Tim Burton: From Icon to Idiot

The term auteur is much banded around in the film industry these days and has become to mean a number of different things, it’s original meaning as devised by French film theorists and makers in the 50’s is essentially a film maker whose films all stand out thanks to repeated thematic or stylistic ideas.

On the surface director Tim Burton couldn’t be identified as anything other than this, his films consistently demonstrating an interest in darkness and the bizarre; some argue however that the repeated use of these ideas in his films is not proof of his status as an auteur but that proof that he is a director all out of ideas…

Even a brief glance at his almost thirty year feature film career make his signature moves very quickly apparent; quirky, dark and strangely tragic narratives, complimentary visuals and the almost inevitable appearance of Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham-Carter and music by Danny Elfman. Yet for almost thirty years Burton’s movies have been successful with both cult film lovers and mass audiences, though not necessarily at the same time. In more recent years Burton’s movies have become more and more popular with the general public, garnering bigger budgets and wider screenings; this is all well and good save for the notable decline in interest from the once loyal cult audience that was devoted to his earlier features.

What has changed in Burton’s movies to push his most loyal fans away? Is it a lack of new ideas or the bastardization of the things he once championed?

One of the most appealing aspects of Burton’s movies to the alternative and cult audience has always been the way in which he aligns himself with and positively represents those on the fringes of society; his lead characters are often lonely or mis-understood, yet depicted in such a way that it is society that appears unwelcoming and alienating, rather than the characters themselves. This is a fairly unusual take on isolated characters and, many fans of his early movies feel, encouraged those on the outskirts of traditionally accepted society to reach out and connect with other like minded individuals; suggesting that these characters are perfect just as they are and that one need not alter oneself to become integrated within what is essentially a fractured society.

For many years Burton was championed for handling such subject matters with a surprising ingenuity and imagination that popular cinema generally lacked; his exploration of emotions through bizarre narratives was thought of as both subtle and attentive.

Burton’s films have always been easily identifiable through the highly stylized and artistic use of fantastical and macabre settings; appearing most prominently in his early works. In Edward Scissorhands (1990), for example, the castle that Edward calls home, though strangely morbid, is far more beautiful than the lurid monotony of the 1950’s town in its shadow. Such bewildering setting choices can still be seen in Burton’s recent movies and still demonstrate the intrinsic link between his character’s emotions/motivation and their physical surroundings. Time and time his characters find themselves in visually unusual locations that directly reflect the alienation they themselves feel.

“Bewildering” is a very apt word to use when describing the settings used by Burton, as almost of them have a “wildness” to them, a sense of the fantastical and un-containable. From the forests of Sleepy Hollow (1999) to the Underworld of Alice in Wonderland (2010) the fantastical settings are all representations of the tumultuous inner experience of any lost or lonely soul.

Jack’s excursion into Christmas land in The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and his subsequent attempt to recreate it’s meaning in his own land of perpetual Halloween, for example, is an animated depiction of the belief that the grass is always greener on the other side. Jack quickly learns that attempting to be something he is not, simply to conform to the expectations of the outside world (portrayed here as the human world) makes him miserable and endangers the people he loves. This is almost a literal personification of what Burton’s earlier films stood for.

Yet where in his earlier movies these places provided a welcoming sense of place and escapism to the isolated characters, they have become to represent a dangerous and confusing other world which one explores at their own risk.

The ways in which Burton has investigated the themes of isolation and abnormality have in many ways remained unchanged since his earliest movies, yet the audiences that attend them have changed dramatically – his more recent movies reaching a wider, younger and more popularist audience than the teenage/young adult cult audience that followed him throughout the 90’s. It can be argued that this change has happened simply through the passage of time and that those who once religiously followed Burton as teenagers are now encouraging their own children to do the same; others feel however that his recent movies lack the grace and subtly of his earlier work and he has in fact come to epitomize what he once objected to – indistinguishable popularism.

Burton’s obsession with the macabre became apparent in his second feature, Beetlejuice (1988), a movie that tells the story of a house haunted by the ghosts of its previous residents. Unlike traditional ghost stories however the characters in Beetlejuice – whose original intention is scare off the new residents – develop a unique relationship with the central character of the movie: the lonely and misunderstood teenager Lydia (Winona Ryder). From here Burton uses this unlikely combination to explore and develop the isolation felt by Lydia – and one assumes Burton himself.

Compare this to his recent interpretation of Alice in Wonderland where Alice, in search of a place to belong, is rejected and harassed by the inhabitants of the Underworld so much that she retreats back to her own reality and her otherwise normalised and acceptable existence.

The changes in Burton’s interpretation of isolated characters can be most notably marked in the way in which the lead character in the musical Sweeney Todd ensures his own survival within society; his alliance with the pie shop owner Mrs Lovett signifies that Todd is in fact willing to do anything to ensure his own revenge and success, including murdering his clientele. This character comes in stark contrast to the Burton’s other hair-dressing related story, Edward Scissorhands in which the isolated Edward longs only to be loved and accepted, using his razor sharp fingers as an artistic expression of this desire, rather than a violent means of self preservation.

Though on the surface many of the things that have identified Burton as an auteur have not changed much since their first appearances in the early eighties, a more in-depth investigation suggests otherwise.

His films continually offer up examples of lost and lonely characters in search of some kind of connection to the rest of the world: whether it is a case of expressing oneself or understanding a mystery, these characters experience the world through a hazy mixture of isolation and unusual physical settings. Yet Burton’s more recent endeavours appear to be showing the other side of the coin, punishing those who deviate from social norms and excluding the outsider.

Leave a Reply