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The Visual & Thematic Motifs of Tim Burton - Part 2 | Features | LIVING LIFE FEARLESS
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The Visual & Thematic Motifs of Tim Burton – Part 2

Continued from Part 1

Suspended Childhood

Characters that never “grow up” end up showing us more about ourselves and our lives, rather than us assimilating them into the rat race. Because our concept of “growing up” is completely tied to the suburban capitalistic dreary way of being. It places added pressure on our youth and those who don’t want to get married, have kids, and settle down with a 30-year mortgage.

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure

Burton’s feature film directorial debut skyrocketed both himself and Reubens into superstardom territory. It at once gave Reubens a larger platform and medium to which to showcase his Keaton-esque talents, and introduced audiences to Burton’s ability to conceive of and then manufacture seemingly boundless cinematic worlds with apparent ease. And it all started with a lost red bicycle.

Regarding the suspended childhood of Pee-wee, Michael Wilmington of the Los Angeles Times in the 1980s worded it better than I can:

“Pee-wee manages sometimes to be supremely disturbing, to make your teeth itch. Consider his appearance: suit three sizes too small, effete crew cut, clamp-on red bow tie. Consider his manner: the eternal 8-year-old, swinging between manic glee and the petulant, infantile pout of a fastidious child avoiding dog droppings. Consider his enthusiasm: bicycles, toys, Rube Goldberg contraptions. Here is a fellow whose most blood-curdling vice would seem to be a banana split royale with five toppings, followed by five straight Godzilla movies.”

“Yet there’s an edge there too, a dark cloud around the silver lining. ‘Pee-wee’ is the creation of Los Angeles comic Paul Reubens, and he inhabits this role with the eerily intense, fixed concentration of the late Andy Kaufman as Tony Clifton.”

Warner Bros.
WARNER BROS.

It’s difficult to argue with Wilmington that it isn’t creepy seeing a grown man acting like and dressed as the spoiled only-child of  a wealthy couple – both superfans of Winston Churchill and Liberace. The “dark cloud,” the ominous air surrounding Pee-wee the character, and simultaneous guileless, is exactly what drew Burton to the project. Like Burton, Pee-wee refuses to grow up, in many ways; if Burton “grew up,” how could he ever keep making such imaginative films?

Honorable Mentions

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: Depp’s Willy Wonka is an adult who lives off of candy who still refuses to see his dentist dad as an act of rebellion against him after he ran away as a youth.

Edward Scissorhands: Thompson’s basing of the character on that of a child and Depp’s preparation as such.

Gothic Literature, Architecture, & Music – Infusing Three Eras & Mediums Into One

Although gothic literature and gothic architecture share a common name, these exist, historically, in two different time periods, two different mediums, separated by centuries. Burton helped popularize the marriage of the two mediums. And composer Danny Elfman further added a third medium and era of gothic music influence into the mix, helping to create vast, intricate new-gothic worlds in Burton’s films.

One common theme of gothic literature is that most entries represent the last of something – the last of an era, generation, trend, people. Like someone living in a mansion but the last of his family line, the thing is falling apart, and the world is starting to modernize around them – a stark contrast to, say, Jane Austin, which, comparatively, reads like fluff. Other themes include mortality, intense love, the duality of humankind, and the macabre.

Goths – Visigoths – were an actual people way, way back in the day. However, they aren’t connected with the goths of today – who are more drawn to the aesthetic of gothic culture and the darker themes it explores – which is ultimately something that Burton helped shape and revitalize, along with the audience of the original gothic rock extension of the punk genre in the 1980s.

Gothic Undertones

Navigating Death Through Humor & Fairytale

In Bram Stoker‘s Dracula, the titular character accumulated a sizable wealth through his militaristic and scholastic endeavors, but after death, he maintained that fortune by, quite literally, draining particularly wealthy human life such as Jonathan Harker’s. Possessing many supernatural powers including telepathy, he takes a piece of each victim, physically, bodily, and materially, as he moves through time, until he no longer needs to worry about money.

Burton, as referenced, adores Frankenstein. It was written during the First Industrial Revolution in 1818, reflects the neuroses of individual and corporate creators as the world transitioned into a new era of production and economic output with significant technological advancements in manufacturing, portraying the Creature as the undead product of that anxiety of a rapidly-shifting world. Both of these novels utilize the gothic theme of death as a business to great effect.

Sleepy Hollow Town

Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is one of the more popular entries into the 18th and 19th century gothic literature movement. Sleepy Hollow is set in 1799, and every aesthetic of the film exudes gothic. The production design of Sleepy Hollow is nothing short of breathtaking. Reminiscent of the Hammer Film Productions horror films of the 1950s and 1960s, which lived in the fantastical worlds based in Gothic literature (Dracula, AKA Horror of Dracula, The Curse of Frankenstein).

“They’re beautiful, those movies,” Burton mentioned in the film’s production notes. “They really have an art to them and those are my favorite kind of movies.” He and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki seamlessly captured the endearing eccentricity of these films.

“It’s more like a ‘fantastic tale,’ not a realistic historical reconstruction.” Lubezki said. “We have to enhance certain elements to accentuate the ‘fantastic.’ The Hammers did it without knowing they were doing it. We do it because we like it.”

The production crew created the 400-foot-long Western Woods, tree by tree, inside former British airfield Aerodome Leavesden Studios in Hertfordshire, Englandto create a sense of vastness and allow for the action sequences. The filmmakers also built the entire town of Sleepy Hollow in another sound studio. Overall, there were more than 50 different handcrafted sets across the Warner Bros. lot in Hertfordshire. “What emerged was a sort of ‘stylized naturalism’ which is very beautiful,” Production designer Rick Heinrichs said.

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Indeed, one feels as though they’re transported into a fiction novel, where realism is relative and logic is secondary to looming fog, wilted trees, diseased land, and legends of ghouls. It’s an entirely immersive world, which Lubezki filters through a tinted black and white lens and shadowy lighting.

Honorable Mentions

Beetlejuice: Burton recycled the gothic concept of death as a business through the titular character. Some of the cinema’s funniest lines about death remain in this film. Further, the dark clothes, pale makeup, and fixation with death of Lydia Deetz (Winona Ryder) make her a total goth. The imagery of Dracula, Frankenstein, and Dorian Gray are also characters that evoke this black, white, and grey contrast, physically, morally, and philosophically.

Frankenweenie: Burton created the animated Disney short, Frankenweenie, in 1984, a clever canine twist on the classic story of re-animation, which he remade into a feature length film nearly 30 years later. On top of other gothic novel references, it carries with it “Frankenstein’s” most lasting theme – one mustn’t let their pursuit of knowledge blind them from their own compassion.

Dark Shadows: An adaption of a show that featured ghosts, werewolves, zombies, monsters, witches, warlocks, and more gothic tropes.

The Nightmare Before Christmas: Burton’s gothic vision of life after death – decaying corpses walking and talking – may not be ideal for morticians, yet he pulled off the near-impossible with this film: he made a movie about death funny, cute, and more palatable to kids through groundbreaking stop-motion animation.

Big Fish: The Witch is both a common fairytale and gothic literature and film trope. Big Fish’s multigenerational story ending in present day uses the character of The Witch (Helena Bonham Carter) as device to show how time shifts perspective. She is initially described as fantastical, resembling a monster from the campy Universal movies of the 1920s through the 1950s.

Edward Scissorhands: Production designer Bo Welch‘s beautiful gothic mansion.

Danny Elfman’s Constant

Elfman’s music reflects the Medieval/Gothic era composers from the 9th through 14th centuries, to the more ominous sounds of the later Baroque and Romantic eras through composers such as Antonio Vivaldi and Hector Berlioz. In particular, the Medieval/Gothic era’s Hildegard von Bingen’s choral vocals and heavenly chord progressions, the foreboding sacred (as opposed to his secular) works of Medieval/Gothic composer Guillaume de Machaut, Vivaldi’s euphoric ability to crescendo and decrescendo on a dime, and Berlioz’s intimidating brass and brash, evoked imagery of gothic literature themes such as the supernatural and intense, overwhelming emotional turmoil or expression. Without Elfman, Burton’s works, his universal messages, visual and thematic motifs across a career of innovative filmmaking, would not be complete – nor nearly as impactful. He is the Robin to Burton’s Batman, completing a once-in-lifetime creative that will hopefully continue to make profoundly bizarre and bizarrely profound art for decades to come.

We are, as simply as we can put it, a creative entity that strives to curate, cultivate, and create content covering culture and the people that shape it.

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