Sunday, May 25, 2014


Edward Scissorhands is the only film in his career (aside from his Frankenweenie remake) that Tim Burton produced, wrote the story for, and directed. Perhaps because of this creative control and singularity of vision, it remains his best film. It's Burton at his Burtoniest, before he became overly self-conscious of his own style and the expectations thereto. Pee-Wee hinted at it, Beetlejuice pioneered it, Batman appropriated it, but Edward perfected it, solidifying Burton-esque as a new and exciting aesthetic in cinema.

Right from the opening credits, his filmic fingerprints are all over the movie. The titles slice across the screen while the camera pans steadily through a shadowy assembly line to a frighteningly epic, factory-march musical score. Burton uses this exact same opening in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Sweeney Todd.

Then there’s the darkly clad and mysterious anti-hero, the brassy and choral score, the Gothic mansion, dusty staircases, looming statues, imposing backdrops, giant cogs, small town gossip, xenophobia, isolation, cobwebs, death, cavernous set pieces, absurdist humour, miniature models of houses, anthropomorphic machinery, and, of course, a healthy dose of Depp.

But unlike much of his later work, Edward Scissorhands is not Burtony for the sake of being Burtony. It is not straining to look creepy and twisted, like all Tim Burton films apparently have to. Edward uses his Gothic aesthetic to deepen character and create contrast, and everything shown on screen enhances the telling of his story. Edward’s gargantuan mansion, perched atop the absurdly huge hill overlooking the town, is miles taller than any of the pastel bungalows below. It’s full of darkened corridors and bulbous robots, and the secluded garden, with its majestic shrub-giants, is stunningly beautiful – but the house is not there just to look cool (although, to be clear, it looks super freakin cool). The mansion is a visual representation of the isolation Edward feels from the rest of the town.

Edward Scissorhands succeeds in all aspects. Every corner of this film is meticulously crafted and elevates the whole into something more than just a good movie. This is one of those perfect storms wherein all the pieces come triumphantly together and a visionary storyteller working at the top of his game is able to express something unique, enduring, and undiluted. This is a special movie.

For starters, the acting is deceptively first-rate. Johnny Depp, with his stilted movements, solid black contact lenses, and perpetually pursed lips gives a wonderfully reserved yet touching performance. He has a difficult task in Edward, but he walks the lines between slapstick and sensitivity, human and machine, weirdo and everyman, with remarkable deftness. When I think of the vastness of Depp's range (and yes, I sometimes do), I put Edward on one end and Hunter Thompson on the other – with Ed Wood somewhere in the middle.

Dianne Wiest and Alan Arkin are both pitch-perfect as the suburban mom and dad. Here are two great actors fleshing out what could be forgettable supporting roles with performances that add humour and humanity to the film. Peggy Boggs is almost nauseatingly perky (a side effect of being an Avon lady, surely), but Wiest colours her with bouts of sudden frustration atop a calm undercurrent of motherly kindness. Arkin is terrific as the quintessential Dad, oblivious to most things save for ball games, fiscal responsibility and ethical pop-quizes. Often, in my head, I hear Bill Boggs belting out “I Saw Three Ships” as he staples sheets of fake snow to his roof in the night.

Kathy Baker does a great job as the libidinous Joyce, representing the gossipy, fickle townspeople who are desperate for, yet terrified of, change. A surprisingly bulky Anthony Michael Hall is suitably eruptive and douchey as the villainous boyfriend, Jim. And of course, in his last feature film, Vincent Price is the perfect choice for Edward's reclusive, eccentric inventor. Price is delightful in his few scenes, until his character prophetically collapses on the mansion floor, dead. Though they only worked together twice, Burton and Price pair so well together that it feels like he is somewhere to be found in all of Burton's worlds, plotting away in an old mansion somewhere just off screen.

Even Winona Ryder, in all her doe-eyed yearning, delivers a nice arc for Kim. She begins as a self-absorbed teenager who hates this grotesque stranger who has invaded her home – as no doubt a teenager would – but by the end of the film she softens to the point of loving Edward in all his oddity. Ignoring her unfortunate scenes as old Kim which bookend the film (why Burton insisted on Ryder playing that part is another of the film’s glorious mysteries) she is solid and moves believably from obnoxious to sweet to lovely.

Yet the acting doesn't necessarily leap out as being brilliant in this film, only because every other aspect is executed so well. The score is powerful and moving, another highlight in Burton’s career-long collaboration with Danny Elfman. Like the film, it oscillates between light and dark, with ethereal, choral tones, and deep, driving percussion and brass.

Despite being a bizarre fantasy, Edward contains real emotional poignancy. The inventor’s death, moments before he can complete his creation, is tragic. When Kim asks why he broke into Jim’s house when he knew she was lying to him, Edward’s response of "because you asked me to” is an exceptionally heart-wrenching moment (not to mention his classic response to Kim asking him to hold her in his arms: “…I can’t.”). But Edward is also remarkably funny. This is helped by the fact the actors never play up the humour (with the possible exception of Kathy Baker). They play the surreal, suburban concerns of their small town society with utter honesty. In the same way, after Edward uncovers his talents as a barber, the townsfolk spend the remainder of the movie sporting insanely elaborate, sculpted hair-dos, but attention is never called to it. It's up to the audience to notice and appreciate.

The pacing of the film is finely tuned. Immediately we are introduced to the bleak, muted world of the suburbs, to Peggy, to Edward's mansion, to Edward, and after only fifteen minutes he has been brought to the Boggs' home and thrust upon the town. Then we slow down and stay with Edward, seeing the town through his eyes. It's not until half an hour later that we meet young Kim, the love interest and driving force of much of the film’s subsequent action. At this point we already know Edward and are on his side. The film ramps up a tad unnaturally at the very end, to a somewhat clichéd climactic action scene between hero and villain, but the story has been so skillfully told throughout that this, presumably, can be forgiven.

The costume and set design in Edward is phenomenal and very possibly its crowning achievement. Although it was only nominated for a best makeup Oscar, it won the BAFTA for best production design in 1990 (leave it to the Brits to get it right). The production design is gorgeously eye-popping, but it somehow doesn't overshadow the film or take away from the story.

Edward showcases two worlds: the eerie setting of Edward’s mansion, and the vacuous, Easter-egg-coloured neighbourhood below. The houses are cookie cut-outs of each other, distinguishable only by the various pastel paints on the exterior. The rest of town is equally bleak and oppressive. The police cars have merely the word “POLICE” unimaginatively written on their sides, and a singular, imposing “BANK” sign in massive, dirty capitals sits atop the bank’s entrance. There seems to be no shade along the streets, no trees (though lots of shrubs), and the suburban bungalows squat low beneath an oppressively monochrome sky. Even the cars and costumes of the townsfolk follow the pastel colour palette, with lots of neon slacks and floral dresses. The living rooms are exaggeratedly large and empty, revealing the hollowness of the lives of those inside them.

Although it’s all greys and blacks and shadows, the dark world of the inventor’s mansion turns out to be far more colourful than the rest of the town, aligning the audience’s empathy with Edward, the outsider. The contrast of these two worlds beautifully displays the disconnect between him and the rest of ‘normal’ society. Despite his earnest efforts, the town is unwilling to overcome their fear of the unknown, and Edward cannot fit in. Near the end of the film he storms down the street, literally tearing apart the shackles of the conformist world (his suburban clothes and suspenders) with the power of his unique artistry (his scissorhands, in case it needs to be said).

Seven of Burton’s last nine films have been remakes (!), but despite being 25 years old next year, Edward Scissorhands remains utterly inimitable. Nor is it dated. The visual effects, made entirely with models and animatronics and painted backdrops, still hold up. And since the film is an exaggerated impression of suburbia and not a realistic recreation, it will remain timeless. I would also call it a masterpiece.

I believe Edward is Burton, infecting the dull, repetitive society of Hollywood with his ominous artwork. He transforms the uninspired landscape, leaving behind monuments to his artistic novelty. At first he is sought after and adored and emulated, until the society turns its back on him (sometime around Ed Wood, I’d say) and pretends they never loved him in the first place.

Co-story writer Caroline Thompson calls this film a fable. I guess she would know. According to her, a fable “is a story that people don't necessarily believe, but that they understand”. This is as pure a definition of fable as I’ve ever heard, and an accuarate description of the movie. Most directly Edward Scissorhands is a fable explaining where snow comes from – although the film does not address how Edward gets his scissorhands on all those mammoth blocks of ice sitting in the attic of his mansion. And nor should it.

More importantly though, Edward is a beautiful and touching fable about being different, about owning your oddity and how fitting in is not always possible, or even preferable. It’s about how the desire for being accepted and loved is often misinterpreted. And how that which makes you special, also makes you alone.

Though Benjamin Lancaster lives in Toronto, he will always have been born in Guelph. He writes mostly fiction, but will write non-fiction if his friends ask him to, or if he thinks he might get money for it.

1 comment:

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