A Cinema of Transformations
Edited by Gilles Menegaldo
Collection Profils américains
Montpellier : Presses universitaires de la Méditerranée, 2018
Broché. 442 p. ISBN 978-2367812595. 38€
Reviewed by Sébastien Lefait
Université Paris 8
“A director of fables, fairy tales, and fantasies, with an aesthetics that incorporates the Gothic, the Grand Guignol, and German Expressionism, Tim Burton is an uncompromised visionary – a modern auteur.” Such is the way Tim Burton is described by Jenny He, curator of the 2009 Tim Burton exhibition at the New York Museum of Modern Art. Concerning the California-born director, this is as short a description as readers are likely to get: because Tim Burton combines so many established categories, his art and films defy categorization, as does their author himself.
There is, however, a one-word attribute that, even though it fails to epitomize the long list above, does manage to transcend it to define Burton. Tim Burton is a hybrid artist. Subtitled “A Cinema of Transformation”, Gilles Menegaldo’s latest edited collection of articles on Burton stands out among monographs and other edited volumes on that director for its ability to reach the quintessence of the artist’s work by analyzing the multiple ways in which he treats hybridization in all its forms to nourish the creative process that produces works that also rise above their sources of inspiration. This being the guideline of the book, as well as what makes it so innovative in its approach of the work of Burton, I will review the contents of the volume in keeping with the editor’s perspective, bearing the hybridity parameter in mind.
Gilles Menegaldo’s introduction provides a very broad analysis of Tim Burton’s work that also outlines hybridity as the volume’s central perspective on Burton’s oeuvre. In no less than 20 pages, the filmmaker’s corpus of artistic material is dissected and stripped down to its essential aesthetic issues. Burton’s biography and the sources of his works smoothly lead Menegaldo to introduce the qualities for which the filmmaker distinguishes himself: a talent for hybridization that goes beyond the crossing of genres and a provocative form of Gothic revival. Interestingly, the introduction shows that the creation of all types of hybrids is at the heart of Burton’s artistic process, in which the displacement and blurring of lines is part of a multifaceted experimental protocol that, despite all the shapes it populates the works with, always ends up questioning life as a form of death, ultimately proving reality to be an illusion that conceals many invisible worlds, whether past, present or future.
The book’s first part is entitled “Origins and Cultural Heritage”. Its first chapter, “‘Draw Me a Monster’: the Dynamics of Drawing in Tim Burton’s Creative Process”, was written by Bérénice Bonhomme. It identifies the blurring between the creator himself and his spectral presence in his works. Focused as it is on Burton’s drawings, the chapter reveals the hybrid nature of the filmmaker’s productions as the combination of drawing and cinematic creative processes. Florence Chéron, in “Tim Burton’s Early Films: Cinematographic Work Roots”, then makes the notion of re-imaginings meet the concept of adaptation to consider Burton a new type of auteur, whose style paradoxically draws from a constant use of adaptation. The filmmaker’s unique style is then born from the systematic and very personal use of adaptation, which consists of personal additions to his source works. This is part of Burton’s experimental vein, which leads him to often disrupt works by other artists than himself, a process that turns the original works into barely recognizable freaks. In “Turning Monsters into Martyrs: Suffering and Metamorphosis in The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and Other Stories”, Virginia Vuiglio focuses on a collection of poems that were illustrated by the hand of the artist. The object, because it is different from Tim Burton’s cinematic works, once again shows the extent to which hybridizing art forms to yield a result that eludes classification is at the heart of Burton’s creative processes. Along the book, Tim Burton increasingly appears to be a hybrid himself, a Frankenstein-freak persona whose artistic genius lies in the ability to blur boundaries until his own shape and identity become elusive. Raphaëlle Costa de Beauregard then addresses “Tim Burton’s Big Fish (2003)” seeing the film as “Early Cinema in the Loops of ‘Fishy Stories’”. In this chapter, early cinematic realism and the original tradition of the cinema of attractions become referenced as effects in Burton’s cinema. The result is an aesthetics of ambiguity, under whose terms all the films need to be considered as if through water. Viewers need to take account of their blurred nature, and of their constant work on the ambiguity of appearances in order to make sense of what lies at the hybridity of Burton’s works.
In the second part, “Strange Bodies: across Genders and Genres”, Eithne O’Neill first studies the complex relationship between “Tim Burton, Ovid, and the Body Piecemeal”. The films are described as a hybrid between mythology and contemporary times. This type of a-historical collage defines the work of Burton as corpse-like, edited together as it is from various sources. Taïna Tuhkunen then offers a chapter entitled “Vampires, Witches, Corpse Brides and Patchwork Princesses: the Thrill of Tim Burton’s ‘Female Gothic’”. Gender and genre problematics meet in this chapter, which cleverly reads the corpus of films through the lens of the female Gothic. The result is a very convincing and original reading of female characters in Burton’s films, which ends with a yearning for similar gender / genre hybridization in Burton’s films to come, but also in the works of other directors. “Freakshow Aesthetics and (Post-) Colonial Ideology in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” is the angle chosen for his chapter by Florent Christol. The author offers a Marxist perspective on Tim Burton, a perspective which is presented as multifaceted and hybrid. Through a study of Burton’s carnivalesque aesthetics, the blurred political lines of his work emerge, as the author concludes that Burton may be a Conservative passing as a subversive artist. Then, Elsa Colombani addresses types of character that are “‘Split Right down the Centre’: Tim Burton’s Animal-Men”. In a collective work that is mostly devoted to Burton as a hybrid creator, the theme of animal-men is very much expected. In this chapter, it is very well exploited, especially to show that the animal part in Burton’s characters is a symptom of incompleteness, a sign of the division of identities that characterizes our times. The last chapter in the second part is by Yann Calvet. It is entitled “Intelligent Life Can Be Found Elsewhere! On Mars Attacks!” Here again, through the analysis of Mars Attacks, Burton’s blurry ideology is focused on and even targeted, as the director appears to blur American values into anarchy. Mars Attacks is considered as an alternative American (cultural) history, the latest politically incorrect film in Burton’s work.
The third part of the book is entitled “A Matter of Life and Death”, to suggest it mainly deals with the issues of family and trauma in Burton’s works. It opens with a chapter by Laurent Jullier: “‘Family Is the Only Wealth!’ Or am I wrong? The Finally Reassuring Word of Tim Burton”. The chapter starts with the clever observation that it is difficult to find the real in the universe of Burton’s films. As in the chapter by Christol, Burton here appears to be a hybrid between a subversive and a politically-correct filmmaker. The hybridity, in that case, is a contradiction, as contradictory readings apply to several works. Then, Marie-Camille Bouchindomme identifies the presence in Burton’s films of the ancient theme, “Death and the Maiden”. The corpus is treated as a questioning of classical femininity, as for example addressed in classical Hollywood films. Many reversed stereotypes are identified in the works. In “Closer to the Bone (Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, 2005), Xavier Daverat studies another blurring: the obvious one between life and death. Interestingly, it appears to help expose surface appearances designed to use death as a revealer of what life is truly about. Vincent Baticle then analyses “The Handling of Time in Tim Burton’s Feature Length Films”. Life-and-death here become linked to the presence of the past in the present. Burton’s films appear to be outside of time because of the immortal characters that populate the universe that therefore becomes immortal itself. Eithne O’Neill’s second chapter to be featured in the book, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children: Eyes and Skeletons. Flesh and Bone” uses an angle similar to the previous one, where skeletons are reminders of times past. The conclusion cleverly considers the possibility of a sequel to Peculiar Children that would fit into the Beetlejuice franchise, as if the crossing between life and death materialized in the passage from one cinematic universe to the neighbouring one within Tim Burton’s work.
At the beginning of the fourth part, “Adaptations, Remakes, Reappropriations”, Christian Viviani studies Sweeney Todd as “a ‘Revenger’s Tragedy’”. The hybridization at work here is between film and tragedy, and Sweeney Todd is treated as a mutant project that draws from Victorian culture, to emphasize the persistence of some characteristics of the gaze that cannot be affected by new technology. In “The Americanization of Alice. Tim Burton and the Victorian Imagination”, by Jean-Marie Lecomte, Alice is considered as a cross-cultural hybrid between Victorian and American cultures / imaginations. Burton is therefore described as a postmodern baroque artist in love with Victoriana, a conclusion that indicate multiple combinations at work in the corpus. The volume’s editor, Gilles Menegaldo, then tackles “The Gothic Tradition, Mad Scientists and Modernity” in Tim Burton’s films, in which he sees a “Rewriting [of] the Frankenstein Myth (from Vincent to Edward Scissorhands)”. The chapter once again insists on how Burton fits within the Frankenstein tradition. It cleverly shows that with Burton, even the Frankenstein myth is hybridized. Mélanie Boissonneau then studies Frankenweenie (2012) to take “A Look at Tim Burton and the Frankenstein Method”. The chapter analyses again the Frankenstein method that characterizes the work of Burton. It does so, however, from a different angle than the one exploited in previous chapters on similar topics. Indeed, Burton’s appropriation of Frankenstein-like creation here stems from a cultural legacy made of a succession of cinematic rewritings of the Frankenstein myth. In the end, Burton’s life and works become characterized by a unique, supreme form of hybridity, which sees the creator and the creature merge. “Blood Sample. Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows: between Genre Homage and Satire”, by Anne-Marie Paquet-Deyris, ends the fourth part with a crowning piece. This chapter stands out among the others featured in the book for its study of Burton’s Dark Shadows as the adaptation of the cult TV series by the same name. The chapter therefore provides insight into the creative process that includes recycling, but also a satirical vein, both of which ensure the survival of works throughout a process that is akin to vampire-like bloodsucking.
The book’s last part is entitled “Artists and the Creative / Interpretive Process”. In it, Olivier Cotte first addresses “Tim Burton and Animation”. His chapter describes Burton’s animation style as dark, a thought-provoking angle, especially bearing in mind that Burton started his career with the Disney company. The chapter is also very interesting for the way it examines the ascendancy of Burton’s live-action movies by referring to his animation work. David Roche then analyses “The Spectatorial Terms of Ed Wood (1994)”. This is another chapter that stands out among the other ones featured in the book thanks to an original angle on Burton’s work. Here, Burton is studied as prompting a form of hybrid perception / reception in Ed Wood, where the eponymous characters’ works are seen through his own eyes and thereby given new cultural legitimacy. Roche thus decrypts Burton’s clever device to glamorize a director he loves despite the poor quality of his works by treating him not only as a character in the movie, but also as his own ideal spectator, channelling the gaze favourably towards Ed Wood’s works. In “An Experience of Paradox: Johnny Depp in Tim Burton’s Movies”, Sophie Benoist brings the singular place of Johnny Depp in Burton’s movies under focus. By playing parts in numerous films by Burton, Depp turned his identity into a Burtonian persona, a hybrid between person, actor and character that is shaped through constant inclusion in Burton’s highly personal imaginary world. The result is a form of oxymoronic hybridization, where Depp’s style, although opposed to Burton’s, is nevertheless a perfect fit for Burton’s Gothic universe. Cécille Carayol is then one of the few authors to analyse the place of music in Burton’s works, with a chapter entitled “Danny Elfman: The Music Box Effect in Tim Burton’s Films”. The chapter identifies a hybrid musical series throughout the analysis of Burton’s corpus of films. Mutation after mutation, a strange musical hybrid is created, the Disney Poe Music, which helps viewers flow between several, mutually contradictory atmospheres, the “Disneyfic” and the horrific. Finally, Jérôme Lauté’s chapter, “‘Deeply Superficial’: Burton’s Warholian Vision of Art and Creation in Big Eyes”, studies the self-hybridization of Tim Burton’s style to the case of division of art expressed in Big Eyes. The result is described as a schizophrenic self-portrait, the surface of which clashes with what is preserved underneath, in a conclusive illustration of Burton’s main technique at work: the constant remodelling of himself and of his film style that is produced by the exploration of overlapping areas between various, and sometimes contradictory, genres, atmospheres and influences.
This summative book on Burton’s work is a must read. Despite there being numerous volumes and monographs devoted to the study of the American director’s productions, A Cinema of Transformation has more to offer than a simple, film-by-film study of a thought-provoking corpus. No work is left behind, of course, not even Burton’s drawings or the music used in his films. Yet unlike many other volumes on the director, Menegaldo’s edited collection is a sum that provides a new total: a reading of the films, the author and his art that serves to better understand not only Burton, but also, more generally, the place of transartistic or even transmedia hybridization in contemporary creative processes.
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