Why Tim Burton is Terrified, of Terrifying
Tim Burton is a niche, a well-defined and well refined, pigeon-holed, niche. Burton offers lovelorn, over emotional teenagers that escape they so require and so desire, something to latch on to, feeling that the characters Burton is providing them with in fact are designed solely as a way to console them, through his macabre cacophony of expressionist environments, torn straight from the nightmares of Dr. Cagilari. But, in reality, Burton recycles, reuses and regurgitates the same repeated formula; nothing of which he is doing is macabre, nothing is in fact ground breaking, it is all sterile, simple and manufactured so as to fit into this predestined and perfectly sculpted niche, so Burton can nestle into that miniscule pond and rule it with an iron fist, lazing on the lily pads, basking under a moon that envisages a ghastly face. Many will say mastering the setting and creating a rich emotional ambience from this constructed setting is a masterpiece, but Burton has made it an art; and subsequently many people are overtly foolish. Burton doesn’t make it an art, he makes settings overt, they aren’t laced with meaning; the meaning is shoved straight down the throat of the audience, because the setting isn’t destined to be ingested by a critically intelligent viewing crowd, it’s destined to be ingested by a young audience seeking solace in the narrative trajectory of the forlorn yet loveable outcast, the unoppressed female that is desirable yet uncomfortably awkward; or the innocent girl, pictured often with bleach blonde hair and a glowing white gown to match, that reel their reminiscent heads in almost every single Burton film to date. Please, do not misinterpret the presence of repeated uses of cyclical narrative components and narrative catalysts as an artistic vision. The synonymous link of Burton to the term Auteur is a link fraught with danger; it’s painful to accept the heightened professional and social status of someone who is overtly undeserving of that status, yet based upon the definition of the word; Burton is an Auteur. Yet, despite this, I want to draw attention to the fact that despite the presence of Burton’s Auterism, he is not an artist; he is a conscientious objector to the position of the artist. He may be an author, but his text is purely proposed in a black and white, there is no flare or colour embossed upon his works.
His formulaic approach to Horror is one that can be manifested upon various levels, via his narrative trajectory, via his repeated issuing of type-casts, and via his use of different methods of the ‘disturbing’. His main method of arousing unrest in his spectators is, of course, the over dramatization and humourization, yet distortion, of death and undeath, and, notably, the skeletal universe; shown within things such as the courpse bride, frankenweenie, and also spotted within his written & design work of The Nightmare before Christmas. Within this, Burton creates a world of the soft-macabre, where he subverts our predispositions to things such as the strange beings he conjures, by giving them depth in character, and also by anthropomorphising them; giving them love, aspirations and dreams to act as a perpetuation for themselves and those friends that they acquire along the way. Yet, this is not in any way horrific, as the mainstream manifestation of Burton would have us believe. Tim Burton isn’t truly weird, he isn’t strange, his mind doesn’t visit any dark depths whilst on set; he simply visits the depths that he needs to plunge so as to pull forth something that is marketable as weird, because the fantasy-horror genre has become fairly marginalised with the truly disturbing films that worm their way through the market, Burton has taken these, elaborated upon them and digested them into a neat package and transformed them into a far more socially acceptable context and allowed them to flourish under his all-encompassing web of deceit.
His second prominent methodology is by the type-casting of actors and individuals he has worked with before, and believes them an adequate level of weird on screen and off screen, and projecting their, arguably too huge, star personalities onto the equally weird characters. For example, Johnny Depp as Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, or Ichabod Crane within Sleepy Hollow, Sweeney Todd and as the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland, to name a few. This is an example of stagnation, it isn’t such as the relationship of Scorsese or De Niro in the 70’s, where De Niro embodied everything Scorsese attempted to convey, growing up mere streets apart and believing in the same ritualistic aspects of life simultaneously; this is laziness. Burton utilizes Depp because he qualifies Burton’s interests, a bankable character with tendrils of weirdness lacing his being; yet underneath he’s just a mere middle-class actor that had a fairly turbulent past, attempting to absorb the roles he is proposed. Or, alongside Johnny Depp, you can see this methodology being executed with Burton’s dispersion of Helena Bonham-Carter’s personality among his various pictures, such as within Edward Scissorhands again, Dark Shadows or within Alice in Wonderland, also. Burton recycles the same individuals, because who else would best fit the same recycled angle he has adopted whilst projecting his thoughts onto film, except for the people who he utilized before to manifest the same basic template-project?
Thirdly, Burton utilises the same characters, as narrative components, to propel his story & plot and create a sense of parallelism within and between his films, a sort of narrative fore-warning as to what is going to happen. For example, each of Burton’s films are inhabited by the same repeated character archetypes, reminiscent of a fairy-tale aesthetic where we ally with characters based upon their repeated establishment: the discarded hero, the innocent female, the powerful heroine .etc. For example, Burton utilizes this ‘outcast’ character that often exists on the fringes of society, and is discarded by those around him or feared for various reasons, yet is established as the most desirable character; the character we most align ourselves with. Such as, Edward Scissorhands himself, Victor V. D within the Courpse Bride. Scissorhands perfectly embodies this ‘Burtonian’ way of approaching the tales; by creating a character that often embodies a counter-cultural aspect to the immediate culture surrounding them, in this case, Edward is a creative, caring individual; feared by those around him because of his visible and emotional differences, and his non-conformist existence as a whole. The messages of Scissorhands could not have been any more overt if he had just wrote them down, the loner that everyone fears, that lives upon the hill within a grand, gothic manor, yet desires to live amongst them and is in fact the most emotionally profound of the individuals within the community. The manor itself isn’t original in any sense, it is clearly reminiscent of the bloated complex of Citizen Kane, cutting and pasting the looming, ominous Xanadu and placing it upon the sugar-coated, American bluff that Edward perches upon. And the landscape below is no more original, the messages are skin-deep, so as to enable the target audience the utmost level of easiness whilst digesting this sweet meal of simple knowledge and immediate gratification upon achieving the narrative understanding. The houses are colourful, yet this is a gilded environment, a cold and barren landscape, where all creativity is stifled under the oppression of society’s interpretation of individual normality; whereas Edward lives within the gothic castle, a presence of evil within the suburban dystopia, yet he is the kindest being of all living the most expressionist & arguably fulfilling existence. Burton just gave the narrative the old switcheroo with the immediate environment and setting, and voila, he has apparently created an artistically intelligent setting that juxtaposes the narrative and creates increased levels of empathy to the characters.
Burton offers up the miniscule slice of sinister, gilded with layers upon layers of black imagery, weakly emblazoned with a façade of deep and various levels of expressionistic encoding. This portion of sinister is offered also with an enormous helping of safety, of comfort in the fact that nothing Burton is doing is actually macabre in any sense, it is horror for the tweens, and for very dainty individuals with a very dainty complexion. Yet, Burton wears this façade like a badge of honour, emblazoning it on his chest with golden stitching for the world to see; his marriage to Helena Bonham Carter does nothing but to further this predicate of his existence, their life-style and their union synonymous with the estranged and mysterious atmosphere he weaves around himself. The comfort presented within his films, is simply reinforced by the nature of his intertextuality; of the foreknowledge we are gifted, as an audience, based upon Burton’s previous films. We know what the characters essentially are, and from this we can determine their narrative paths and how they will weave throughout the plot-line, how they will feature within the text as a whole. This is part of Burton’s ‘Auterism’, the fact that he has established a recognisable message & conventional system surrounding his personal works; he is recognisable in his design, in his view of the world, and in his representation of this view. In other words, you can watch a film, and realise it is a Tim Burton portrayal of the world, without any prior knowledge alluding to that fact; he is recognisable based upon his constructed vision. Despite this, he is a limited being, limited in the sense that his own decisions have limited his creativity; he can only create these few films, residing around a few topics, proposed via a few characters that he uses from a stock-cast of actors that await his beck and call, but through this methodology he has established the success and brought upon himself the status of the Auteur, where he lacks the ability to establish it elsewhere.
Mars Attacks! is pretty cool, though.