Blue Filter: The Strange And Unusual World Of Tim Burton

Tim Burton

In our Blue Filter series, we are inviting our writers to reflect on the films that they have connected with through challenging or upsetting times, both during the COVID-19 pandemic and before. In the latest entry of the series, Elisabetta Pulcini revisits the films of Tim Burton, looking at how his unique style and characterisation has remained an inseparable part of her life.

It’s easy to dismiss Tim Burton films. His preference for thin, pale, awkward protagonists and ode to introverts is not particularly veiled. Yet behind all the iconic visuals and the guise of a “visionary” director hides a deeply personal journey to self-discovery. His filmography, marked by solitude and otherness, reveal a new facet of his identity. His projects turn into living creatures, shifting and changing over time, as we too shift and change.

It is clear how a Burton movie might appeal to a child. His films possess an instinctive visual creativity that captivates the imagination of a young child much more readily than the same story would if put in writing. Everything the viewer needs to know to enjoy one of his films is usually in plain sight, expressed through character design. From Edward’s scars, to Beetlejuice’s dirt, and to the corpse bride’s decaying crown of flowers, younger viewers are more susceptible to visual cues than character development or narrative nuance. Cementing this appeal is the aesthetic consistency observable throughout Burton’s work. Big eyes, skeletons, and a Danny Elfman soundtrack seem to sum up many of his films pretty well. Children seek comfort in familiarity. This is essential in understanding exactly why I felt strangely comforted by his work when I was younger. It allows children to explore eerie premises while being comforted by a stable creative coherence. 

Growing up, my appreciation of his work broadened to themes and character arcs. I was the embodiment of an angsty teen, and my appreciation of the visuals were increasingly matched by my attachment to the writing. I started connecting with the characters. Characters like Edward and Benjamin, from Sweeney Todd, do not merely feel their emotions; they are consumed by them. At the same time, while his characters are certainly romanticised, they are not idealised. Despite the popularity of Michael Keaton’s performance, Beetlejuice is clearly an antagonist; an opportunistic symbol of everything wrong with the world. In fact, and returning to the ideas of comfort and familiarity, Burton’s films rarely praise anarchy. Instead, they recognise and despise the necessity of suburbia, and of banal commonality, which stand in distinction from more whimsical creative worlds. In Beetlejuice’s ending, Lydia dances with ghosts, but still lives in a quiet town. His films have a way of punishing characters that cannot peacefully exist in society, while praising those who are able to adapt. Burton has found his place in the world, after growing up in his own “private hell.” Whenever I felt isolated, in part due to fervent social anxiety, Burton’s films were a gentle reminder that it is perfectly okay to feel that way. These films taught me to use these feelings, and channel them in my writing. His protagonists often find this same balance. Even when they can’t, they don’t simply fade in the distance. They leave a mark on the world.

But true vulnerability is found when looking beneath these surface level components, rooted into how his movies are made. Known for creating beautiful, practical sets and for the use of stop motion animation, Burton doesn’t merely direct; he crafts. This tactile creative process spills over into the manifestation of the subconscious. His well-documented obsession with Frankenstein is displayed in his movies not only thematically, but especially in the form of body horror. The obsession with picking things apart and stitching them back together speaks to someone who has a strong vision of what the world should look like. Other elements are less clear. The recurrence of fish merchants, like in Corpse Bride and Dark Shadows, is unclear to me (being weirdly terrified of fish however, it never fails to creep me out). These two motifs come together in Beetlejuice, where hands with shrimp for fingers emerge to terrify the dinner guests.

These peculiar, subconscious details culminate with Big Fish, one of his last great movies, and the one who bore the greatest influence in my life. As a young adult, I became more cynical. The pressures of university grounded me, causing me to adopt a more practical approach to my hobbies. This, paired with an immovable sense of morality young adults often adopt in times of uncertainty, led me to favour clarity above all. Big Fish was instrumental in reminding me of the importance of imagination. The plot is not bound by shackles like time and continuity, capturing the concept of imagination in its most abstract form. While as a child this film instinctively made sense to me, as an adult the reason for such a story structure is even more striking. Not everything we do has to be useful, and not every lie lacks authenticity. Ed Bloom did not bury pieces of himself in made up stories; the stories were an expression of his soul. He added a fantastical element not because he wanted to appear like someone he is not, but because he felt a closer connection to that fantastical world than the real one. The stories he told were, if not real, true.

It is remarkable how any popular movie stays grounded in its creator’s vision. Burton has made a living out of this, creating characters that have become pop culture icons while rarely compromising his own creative process. His films work as simple gothic tales to tell children before bed, or as entertaining blockbusters. However, their true value lies in their authenticity, testified by how much they can change as you experience them throughout time—and in turn, how they can change you. As much as these movies have transformed throughout the years, I in turn have grown with them.

Words by Elisabetta Pulcini

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