Representation of Messages and Values in the Tom Burton's Filmography

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In this essay I will be investigating how Tim Burton’s messages and values are represented through the style of his films by looking at five of his films: Edward Scissorhands (1990), Sweeney Todd (2007) Beetlejuice (1988), Alice in Wonderland (2010) and Frankenweenie (2012). Messages and Values are strong beliefs that will serve some kind of importance to the audience and are communicated in a way which will usually have the intention to be decoded by the audience.‘Stylistically, Tim Burton is undeniably Hollywood’s most distinctive mainstream director.’ (1) Tim Burton’s style of film making is extremely personal and unique, mostly due to his background and childhood which inspired his film making techniques. For example, Burton had a troubled relationship with his parents whilst growing up, a version of this relationship was portrayed in Frankenweenie as Mr and Mrs Frankenstein of the film are the optimistic versions of his own parents. In many of his films, Burton often makes the antagonist, who we would usually see as the ‘bad guy’ a more positive character who we can have sympathy for as opposed to being the most provoking character of a story. Growing up, Burton always related to characters like Frankenstein. ‘I think a lot of kids do; it’s easier to relate to the monster in the sense of he’s alone. Growing up, you could feel those feelings.’ Therefore, many of his films portray the antagonist in a more positive light, such as Sweeney Todd in which we follow the two main characters who are very much the ‘bad guys’ but we are aware that they only harm others who have wronged them, which makes it easier for the audience to accept their actions. A lot of Burton’s inspiration also comes from author’s/writers who create thought provoking novels that shed light on evil people with good intentions and unusual concepts, such as Lewis Carroll, Mary Shelley, Washington Irving, Edward Gorey, Salvador Dali and Dr. Suess. During the first phase of Burton’s career most of his creations were influenced by the expressionist cinema of the 1920s. A video published by ‘’ on ‘The Art Post Blog’, compares Tim Burton’s films with some scenes taken from “Metropolis” (1927), “Nosferatu”, “Faust” and “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”, shows clear similarities between characters, locations, props and shots that suggests this is one of the main pieces of inspiration he takes onboard for his own work.

However, not only does Burton draw inspiration from from expressionist cinema but also pop culture (specifically pop surrealism – Lowbrow art) throughout the ages. An example of this is from the leading artists of this artistic movement: Mark Ryden, Ray Caesar and Joe Soren who have most likely given Burton inspiration for many of his characters over the years such as the piece of art created by Mark Ryden called ‘Girl in a Fur Skirt’ (2008). Being created two years before Alice in Wonderland, ‘Girl in a Fur Skirt’ shows very close resemblance to the white queen character played by Anne Hathaway in 2010.One of the most common messages that are seen throughout a range a Burton’s films is an outcast having to gain acceptance within society. For example, in Edward Scissorhands, Edwards only goal is to be accepted despite his differences similarly to Burton’s childhood in which he saw himself as a quiet and distant child in comparison to his classmates, once again suggesting the use of his background as a source of inspiration within his filmmaking. This links in nicely with Andrew Sarris’ Auteur theory as there are a number of elements, such as background and childhood, which contributes to an auteurs style. One scene in which Edward is shown as the outcast of the film is in the garden party scene at The Boggs household. In the mid shot, Edward is stood amidst a group of middle aged men in which you can clearly see he is an outcast amongst them. He is positioned exactly central of the screen showing that he is the centre of attention not only to the audience but to all of the guests at the party and the group of men surrounding him make it seem further as though he is being ogled at. Depp’s character is bold from the outset which is suggested through his costume. Whilst white would often be used as a neutral colour, in this case the white being surround with vibrant colours such as orange, blue and green makes white seem as an outcast to the colour palette similarly to Edward. The group of men stood around Edward are all laughing, all the while, Edward is stood smiling but with a confused look on his face which tells us he is not properly integrated with society. Not only is the message of an outcast having to gain acceptance within society a recurring theme within Burton’s work but this shot from Edward Scissorhands has almost been replicated in his 2010 film, Alice in Wonderland. In this shot Alice is positioned in the centre of the screen with a group of people surrounding her suggesting that she is the centre of attention similarly to the shot in Edward Scissorhands. Whilst most people in this shot are wearing whites and muted blues and greys, Alice’s costume is a bold blue which clearly makes her stand out to the audience as different. Alice’s stance and facial expression shows her to be confident in comparison to everyone around her due to them all being stood upright with their arms neatly tucked into their side and heads tilted slightly downwards as though they are looking down their noses at her.

Although overall presented as an outcast, Alice’s confidence leads me to believe that her confidence is the reason for her individuality which is unusual in a Burton film as he would typically take a bad trait and portray it as a valuable aspect to a person as opposed to vice versa. This quote from ‘Tim Burton: The Pocket Essential Guide’ by Michelle Le Blanc and Colin Odell perfectly describes not only Edward and Alice but also the majority of the characters he has created: ‘‘In many respects Tim Burton films are about not fitting into society, about people who don’t conform with the attitudes and mores of the day.’’ (2). The idea of Burton producing a number of films which include the message of an outcast having to gain acceptance within society relates well to Michel Foucault’s Author Function: ‘to group together a certain number of texts, define them, differentiate them from and contrast them to others. It establishes a relationship among the texts.”Following on from this, another message that is frequently seen throughout Burton’s films is revenge. Many of his characters have been wronged in some way or another, leading to them wanting to harm or ‘get even’ with the person or people that have angered them. Sweeney Todd is a prefect example for this message. After being sentenced to Australia from London for 15 years for a crime he did not commit, Sweeney Todd returns with the intent to get revenge on Judge Turpin. The gothic visuals that Burton tends to use in the majority of his films works well in hand with the message of revenge as it gives the films a nightmarish and depressing feeling, which could possibly represent the subconscious of Sweeney Todd’s thoughts towards revenge. For example, in the Judge Turpin death scene, a number of gothic visuals are used but one shot in particular sticks out to me as truly representative of revenge. The low angled mid shot of Todd standing over Judge Turpin holding a shaving blade shows the audience the anger and aggression he feels towards Turpin and is extremely representative of revenge. The window which is positioned behind Todd gives a backlit effect over him whilst casting light over Turpin’s face.

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The effect that this gives of shadows cast all over Todd suggests the evil within him whilst the bright white light shining over Turpin could be representative of ‘the light at the end of the tunnel’ signifying his death is about to occur. Thunder and lightning are also used at this point in the scene which has a number of threatening and vengeful connotations. For example, the use of pathetic fallacy gives the scenes an overall negative and depressing feel and symbolise that a bad event is about to occur. Another connotation that some people see it as is a symbol of human punishment from the gods and therefore could be suggesting that Judge Turpin is getting what he deserves. As Todd holds the shaving blade in the air, the camera closes in on the weapon of choice and the music begins to pick up and gain a faster pace along with the editing pace allowing the audience to be aware that the death is about to happen. The music is deep and bassy keeping up with the gothic overtones but still bouncy at the same time in order to keep up with the comedic undertones. Many of Burton’s films tend to follow the trend of gothic visuals and it is considered to be his main signature style by many. The gothic visuals range between narrative, costume, set and sound. These gothic visuals were first recognised in his first major blockbuster film ‘Beetlejuice’ with the narrative being placed around ghosts and the dead and set in an old crooked victorian house isolated on top of a hill. The main characters costume in ‘Beetlejuice’ is eccentric and unusual as it usually is for the main character/outcast in Burton’s films, which is shown throughout the years as he progresses in the film industry. However, they only seem to get more unique as time passes, for example, Edward Scissorhands’ character is dressed in a full leather plastic body suit with a number of belts and chains hanging across him which is not what would be considered ‘normal’ in our society. I believe that through this, Burton is trying to get across that a person should not be judged for the way way they dress or look as in both of these films Beetlejuice and Edward were integral parts of the adversity elements and none of the other characters would have been able to accomplish what they did without these two characters.Another one of Burton’s trademarks and distinctive elements is repeating themes and ideas throughout his films, for example as mentioned before, the gothic visuals.

This can once again be linked to Foucault who established the theory that grouping together a number of texts establishes a relationship amongst them. Burton is now very well known for his gothic visuals, the close relationships he has with certain actors and also his flashback storytelling. Burton also looks into depth of the contrast between light and dark within film, the use of dark works well with his gothic themes whilst the light draws attention and emphasizes specific aspects of his film due to the lack of it seen throughout. An example of this is clearly shown in ‘Beetlejuice’, when the house is shown in daylight, it looks very inviting but as you enter it becomes dark and unwelcoming. A similar effect has been used in Edward Scissorhands in which the inside of the mansion is void of life and colour whereas when you leave the mansion the town seems spritely and cheerful. The recurrence of desaturated and over-saturated colour in Burton’s films gives his film an unusual gothic feeling . In Corpse Bride, Big Fish and Edward Scissorhands colour is used to show different types of atmosphere, and the difference between two different worlds: gothic and ‘normal’. Once again, this could be foreshadowing Burton’s childhood in which everything looked happy and good from the outside but on the inside there was a darkness and unhappiness that no one was aware of. Burton also uses this contrast between light and dark with his characters in which his antagonist is often a witch-like character as shown in films such as: Batman Returns, Sleepy Hollow, Sweeney Todd, Alice in Wonderland, Dark Shadows, and Big Fish and his protagonist is often a determined female character as shown in films such as: Beetlejuice, Alice in Wonderland, Planet of the Apes, Dark Shadows,Corpse Bride, and The Nightmare Before Christmas all feature an ambitious female character as a protagonist. This contrast between light and dark featured in many of Burton’s films can also be known as Binary oppositions.

A specific example of this can be demonstrated in ‘Alice in Wonderland’ in which you have the Red Queen vs. the White Queen and also in Frankenweenie, a black and white animation which begins as dark and bleak but as Frankenweenie is brought back to life more light is brought into the film.The atmosphere that is created in Burton’s ‘Corpse Bride’ is very bleak and depressing, one way in which this is done is, once again, by the use of desaturated colour. The film follows Victor and Victoria whose families have arranged their marriage, however, whilst in the forest, Victor gets pulled underground by a tree branch and meets Emily who also wants to marry him. Victor must make his way back above ground before Victoria marries someone else. The main colour palette for the film includes various shades of black, grey, blue and whites. In the opening scene of the film, we are introduced to Victor who is drawing a picture of a butterfly from a jar in front of him, which he then sets free out the window. The butterfly, whilst still a muted blue, is the most colour that the audience see throughout the entirety of the opening scene, once again portraying a depressing atmosphere. As the butterfly flies away, a tracking shot is used to follow it which is where we get to see the town in which Victor lives. Once again, the buildings are all very washed out and muted colours and there is very little life and movement shown throughout the town, and that which we do see is very slow moving and almost like the whole town is being drained of life. The faces of the townspeople are all pale and expressionless giving Burtons trademark gothic feeling to the film immediately and make the town seem almost prison like. We then see an extremely grumpy looking man swat the butterfly away, removing the only piece of colour and ‘alive’ being from the scene. All of this gives the impression that the whole town feel imprisoned to their accustomed lifestyle of nothingness.Another example in which Burton uses desaturated and over-saturated colours in his films is in Edward Scissorhands. The town which Edward scissorhands is set has incredibly saturated and vibrant colours, making it look quite fake, which I believe Burton purposely used to further emphasise that even if everything looks good from the outside, it quite often isn’t. However, we also have the mansion which Edward lives in which appears to be lifeless and bleak showing the audience that he is truly an outcast to the town. We are able to see a clear contrast between the two ‘worlds’ in this shot showing how they are quite literally on two different levels.

Whilst the street has perfectly cut grass and painted houses, Edwards mansion looks as though it is the dark cloud which nobody wants over the perfect street with its dead wildlife and jagged and angular structure. Low key lighting is also used during the film to portray the bleak atmosphere within the mansion as Peg Boggs first meets Edward. The only light that is given off in the scene is streaming through the windows and doors as opposed to artificial lights which would often be a sign of a lived in house. This could be compared to the lighting in any of the houses on the street which all have lamps and other sources of artificial lighting and could be portraying Edward as an innocent and genuine person and the townspeople as fake as shown in the women’s gossiping traits. The light that is given off in this scene creates a dark and dull atmosphere by casting daunting shadows across the empty rooms. Burton has clearly differentiated the outcast with the ‘normal’ people through the use of colour and lighting in a number of his films.Low key lighting has also been used to create an atmosphere in ‘Corpse Bride’ in the scene where Victor arrives in the land of the dead, there is a clear shift in the mood and tone of this scene. For example, in Victor’s hometown his surrounding were depressing and bleak with very little life and a lack of colour, however in the land of the dead, ironically, everything has more life and colour to it. This is firstly shown in the use of colour, the alternate land has a green tinge to it which although gives it a more ghoulish vibe, has more life to it than Victor’s Victorian upbringing. A spotlight has also been used on Bonejangles the skeleton as he tells the story of ‘Corpse Bride’ which once again gives him lifelike qualities. The music is upbeat and lively and the use of artificial lighting brightens the whole atmosphere in comparison to the dreary music used in Victor’s town.

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