In Defence of Tim Burton

Written by  //  May 17, 2012  //  Media & Popular Culture  //  4 Comments

Many feel that Tim Burton has become a bit of a one-trick pony; that the whimsical genius behind Big Fish (2003), Edward Scissorhands (1990) and Beetlejuice (1988) has been replaced by a hack with a fetish for checks, swirls and Johnny Depp.  More specifically, Johnny Depp wearing white makeup and doing crazy things with Helena Bonham Carter sporting a crazy ‘do.  They also say that Burton’s typical weird world stories of monsters-that-are-misunderstood are becoming a bit of cliche.  They say that slapping on funny wigs and paint on actors with some creepy Danny Elfman music has been done and done and then done again in every single one of his earlier films.  Be it visual imagery or plot progression, we’ve seen it all (they say).

But allow me to make a case for Burton’s films.  Sure, most of them bear common motifs and trademarks, and many of them (Alice in Wonderland (2010), Planet of the Apes (2001)) cannot hope to be rescued by this apology but all his films are not cut from the same cloth, despite what popular opinion may claim.

Burton’s latest film, Dark Shadows (2012) has been accused of all of the above and panned universally.  Dark Shadows is about a rich philanderer, Barnabas Collins who philanders with the wrong girl, a witch named Angelique who curses him to an eternity in a box as a blood-thirsting vampire. He suffers for two centuries of painful solitude when he is accidentally released in the year 1972.  Imagine that.  To have to suffer the hell of isolation and and then to be subjected to hippies and disco.

Barnabas finds that even though they’re a bit low on fortune, his descendants have persisted in the grand old Collins manor.  But so has Angelique and her thirst for revenge.

The so-called Burton cliches of precocious children with a taste for the weird, Depp as an awkward fish-out-of-water fellow, Helena Bonham Carter in a funny wig and monsters with a heart of gold … are only what anti-Burtons see.  I saw one of the silver screen’s few vampires who is troubled by his eternal existence, who really feels the weight of the centuries on his shoulders, who grasps the meaning of “forever” and is terrified by the knowledge.  I saw Depp’s white face paint and anachronism, but I also saw a bloodthirsty creature unable to control itself.  I saw the beautiful Angelique who wasn’t a misunderstood monster… unless that is, you mistook her for someone who plays nice and doesn’t hold grudges. Even her ability to love is so gloriously twisted.  I saw Roger Collins, who uses his son as a lookout while he screws the coat check lady.  Or the quintessential Burton heroine, the sane-insane Victoria, who sees ghosts.  They’re a wonderful menagerie of well-developed characters, but do they make a wonderful story together?  Let’s put it this way: it isn’t the greatest epic story ever told or even Burton’s best film, but with the help of hilarious dialogue, AWESOME ’70s music that is surprisingly appropriate, Depp’s ability to get angsty without getting maudlin and some serious WTF moments, Burton weaves together an amusing Gothic soap opera that treats its characters with respect without taking itself too seriously.  It certainly doesn’t deserve the flak it’s getting.

That’s all very well, you say, but what about those very relevant criticisms levelled by Burton notfans?  To that I must ask you, are those criticisms REALLY criticisms or are Burton’s naysayers behaving like the pitchfork wielding townspeople in a Burton film, who don’t understand that it takes all kinds to make the world?  Yes, it’s a bit meta and I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out that we’re all actually characters in a Burton film and our supposed normalcy is the source of much horror and nervous mirth for an audience somewhere… but bear with me.

One does not say that Martin Scorsese is a one trick pony because of his numerous depictions of mafia, women in white dresses and overuse of Robert DeNiro/ Leonardo Dicaprio.  Many directors have this tendency of latching onto an actor and that shouldn’t automatically disqualify Tim Burton from among the most talented directors we have today.  Does anybody think that Raphael was a hack because he regularly milked the ‘soft shadows/ light reflective colours’ cow?   Well, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood thought so, but nobody cares about them.

Artists have trademarks, artists tend to go back to things they have done before, to actors and muses they enjoyed working with, artists are constantly reworking and polishing their craft and yes, often fall back on things that have worked well in the past.  One can’t fault Woody Allen for making awesome, cerebral films about love and marriage and one can’t fault Burton for his desire to drag ogres and all manner of beings from the shadows and onto the silver screen. I mean, he is practically the latter-day J.M. Barrie.  If creaky, uneven stairs get your pulse racing and you are on first name basis with the monsters under your bed, then you will never tire of Burton.   If Edgar Allan Poe had to clamour for attention with  ‘Go Jane, Go’, then possibly, you may not enjoy every one of Burton’s films.

Tim Burton has struck his colours and they are checks, spirals, fog and gorgeously warped monsters. If you don’t like it, then by all means follow the direction the bony, moss-covered hand is pointing at: it will lead you out of that creaky door (with a gargoyle for a knob) of the crumbling old, ivy-covered mansion and off the nearest wind-swept, brambly cliff.

4 Comments on "In Defence of Tim Burton"

  1. Pranav May 17, 2012 at 3:39 pm ·

    As a Tim Burton fan I concur with pretty much everything you’ve written. I had similar thoughts after reading a bad review of Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. Good directors seem to use the same actors for a reason…in fact I can’t think of too many of the so called ‘greats’ who don’t use the same actors. Tarantino perhaps…off the top of my head…but even he has cast Michael Madsen in almost every one of his films.

  2. Lekha May 18, 2012 at 8:52 am ·

    Actually, Tarantino is also very guilty of his trademarks. His foot fetish is a common thread across his movies and I guess repeated use of Tim Roth and Uma Thurman. I suppose, Spielberg is the most versatile of the biggest directors, but he hasn’t directed anything noteworthy in ages.

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