book The Films of Tim Burton, called pataphysical cinema (The films of Tim Burton: animating live action in contemporary Hollywood 3). Pataphysics is the port modern version of French surrealism and Dadaism.
Such films are characterized by their anti-institution feeling that tries to make a satire of the existing academic or scientific system, have an alternative narrative, use of a lot of special effect, and movies are made on thin plots and thinly drawn characters (McMahan 3). Tim Burton is considered to be a pataphysical filmmaker (McMahan 7).
These movies are representational cinema that floats through the corridor of mainstream cinema. There are a lot of messages inscribed in these films in term of political message. This understanding of pataphysical films helps understand more of filmmakers like Burton who are a non-conformist race in the Hollywood.
It is believed that Burton’s storytelling through his films undercuts the conventional Hollywood movies. In a way, these movies run in parallel with the natural storytelling with very little plot and an animated or special effect filled ‘other’ anti-establishment message. These special effect filled sections of the movies defies the conventional avant-garde idea of art in theatre, films, or any other form of visual arts.
One can argue that pataphysical cinema came into filmdom from as early as the early twentieth century by George Melies who first started making trick films. These movies are caste with a spectacle behind its cinema. These movies acknowledge that animation and video games are an alternative method of storytelling. New digital technology has amazingly made the line between animation and live action indistinct (McMahan 10).
The drag driven model or the animation in films serves as a voice against the institution and becomes a model for the pataphysical cinema (McMahan 11). Burton’s films are fine examples of pataphysical cinema, as argued by McMahan, travel the fine line between animation and live action, and successfully mix genres and trends of filmmaking.
In Burton’s early movies, such as Vincent and Frankenweenie this post-modern element is found in abundance. These two movies are prototypes of pataphysical cinema with their thin narrative that are planned around portions of silence. Both the movies in a way are mockingly challenge the suburban traditionalist attitude and dull way of thinking.
Burton actually uses animation and special effect to present a character that is nurtured by psychological motivation and is devoid of any classical trait. This makes Burton’s movies so different in approach. Burton adopts animation and special effect to highlight the anarchic plots that are structured around dazzling sequences.
In a conventional way, all films are structured around small sequences like musicals. But what makes these genre of films different is that the comedy described in these films are comedies that differ in the conventional aesthetics of a comedy. In this section, a better understanding of Burton’s movies is delineated through the glasses of pataphysical cinema as described by McMahan.
Both Burton, et al. (Tim Burton) and McMahan believe that visual art, pop culture, and surrealism have a strong influence on Burton’s work as an artist and a filmmaker.
His imagination is strewn with the unthought-of and rebellious anti-institutional characters. Nevertheless, are his films really as eccentric and surreal as is observed by the above-mentioned authors? Are they representative of Pop Surrealism and pataphysical cinema? Further analysis into the films of Burton is done in the following sections to unravel and rebellious, pop culture addict, weirdo-influenced imagination of Burton.
Tim Burton’s movies give a different feel to conventional stories. The gothic element, use of carnivalesque elements, genders, and many other elements make them distinct from other dark movies. However, the most important factor that sets Burton’s movies aside is their psychoanalytic perspectives. In the following section I will discuss the movies directed by Burton.
Dark animation movies were the beginning of s signature style of Burton that he carried forward in his later movies. This section discusses a few cartoon movies made by Burton that shows the inspiration that he draws for his films. His career began as an animator with Disney though Burton himself states, “Disney and I were a bad mix.” (Burton, Salisbury and Depp 9).
He directed The Black Couldron (1985) was a medieval fantasy of a magical cauldron that could produce armies of the undead (Burton, Magliozzi and He 11). Burton produced a series of “satiric killing machines” that demonstrated his liking for the gory.
The movie showed “monsterous baby incubators that use infants as ammunition, and other radically un-Disney-like, anthropomorphic creatures.” (11) during his stay in Disney, Burton created a lot of projects such as Nightmare before Christmas, Trick or Treat (1980), True Love (1981-83), Dream Factory, Hansel and Gratel (1983), and Vincent.
Burton in his career as an animator had made innovative and successful use of two-dimensional and three-dimensional animation. His 3-D animation begun with Vincent wehre he used “2-D cel animation and 3-D stop-motion animation” (McMahan 81).
Vincent begins with a 2-D sequence for its title with Gothic lettering for the title on the wall. The next sequence shows a cat runs in and jumps into a 3-D house therefore showing a seamless transition from 2-D to 3-D. as the cat enters the house Vincent picks it up and the voice over narration relates: “Vincent Malloy is seven year old. He’s always polite and does what he’s told.
For a boy his age he’s considerate and nice. But he wants to be just like Vincent Price” (McMahan 82). Saying so, the scene changes with Vincent-the boy transformed into Vincent Price the mad, scientist persona. The cartoon movie had a distinctive theme of death running throughout the movie.
Burton himself says that at one point when Vincent is asked by his mother to go outside and enjoy the sunny day, Vincent says “I am possessed by this house/ I can never leave it again.” (McMahan 85) This is reminiscent of the Gothic undertone of the movie so characteristic of Burton’s movies. Vincent’s final vision of his undead wife and a killer dog and his eventual collapse on the floor, shows that he was fantasizing of his own death, as explained by Burton himself (McMahan 85).
The main theme of the movie is death though no killing or murder sequence is shown in the movie. Burton cleverly does not show any killing but definitely shows the aftereffects or the feeling of killing and death throughout the movie. The animations created by Burton had a great impact on the movie he made in his later career as most of his movies were reminiscent of a distinctive cartoonish character.
Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985)
The first movie directed by Burton was Pee-wee which has gained a cult status in moviemaking. It is one of the most cartoon-like movies created by Burton that is actually a live-action movie.
Actually, the movie uses two cartoon sections and several stop-motion animation scenes. Pee-wee is important as it parodies almost all genres from 1970s television shows and soaps to late night commercials for kitchen products: “… from the sporting event opening, the product placement shots of the bike … the police series … soap opera series like Dynasty, and underwater action sequences from Tarzan.” (McMahan 52).
The movie is about Pee-wee who has an obsession and feeling about his red bike. The movie opens in a dream sequence with Pee-wee winning a cycle race on this bike. When we wakes up there is a grown up man who actually resembles a pubescent boy with childish antiques and a distinct fear for women.
At times, he is also shown as a mechanical genius with an elaborate machine set up on the breakfast table and his childish liking for magic tricks. Pee-wee’s bike is the envy of all the boys in the bloc and when he refuses to sell it to the local bully Francis, the latter manages to steal it from him.
Then Pee-wee emerges on an adventure to look for his bicycle. The episode of searching for the bicycle takes the audience through a world of animation, fantasy characters, and special effects. The characters and the incidents are definitely cartoon inspired – the way Pee-wee enters a cafe with two large dinosaur statues, he hops on a freight train and sings hobo songs, ultimately reaching Alamo but not finding the bicycle.
The whole movie is based on narrative style of a cartoon with little connection or logic to what is being done by the characters. Critics have often stated that Burton’s movies lack a classic narrative style however, they often judge Burton’s movies benchmarked on classic Hollywood narrative style. However, Burton does not confirm to this style. In the Hollywood classic narrative style, the protagonist usually has a moral revelation that alters his/her life, however, in Pee-wee no such thing occurs.
On the other hand it denies the normal behavioral pattern followed by Hollywood movies that Pee-wee, despite his self-absorption, makes a lot of friends wherever he goes. In a way, the plot of Pee-wee is “circular and episodic” indicating that each of the events and scenes are “structured around a gag or a series of gags” expressing the cartoon like character of the movie (McMahan 54). In a way, with Pee-wee Burton ushered in a new genre of movie making which has been termed as pataphysical films (McMahan 58).
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1999)
The story of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was set in 1799. It is about Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) who is a forensic detective with the police department. He is a scientist in the Victorian style, caught in the schema of “Gothic revival America” (McMahan 68). However, the police department reluctant with the methods of Crane, sends him to a remote village of Sleepy Hollow where a series of mysterious murders have been reported.
But as Crane enters the village, which reflects a bucolic farm village with Dutch architecture, all the doors are closed at his approach. Incidentally, he enters a house that was hosting a party and gets introduced to the other characters i.e. Katrina Van Tassel and Bram von Brunt. Katrina’s father, Baltus Van Tassel, who is also the wealthiest man in the village invites Crane to stay in his house as long he has to solve his mystery.
Crane meets the elders of the town who tell him that a headless equestrian who was killed two decades back in the Western Woods was responsible for the mysterious deaths in the village. The mystery once unraveled shows that Lady Van Tassel, second wife of Baltus’, had initially entered as a nurse to care for his first wife (Katherine’s mother) to avenge a grievance to her family and to get rich. Soon she kills Baltus’s first wife and seduces him to marry her.
She was a witch who uses her powers to bring back the dead Hessian who kills anybody at her bidding. She also makes hessian kill all Ichabod meets the first night at Sleepy Hollow. Ichabod a man of science at first rejects the stories of Hessian but when he witnesses the death of Magistrate Philipse he realizes that it is actually true and appears to have a nervous breakdown.
However, once he regains consciousness he declares that even though the horseman is supernatural, he is controlled by a human and goes ahead to investigate the case from a rational and scientific perspective. His method makes him first suspect Baltus, who is killed by the Horseman, and then Katherine. But then his reasoning makes him suspect Lady Van Tassel and he returns to the village just in time to save Katherine from death. In the end, the Horseman carries Lady Van Tassel to hell (McMahan 70).
The movie is strewn with Gothic elements as it has been stated that Sleepy Hollow “was the first Gothic horror movie in Tim Burton’s career” (McMahan 71). But even in this movie Burton is found to make a “hybrid genre film that combines two structures – fairy tale and horror” (71).
The fairy tale like element is seen when Ichabod is sent on a quest to look for the missing links between the murders and the Horseman. He eventually solves the problem and links the fairy tale like magic element of the Horseman with his scientific forensic reasoning. Here Burton uses to show masculine as the hero in Ichabod and his scientific methods and the feminine is the witch and her witchcraft.
The horror influence is seen at its best in the creation of the character of serial-killer-psychopath incarnated Lady Van Tussel who is a typical character out of any low budget horror flicks. In Ichabod too Burton presents a contradiction of his scientific love of rational investigative forensic and his distaste for “dirty, messy, insect-like, or at all scary” (McMahan 73).
According to Burton in Ichabod he portrayed a teenage girl: “male action adventure hero who’s portrayed like a thirteen-year-old girl” (McMahan 73). This is a similar approach that Burton shows as in Pee-wee where a grown up man shows the characters of a pubescent boy.
Sweeny Todd (2007)
Sweeny Todd is an adaptation of musical and theatrical drama based on a serial killer from London. The movie begins one night with a ship that brings the characters into London. London is shown as a dark city accentuating the Gothic elements of the movie. The real name of Todd is Benjamin Barker, who has been framed by Judge Turnip, sexually abused his wife, and took his daughter into his care whom he intends to marry (Lee 68).
The world depicted by Burton is a world of men where the strong and powerful can easily ruin the life of the less privileged men. Todd takes revenge on his vindicator through a series of murders that are shown in the film. One of the striking elements of the film is its adherence to cannibalism especially transformation of Todd’s victims into meat pies that are devoured by Mrs. Lovett’s customers. Todd initially intended to take revenge on Turnip but starts getting pleasure out of his killings.
The movie takes a more morbid turn as Mrs. Lovett and Todd emerges on a killing spree that evades their desire to rebel against the unequal class system in seventeenth century England. But the taste of murder makes them forget their desire to bring equality, rather they too are engulfed in the cruel society and brings out the cannibalistic idea of serving “human meat to other humans” (Lee 71). Therefore, their idea of brining equality is to serve the same food to all indistinctively but also at the cost of cruelty against the innocent.
Burton made a number of movies with his characteristic treatment and discussion of all may not be possible in this paper. However, all these movies show a definitely distinct character and use of certain elements are continuous in all of Burton’s films. The next section discusses the various elements of Burton’s films.
Analyzing Burton’s Movies
This section analyzes Burton’s movies based on a few broad characters that are distinctly observed in Burton’s movies such as use of themes such as Gothic, fairy tale, gender and pop culture.
Tim Burton’s love for fairy tales has been observed in most of his movies where his gothic characters often assume fairy tale like character. The elements of fairy tale is most observable in Burton’s romantic fantasy tale of Edward Scissorhands. The movie is about a mild natured young man who was a creation of scientific experimentation gone wrong and was fitted with long scissors.
The young man, Edward, was marginalized from normal society due to his queer appearance and therefore was rejected by society. This movie was shot in a sunny suburban neighborhood of America unlike Burton’s signature love for dingy, dark urban labyrinth.
The movie is strewn with pulp-like characters out of a comic book (like the neurotic housewife, a religious fanatic, and a hairstylist who was a nymphomaniac) are largely grotesque. In the end of the movie, Edward saves a child from being hit by a car. As he was trying to comfort the boy he accidentally cuts the face of the child, which irate the townspeople who try to kill him.
Edward and Kim (his female friend) escape tot eh castle where Edward used to stay and as they try to kiss Kim’s jealous boyfriend Jim, who is killed in a struggle with Edward, interrupted them. In the end Kim tells the townspeople that Edward was dead too. The movie is a fairy tale or parable and is shown as a story being told by a grandmother to her granddaughter. The grandmother tells the granddaughter that it never snowed in the town until Edward came to the town.
The movie ends as slivers of snow are blown out of the castle window onto the peaceful town. The movie has a characteristic ending of a fairy tale. In his other movies too, Burton played with fairy tale elements and presented them in a dark background as observed in Sleepy Hollow or Sweeney Todd. In his own words Burton says that fairy tale is mostly misrepresented by popular culture as “all white” which is actually a misinterpretation of the tales:
I think it does have to do with whatever that young impulse is – whatever you want to call that. Who are we? How are we created? What else is out there? What happens when you die? All that stuff is unknown. Everything is under the umbrella of life and death and the unknown, and a mixture of good and bad, and funny and sad, and everything at once.
It is weirdly complicated. And I find that fairy tales acknowledge that. They acknowledge the absurdity, they acknowledge the reality, but in a way that is beyond real. Therefore, I find that more real. (Burton and Fraga, Tim Burton: interviews 66).
In Scissorhands Burton depicts a fairy tale in the narrative structure of the film. However, in a more sophisticated manner with humor and pathos mingled with the basic story. Burton’s work from Scissorhands to Big Fish is reminiscent of the fairy tale narrative structure. In a way, Scissorhands could be called Burton’s version of Beauty and the Beast.
In order to understand the Gothic elements in Burton’s movies it is unavoidable to understand what is meant by Gothic. In the 17th and the 18th century, as science and its predominance in man’s thinking became predominant, it emerged an era of enlightenment that questioned age-old social and religious teachings. The forbearers of Enlightenment wanted to bear the light of rational thinking on the magical and gullible thinking of the past.
In other words, from the scientific rational, the Gothic was chaotic and the new enlightened way of life was more orderly. In a way, the Gothic was therefore, connected with the “dark” side of human life. Therefore, with the advent of the twentieth century cinema, Gothic themes had always enthralled the audiences and the filmmakers. This new genre of films created a horror movie genre.
The creepy Gothic feel in Burton’s movies is a signature style that can be found in all his movies starting from Vincent through Sweeney Todd and Alice in Wonderland. Gothic imagery are indisputably present in all of Burton’s movies. In Edward Scissorhands, Edward is found in the attic of a Gothic castle that is found to be the dwelling place of the protagonists in many of Burton’s creations.
The visual elements of Sleepy Hollow and Sweeney Todd are Gothic in character. Burton’s films based on fairy tale narrative such as Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Sleepy Hollow and his myth films such as batman, Batman Returns, Ed Wood, and Planet of Apes are all set in modern Gothic background and have been called examples of modern Gothic (McMahan 67).
The reason being in the predominance of a “gloomy and mysterious settings, menacing or nostalgic soundtracks, the oppressive weight of the past upon the present, supernatural and human evil, and a set of decor that is usually an excessive combination of medieval and rococo design style.” (McMahan 68)
Classic Gothic tales were characterized by human evil in form of a father figure as in case of the creator of Edward Scissorhands and Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood or the aristocrat as oppressors as shown in Judge Turnip in Sweeney Todd. The use of Gothic imagery is clearly found in all of Burton’s movies, which were essentially gothic in character in their very inception. Burton’s movies show his likeness for the dark and light facets of human life.
In Vincent, Burton pays homage to Vincent Price, Edgar Allen Poe and other horror films made in of the mid-20th century. The animation movie is drawn on the Expressionist horror movie style and Burton uses a stark contrast of a black and white palette.
The movie shows the horrors in human mind through Vincent who is a boy who conforms to the otherwise conventional way of a “normal” life. Vincent’s association with the darker side of life and his experimentations to reveal the darker side of life is Gothic in character. Further, use of dark background also helps in accentuating the Gothic feel.
In Edward Scissorhands Burton makes full use of a Gothic narrative and grapples with the fearful unknown that lies underneath the perfectly ‘normal’ suburban life. It therefore, brings in the two worlds together the dark, dejected world of Edward with the bright sunny life of the townspeople.
In a way, Burton experiments with the idea of the classical Gothic and transcends its meaning as the classical Gothic and Burton’s re-invention of a modern Gothic in the mind and heart of the townspeople is collided in the film. Here on the key ideas taken from classical Gothic narrative is putting normal people in weird and extraordinary situations.
However, with the Edward being brought in the depthless life of the pastel colored town, Edward is asked to conform to the ideals set for him by the normal understanding of the townspeople. But he is soon dejected as a freak when Edward exposes mask of normalcy behind which the suburban town hid itself.
In Ichabo, in Sleepy Hollow, Burton creates a Gothic-style hero who fights with the superstitious unnatural magic that encumbers the village of Sleepy Hollow with his own belief in science and rational thinking. The Gothic element in the movie is accentuated with Gothic style background, castle, and the woods. This movie is reminiscent of the Gothic mingling of rational scientific mind and the unnatural, irrational, old age superstitions in magic and the supernormal.
Burton’s portrayal of Gotham city is also a depiction of the Gothic hero in batman who is a solitary soul roaming around in a bat-suit at night and through the dingy alleys of Gotham City.
Sweeney Todd is dark movie at its best that unveils the evil residing in human conditions. As seen in Lady Van Tussel in Sleepy Hollow who unleashes on a murderous road with the headless Horseman, in Sweeney Todd the protagonists too walk the path of a murderous rampage and unleashes the demons residing inside their soul. The fire of revenge consumes the protagonists in the film. The reason, like Batman, is a past trauma in Todd’s life that left him a divided being.
This desire for revenge disassociates Todd, as well as Batman, from being the man he used to be therefore traversing the path of bloodlust. In the barbaric rendering of Sweeney Todd, Burton re-emphasizes on the Gothic theme of the movie. Like the classic Gothic tales that infuses nightmares, Sweeney Todd infuses nightmares of cannibalism, an inexplicable human crime and the ultimate treachery of tricking the unwitting to commit this demonic act.
Another feature of Gothic tales is a disconnect with the things that are normally accessible to human beings. In case of Sweeney Todd is the disconnect of the natural human feelings due to the past tragedy and separation with his family. His wronged past suffocates of all humane feelings from him and disassociates him from the man he once was.
All these movies have a definitive Gothic feel and Burton accentuates and plays with the normal and the Gothic to bring forth the darker side of human mind and heart rather than the scene or background. Therefore, the Gothic elements in Burton’s movies are more in the darker side of human mind than in the landscape and architecture.
In Sleepy Hollow Burton portrays the supernatural and the magic as female characterized through Lady Von Tussel while the male lead character Ichabod portrays the scientific reasoning.
Gender portrayal in Burton’s movies run from wicked witch to dutiful daughter to the wicked child. In Sleepy Hollow, Ichabod stands between these women and their claim over the patriarchal society. Lady Van Tussel is a classical portrayal of women who hunger for power as their own and not through a man as irrational, conniving, and heartless.
Burton shows Tussel as a dangerous feminist who uses the man she betrayed to do the killings the she herself wishes to commit. Tussel demonstrates an anti-patriarchal force but not actually a feminist. She actually uses her anger to meet personal goals rather than for all female race. On the other hand, Katherine uses her power to protect her father and Ichabod.
In other movies like Pee-wee Burton shows Pee-wee’s fear of women and in Edward Scissorhands women in the town are portrayed in a typical pulp-comic like characters each with a distinct and unnatural character.
In Sweeney Todd again Burton brings forth the heartless Mrs. Lovett who aids and actually gives the idea of cannibalism to Todd. As in Alice in Wonderland Burton depicts women as one who lack identity through shape shifting. Gender though transcends stereotypical roles in Burton’s movies; it has a distinct character with usually women playing the evil character.
The influence of popular culture and its adaptation in Burton’s movies are evident. Burton in his movies have shown a clear influence of fairy tales, fables, horror movies made in the mid-nineties and the pulp (comic) fiction.
Burton’s adaption of these styles are distinct in his movies as he makes a parody of pop culture comic characters in depicting his female characters in the suburban town of Edward Scissorhands with distinct characters of a nymphomaniac to a religious fanatic. The use of Gothic style horror background and the pastel shade in Edward Scissorhands that as if comes out of the comic strips.
In his animation, movies Burton experimented with proportions and in a way created pop cubism that are distinct style of his animations (Burton, Magliozzi and He, Tim Burton 12). Such character is observed in certain movies as in case of Mars Attack where he shows self-inflated people and a group of giggling Martians who destroys the incompetent political, media, and military machinery of the US (Burton, Magliozzi and He, Tim Burton 12).
Burton’s movies also are reflections of Pop Surrealism that Burton experienced as a child (Burton, Magliozzi and He, Tim Burton 13). The Pop surrealism is portrayed in Burton’s movies through the depiction of exaggerated body in Burton’s movies.
Burton was influenced by Japanese transformation toys in depiction of half human and half animal characters of his drawings (Burton, Magliozzi and He, Tim Burton 14) Burton’s movies shows a characteristic masks that demonstrates the lurking of the evil creature within. As in case of movies such as Batman films, Planet of the Apes, Sleepy Hollow, and Edward Scissorhands the use of mask and armor are evident.
This explains Burton’s love for the mingling of the carnivalesque and his use of comedy and grotesque juxtaposing each other. The carnival infused comedy and drama representing surrealism is shown through Burton’s use of clowns, puppets, and scarecrows in Pee-wee, Beetlejuice, Mars Attack!, Big Fish, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
The imaginative ideas as themes of Burton’s movies are characteristics of this man-child director. His movies are a combination of fables, fairy tales, horror flicks and pop art. His movies represent fairy tales and the Gothic. Burton uses pop surrealism to present his idea of imagination and the duality in human heart masked by their outwards appearance. These are the running themes of Burton’s movies.
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Burton, Tim and Kristian Fraga. Tim Burton: interviews. Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 2005. Print.
Burton, Tim, Mark Salisbury and Johnny Depp. Burton on Burton. London: Macmillan, 1995. Print.
Burton, Tim, Ron Magliozzi and Jenny He. Tim Burton. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2009. Print.
Lee, Sun Hee Teresa. How to Analyze the Films of Tim Burton. Minnesota: ABDO, 2012. Print.
McMahan, Alison. The films of Tim Burton: animating live action in contemporary Hollywood. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005. Print.
Tirard, Laurent. Moviemakers’ master class: private lessons from the world’s foremost directors. New York: Macmillan, 2002. Print.