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In his essay “The Myth of Total Cinema” Andre Bazin discusses his belief that

cinema is essentially meant to reproduce life as we experience it. He would not be a

supporter of montage or heavy editing, because such things would take away from this

goal of reproducing reality so perfectly that the viewer would not be able to distinguish it

from everyday life. To Basin, Tim Burton, would be missing the point of cinema

completely. Burton never strays completely away from reality, but instead he blurs the

line between fact, fiction, reality, and fantasy to create a very surreal experience. He

seems to have no interest in making films that are “perfectly real,” as Bazin defines it.

After all, Bazins theory does not take into account that there is no clear definition of what

reality is. Reality is a matter of perception, because every person chooses what

information to intake and/or filter out. People will often describe movies in completely

different ways, despite the fact that the same images were on the screen. People bring

themselves into a film –their ideals, beliefs, and experiences, and will find ways to

identify and find themselves in the film. Reality is therefore constructed in our own

minds, and so it is intangible and immeasurable. To try and reconstruct it is therefore a

lost cause. This essay will focus on Burtons approach toward reality in his films, and how

this affects his narratives.

Tim Burtons films take a very surrealist approach, speaking of the movement in

literature and the visual arts that centered on Freudian theories about the

unconscious mind and dreams. Stylistically, Burton tends to exaggerate and distort

common objects, people, and forms in the distinct style of Salvador Dali: a “poster-child”

painter of the surrealist movement. The most obvious examples of this can be found in

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Burtons animated movies, such as “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” where the main

character, Jack Skellington, has the elongated limbs of the animals in Dali’s popular

painting, “De verzoeking van de Heilige Antonius.”

Left: Image of Jack


Skellington from “The
Nightmare Before
Christmas”

Right: “De verzoeking van


de Heilige Antonius”-
Salvador Dali
This connection to surrealism is no coincidence. Surrealist beliefs about the

unconscious mind are behind Burtons choice to stylize his films in this manner. In Metz

essay “On the Impression of reality,” he comments that “…the word “real” is forever

playing tricks on us- between two different problems: on the one hand, the impression of

reality produced by the diegesis, the universe of fiction, what is represented by each art,

and, on the other hand, the reality of the representation in each art. On the one hand, there

is the impression of reality; on the other, the perception of reality, that is to say, the whole

question of the degree of reality contained in the material available to each of the

representative arts” (Metz, 12-13). Burtons films take on the belief that the perception of

reality is reality itself, since reality is an individual experience and is not some type of

constant variable. Burtons films then take the leap that, the truest form of reality must

take place in the unconscious mind- in our dreams. But Burtons films do not take place

in a restrictively dreamlike state, unlike a Salvador Dali painting. Burtons films do follow

a clear narrative, and have some identifiable relation to the physical world, whereas a

dream may not. This is because reality is not detached from the physical world around us,

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and that is not what Burton is trying to show us. He instead is trying to dispute that the

physical world is reality. Burtons films show us the physical world around us in a

dreamlike state. The physical world is physically there and cannot be denied, but what

makes it “real” is how we see it, which is in this dreamlike state. We can see the dream

state presented not only in Burtons visual style, but also in his narratives.

One theme common to all of Burtons narratives is a creation of extremely

contrasting worlds. These worlds are presented as a dream versus a nightmare, both

visually and in the narrative. The nightmare world is visually very black and frightening

distorted, while the dream world is bright and fairytale-like. These two worlds usually

being represented are the "normal" world, and the “bizarre” world. The “normal” world is

often unattractive, and void of individuality, fun, or charisma, while the "bizarre" world is

presented as the exact opposite. Despite logic, the unattractive “normal” world is not

always visually presented in the nightmare state, but still comes off as such. In “Edward

Scissorhands” the normal world is visually a dream, but this world is judgmental, unfair,

and cruel. Meanwhile it is the dark castle that looks over the town, the bizarre world,

which becomes a safe haven for our protagonist. In this film, our protagonist lives outside

of society, he is the bizarre. He longs to be a part of society, to be normal- this is his

dream, so he has idealized this world into the dreamlike state in which we are viewing it.

On the other hand, in “The Corpse Bride” our protagonist is a part of society, and

knows how truly dreadful it is. In this film, the two worlds are broken up into the land of

the living: the normal, and the land of the dead: the bizarre. The land of the living is

based on a very aristocratic Old English restrictive society. The characters are

judgmental, angry, and mean. Our protagonist realizes this, and so he sees his life as a

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living nightmare. Visually the characters in this world look very lifeless. The color palette

used here is mostly black and white, with some dull blue tonality to it. The land of the

dead is a strong contrast to this, and plays off of the idea that after you die, you are freed

from all of the restrictive social vices of the world. The colors here are vibrant reds,

yellows and greens, while the characters sing and dance, and are full of life and spirit.

Burtons contrasting worlds simplify life into being either “this-or-that,” leaving

no room for mid-ground, except for in the heart of the protagonist. The protagonist is

constantly searching for this middle ground between worlds- some type of “perfect

reality.” Burtons heroes never find this in the physical world and are usually forced to

create their own perfect reality. This motif is very strong is his film “Big Fish.” The film

is about a son who is looking to find out the reality about his dying fathers life, as his

father is a man that explained everything as if it were some great fable. The father-

Edward Bloom is our protagonist who has created his own reality. The film goes through

Edwards life through his stories where he is this young vibrant hero who could do

anything he put his mind to. This is shown in contrast to the “real world” where Edward

is a frail, bedridden, dying old man. The son eventually comes to the realization that often

staying true to the perceived reality of the situation is not as important as getting the main

ideas across. People will not remember Edward Bloom as that frail bedridden old man,

but they will remember him through his stories- through his reality of himself.

Along with rejecting Bazins concept of reality, Burton has also rejected the 

societal structure that that reality has creates. His “normal” world is always seen as this 

awful place, and his films often leave the viewer with the message that living outside of 

society is a good thing. Despite this message, he still deliverers it through a very white 

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male chauvinistic perspective. Minorities, who are truly outside of the society in which he 

is commenting on, are presented in Burtons films in a very stereotypical manner or are 

eliminated altogether. As far as ethnic minorities go, Burton mostly eliminates them from 

his films. Perhaps this is because they directly dispute his message that living outside of 

society is a good thing. However Burton does take a consistent voyeuristic and fetishistic

approach towards women (white women) in his films. This is particularly apparent in the

sequence from “Big Fish” where our main character, Edward woes his soon-to-be wife,

Sandra. I will provide a detailed sequence analysis to paint the scene.

The sequence begins with an establishing shot of a Catholic school classroom. We 

can tell this by the stained glass windows and large Organ behind the projection screen 

the teacher is presenting slides on. We can also see the students on the left and right of 

the camera. The lighting is minimal, and natural, as if the only light coming in the room 

is from the sun shining through the windows. This adds to the aspect of realism, because 

a room would be kept relatively dark when a slide presentation is being shown. Next we 

cut to a medium close up of Sandra Templeton sitting amongst the crowd of students. 

Aside from the fact that Sandra’s character had been introduced in previous scene, there 

are other indicators that tell the audience that she is to be the focus of our attention in this 

shot. Firstly she is directly in the center of this shot, and is wearing red lipstick and red 

polka dots. Secondly, she is facing a different direction than all the other students. She is 

also the only one who has her hand in the shot, and she is holding a pencil. The pencil is 

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pointing in the direction of another girl who is wearing red lipstick, and then 

perpendicular to her is yet another girl wearing red lipstick. The three girls form a 

triangle, which may be a foreshadowing to these characters appearing again later on in the 

scene, or it could be alluding to a possible love triangle that has yet to reveal itself. The 

lighting in this shot is still relatively dim, but it seems as though Sandra Templeton is 

glowing from within! This can be read as a representation of love, or purity, or as though 

she has some type of angelic presence about her. 

Next we cut back to a medium shot at a low angle of the professor. He is at the

rightmost corner of the frame, and the projection screen is behind him. This low angle

gives us the feeling that he is above us- an authority figure. We are smaller than him, so

we must look up to him, as is the hierarchy between teacher and student. Despite this, the

projection screen takes up most of the frame to the left of him, and this dominance calls

attention to it. On the screen there is a simple line graph, which holds for about a second.

The slide changes leaving the screen blank, forcing the viewer to pay attention to what

the professor is actually saying. Before this, the professors voice was only a background

sound, because we had more intriguing things to focus on. Now it is the only thing that

we can focus on because the screen is blank. Now that we are listening he says, “Take a

look at the next graph, I think the importance of this will be even stronger.” In the middle

of this sentence a new slide comes up that reads: I love Sandra Templeton.

The scene continues on with this theme of Edward sending Sandra love messages

in extravagant/quirky ways. The next day Sandra finds a love message written by a plane

in the sky, and the day after that she wakes up to find that right outside her window

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Edward is waiting for her, standing amongst a bed of daffodils: her favorite flower. The

music remains very soft and sweet, and each time Sandra discovers a love message the

music cues up louder, which adds to the feeling of surprise and endearment. When she

finds her last message, Edward amongst the flowers, the music cues up louder than ever

before indicating that this is the finale. We do not actually see Sandra leave her window

to meet Edward in the bed of daffodils. Instead the camera cuts from her in the window

looking down on the spectacle, to Edward in the flowers (screen left) facing the right side

of the screen and she walks into frame (from stage right). They chat for a while about

how he put all this together and the camera goes back and forth between the two of the in

medium close up shots. They are interrupted by a third voice calling Sandra’s name from

off screen.

The camera quickly cuts to a shot that establishes where the voice is coming from;

there is a man approaching them from the outskirts of the daffodil field. The camera cuts

back to a close up to show Sandra’s worried expression, and the music begins to die out.

Right there we know that there is some kind of conflict between the characters. The

emotion has drastically changed, giving off a feeling of suspense. Through dialog we find

out that this is Sandra’s fiancé, Don (this is the love triangle I was alluding to earlier

when talking about the classroom scene). When Don reaches them he angrily begins to

punch Edward around, but Edward doesn’t fight back per Sandra’s wishes. In the middle

of this fight the narrator comes in, which is the elderly Edward who is telling this story to

his daughter in law (which we know from the previous scene). He explains that even

though he was the one taking all the punches, the exertion of the fight caused Don to have

a heart attack later on. While the narrator is saying this, we see a clip of the scene where

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Don has a heart attack. It is actually a repeated scene from the beginning of the movie

where an adolescent Edward and a group of friends go to visit a witch. Legend has it, that

if you look into the witches’ glass eye, you can see your death play out right before you

like a movie scene. One of the boys looks into the eye and sees himself having a heart

attack while sitting on the toilet. This same toilet clip is repeated, which makes the viewer

realize that Don was that child from the witch scene. The clip itself is very stylized to

imitate what Burton interpreted as the “experience” of viewing a moving image within an

eyeball. The actual edges of the frame are rounded, and the whole image is dark and a bit

fuzzy. It has a brown tint to it, perhaps because the witches’ eyes were brown, or maybe

because she had cataracts. Nevertheless, this visual representation definitely gives off the

impression of looking into some rounded, glazed lens.

After the toilet clip, we go back to the fight sequence, which is almost completely

silent aside from the sound of punches and Edwards gasps (which makes it seem all the

more violent). Sandra ends the fight by giving Don back the ring, and refusing to ever

marry him. Don angrily storms out of frame, leaving a bloodied Edward and his wife-to-

be sitting amongst a bed of flattened daffodils, lovingly gazing into each other’s eyes.

The music cues back up, as the camera zooms out to end the scene.

In light of fetishism, Burton has definitely created a spectacle of Sandra. Sandra is 

put on a pedestal as this angelic, larger than life, immaterial object. Visually, she even 

glows, as though she is only a dream, having no physical presence. Sandras character is 

typical of how women are represented in Burtons films. They are bound by a symbolic 

order in which man can live out his fantasies, and they are the bearers, not makers, of 

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meaning (Mulvey, 15). Women are secondary to the men, and only have some 

significance if a man gives her significance. Sandra doesn’t have her own story, or even a 

personality. Even her fiancé has more of a background story. Everything that she is in this 

film revolves around her relation to Edward and how he sees her. Edward fell in love with 

her without ever having spoken to her; He fell in love with her image. She is objectified to 

his image of her, which gives him control over her.  As Mulvey puts it, “the man controls 

the film fantasy and also emerges as the representative of power in a further sense: as the 

bearer of the look of the spectator, transferring it behind the screen to neutralize the extra­

diegetic tendencies represented by woman as spectacle” (Mulvey, 20). This look, an 

identifier of the man being in control, is extremely prevalent in this “Big Fish” scene. We 

know Edward is watching her, as are we. He leaves he gifts in places he knows that she

will be, which shows that he is watching from a distance- he knows her every move.

Even though we do not see Edward through the majority of the scene, we know he is

watching. This thought is confirmed in the finale of the scene where we see him watching

her bedroom window, waiting for her to wake up. Mulvey would argue that this

objectification of women through fetishism and voyeurism is being done as to displace

the sexual fear of castration that the woman represents (Mulvey, 21).

The fear of castration is prevalent in most of Burtons films. When a woman is not

controlled by “the look,” she becomes a “castrating bitch.” We can see this in

“Beetlejuice,” where the mother/wife figure controls everyone and everything around her

with no regard for anyone’s emotions but her own. Her husband has obviously been

“castrated,” as he exists only as a compliment to his wife, and is very passive- a quality

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which has been gendered as female. Then there is the rare instance in Burtons films

where a woman gets to be the outsider hero. We can see this once again in “Beetlejuice,”

where the main character, Lydia is our hero. She is void of sexuality, displaying no

characteristics that are specifically gendered. She poses no threat, as she is “sexless,” and

therefore is allowed to be a hero. In short, if a woman is to be sexual, this sexuality must

be controlled or else she will become a castrating bitch, and if she is to be seen as

anything other than a creature defined only by her sexuality, then she must forfeit

sexuality altogether.

This fetishistic voyeuristic look at women is unfortunately rather common in film,

and in society. To follow such a convention seems unlikely for a director who seems so

conscious of the horrors of society and its debilitating rules and guidelines. His message

about society is seemingly not meant for women to identify with. He appears to be

speaking to a very specific audience: the white male who should presumably fit into

society easily and happily, but does not. Our entire societal structure was constructed for

and by him, and yet he does not fit in. No one will ever understand, or feel sorry for him,

so he is left to retreat into his own world-his own reality. Our societal structure is so

devastating, that it even debilitates those who created it. Whether this point comes more

clearly across by eliminating those who the structure more obviously disadvantages is up

to the viewer. Nevertheless, Tim Burton is offering us new ways to think about film,

reality, and our dominate society.

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