Saturday, February 02, 2008

Burton's blond moments

Clearly Tim Burton, like Hitchcock (among others), has a thing about blonds and makes them mean something in film. He is not the only one. As far as I can tell, filmmakers are only taking meanings applied to certain colours by society and exaggerating them on screen. Hitchcock's blonds were always more ambiguous (representing Hitchcock's version of the nature of innocence – its manipulative and seductive powers - rather than representing a conventional understanding of innocence itself), but Burton is generally less subtle.

Admittedly, the polarization between light and dark – blondness and darkness – in Burton’s characters is not always so simply divided. The struggle between light and dark that takes place between the two female characters over the body of a male in Sweeney Todd is subtler in Edward Scissorhands and Sleepy Hollow.

In Edward Scissorhands and Sleepy Hollow the blond females embody something closer to the Hitchcockian model of the inherently seductive temptress who will surely bring about the hero's demise, and the struggle takes place internally, in the interior of the relationship between each respective Johnny Depp character and his blond muse.

But more often than not, the model in Burton films is simpler: Blond = good girl (or guy), innocence and vulnerability. Brunette = morally ambiguous and complex (if not outright bad) girl (or guy). Which woman does the hero of Planet of the Apes end up with? The complex, intelligent, fierce, physically challenging and ambiguous ape? The embodied union of brain and bestiality? Or the submissive, helpless, imbecilic, and almost completely voiceless blond woman? The embodiment of emptiness and nothingness? How could it be the first, when such a union between a man and woman could threaten our society's oh so comfortable social order?

(I thought that film was endlessly disappointing - can you tell??)

In Sweeney Todd, the archetypes are divided into pairs: there is the blond (innocent, pure, vulnerable) couple: Anthony and Johanna. And there is the dark (ambiguous, morally questionable, dangerous) couple: Mrs Lovett and Sweeney Todd.

There is a battle for survival going on between the two, and there is a battle for Sweeney going on between the (non)forces of Blondness (embodied by Johanna and her mother - they are interchangeable - hardly a whole character each) and the forces of Darkness (Mrs Lovett). In the end, the Aryan model reigns supreme through passivity. Usually it does not have to do anything: darkness will inevitably bring about its own destruction. The colour-coded conclusion? In Cinema Land, the survival and preservation of purity is both inevitable and desirable. It is eternally worth fighting for.

So, they're just films. This is just movie language. Does any of it really matter? Do I just have something against blonds?? Of course not. The problem is that colour-coding and its significance in the social unconscious may not have an impact on daily life with the people we know, but once you make an image, and you create a story around that image, and use that image for a particular purpose or to convey a particular message, you load that image with meaning. The colours of that image are an incredibly powerful way to control a message and manipulate the spectator. That's when the image and its colours affect what we think on a daily, social level.

The most obvious recent example of this away from cinema, in my mind, is the Madeleine McCann case. That image of her that is everywhere: its intention to convey the very embodiment of innocence and vulnerability. But the very fact that there is an agenda behind the presentation of the image makes that image anything but innocent. It is deliberately playing on the associations we make between blondness and innocence. Would this child have had such a global media circus surrounding her if it had been a young black girl in that picture, or if she’d even been just a little less blond?

Should we really be continuing to colour-code human attributes and characteristics with such banality, lack of imagination or sense of social responsibility? I'd have hoped that, by now, there was really no more need to bang on about choosing representations of humanity that deviated from the usual (black and white) suspects. But it would seem that filmmakers could do with some reminding.

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1 comment:

Prole said...

Hi, so sorry for the completely OT post, but I couldn't find an email anywhere.

You've been nominated for a Canadian F-word Blog Award!

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