A Postmodern Reading of Tim Burton’s ‘Vincent’: A Pastiche of Styles

On graduating, Tim Burton worked in the Disney studios, giving a hand in various storyboards and concept art for The Fox and the Hound, The Black Cauldron and Tron, as well as providing art for the first adaptation of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. During this time, he used his newly made connections to produce one of his most celebrated shorts to date, Vincent, the comical tale of an eccentric seven year old boy named Vincent Malloy, who wishes to do nothing else but emulate his hero, iconic horror actor Vincent Price.

The overly-dramatic narration (by the real life Vincent Price) and the humor that outs Vincent as a phoney wannabe establishes this short as a macabre comedy, which is an important execution to make if Burton wanted to reach an audience of children. Appealing to this target audience is aided both by the rhyming couplets that make up the narration, and the fact that we view the whole thing from Vincent’s perspective, because young people appreciate that sometimes our elders just ruin the fun entirely. The use of black and white illuminates the contrast between Victor’s imagination (which prompts him to make ‘woe-is-me’ grandiose gestures that are hysterical) and the reality of his perhaps mundane but hardly unendurable existence.Vincent Malloy just wants to be a part of the drama like Vincent Price, which is why he makes everyday activities like being sent to his room as exciting as being “banished to the tower of doom”

Tim is my favorite and I think he always will be. The characters belonging to his animation style are like little else that came before Burton, but which has inspired cartoonists and artists in their droves since. The elongated and stick-like limbs, the wiry and unruly licorice lace hair, the oversized and bulging eyes (with a prick for a pupil), the chiseled features, all set off with white-grey porcelain skin, to me, is dreamlike. However, that being said, Vincent is a hard piece of proof that Burton is a postmodern artist, as postmodernist thinkers debate whether anything can ever be truly new anymore. The entire 6 minute short pays homage to the horror greats such as Price and Edgar Allan Poe, as well as to the childlike stylizations of Dr. Seuss, because of the rhyming couplets that juxtapose reality and the perceived melodramatic reality of our immensely lovable seven year old. We live in an era of copies, replicas and reproductions: pastiche describes, according to postmodern critic Barry Lewis, when “the corpse could be revivified by stitching together the amputated limbs and digits in new permutations” (which is a painfully fitting description when in relation to corpse-loving Burton). Vincent is pastiche because the viewer is made explicitly aware that Burton is deliberate in his imitation and blending of the styles of previous works (early B-horror films and German expressionist films can also be cited, with the artistry of the wildly exaggerated The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari often being closely compared). Intertextuality, according to postmodern theorist Linda Hutcheon in A Theory of Parody, gives artists a method of justifying their own work, which, given that this is one of Burton’s earliest works, makes sense. It’s difficult to forge a completely independent and unique sense of artistic identity if you want to get your name out there at all, so often replicating and meshing the styles of others and thereby allowing audiences to draw comparisons helps.

My personal adoration for this film lies in my inclination towards anything Gothic and I love Poe, so I have that in common with Vincent. The spiraling intensification of this short, as Vincent grows seemingly madder and madder, is a claustrophobic technique first dabbled narratively with by Poe. In almost all of Poe’s stories madness is evident; a spiraling descent into obsessive compulsive nervous behavior. Many of his works have explored the split personality also, so he’s a precursor to Sigmund Freud, too. After wallowing away in his bedroom, self-pitying in the shrouds of darkness Vincent has casted upon himself, the film ends with a tongue-in-cheek citation of Poe’s The Raven: “And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor, Shall be lifted . . .Nevermore!” The correlations between such a young boy and the tormented adult of Poe’s poem are hilariously disparate, but that’s where the genius lies; the student in The Raven, trying to forget his lost Lenore, amounted to what Poe himself described as the “human thirst for self- torture… the luxury of sorrow,” which is exactly what our Vincent is indulging in, to the point that he fabricates a lost love himself (to which his mother expresses her disapproval, after Vincent digs up her flower bed, convinced it was her grave). Burton expertly tampers with the film’s spatial and temporal continuity in this scene, using a simple light cue to transform Vincent’s conception of his “graveyard” to its actual form as a “flower bed”.

Also, to be postmodern is often to be satirical, as we’ve seen in Burton’s other work: in Edward Scissorhands, the mise-en-scene of white picket fences and pastel colored houses provides commentary on the cultural landscape of his own childhood suburban homeland in Burbank, California, particularly as it’s offset with a dark Gothic castle. The contrast allowed him to ridicule the deceptive nature of good appearance; while neighbors competed to have their lawns look more perfect than the other’s, the resident of the structural gloom that perched above their neighborhood was the one teaching them all lessons in goodness and kindness.

Incase nobody knew, the real Vincent Price starred as the inventor in Edward Scissorhands too, probably because he owed it to Tim for cementing his legacy. Price later said of his involvement in the short that it was “the most gratifying thing that ever happened. It was immortality–better than a star on Hollywood Boulevard”. For Burton, using pastiche here may have been a strategy of convenience, particularly in the short animated form where extensive characterization and mood development are restricted, yet while Tim has come a long way from his humble Vincent beginnings, he still makes pastiche a hallmark of his longer features, as he adapts many staples of popular culture (the character of Ed Wood, legendary comic Batman and book Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children), and frankly I can’t get enough.

Jenni D'Alton

Jenni is a recent graduate from Dublin, Ireland, where she studied English, Media and Cultural Studies and finally the years of watching movies and television from her bedroom (what became known as the 'cave' to her unsupportive friends) paid off, because she could actually put her lazy hobby down to "research".

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