No 66 - Edward Scissorhands
Director - Tim Burton
Recently, I have been to the cinema to see Alice in Wonderland in both spectacular 3D and in more traditional 2D (Which, oddly, I enjoyed more). It got me thinking about the work of Tim Burton, a director who I really admire and am quick to defend.
So, in order for me to shameless crowbar in my thoughts on Alice, I decided to watch a Tim Burton film.
It seems to me that Burton's films have always been about outsiders which don't fit into their world. However, even then, the films can be split into two types. Films in which a Burtonesque main character struggles to fit into the real world, or films in which a character from the real world finds themselves in a strange Burtonesque world.
The only exceptions I can think of are his 2 period pieces. Although both Sleepy Hollow and Sweeney Todd have nightmare figures which stalk and terrorise an otherwise regular (if not normal) English surrounding.
Oh and Big Fish, in which it sort of flits between the two styles depending on the narrative.
The films in which we're plunged into Burton's world seem less successful than those in which it happens the other way round. They're almost too overwhelming. Charlie Bucket's voyage is a dazzle of colour and noise. It is fun and entertaining but hardly substantial. Likewise, Alice's adventure (there is no reason for that film to be called Alice in Wonderland) is an exciting and entertaining jaunt with excellent voice cameos (and the best role(s) I've ever seen Matt Lucas in), yet it fails to be as captivating as the 'inspired by' source material.
Even Burton's own story of Victor's journey to the afterlife pales in comparison with Selick's story of Jack Skellington messing up our beloved holiday.
My thinking is thus: Burton is used to being the weird outsider. He saw the real world or American suburbia as unusual and didn't feel comfortable there. He was the strange outsider who didn't fit in with normality. To quote Lydia in another of Burton's films "'live people ignore the strange and unusual. I, myself, am strange and unusual".
His films celebrate strangeness and their jarring juxtaposition with the norm. As soon as strangeness becomes the norm, Burton seems to get a little carried away and the film becomes more about the visual opulence and unusual set pieces and less about the characters. However when our story is set in the 'real' world (be it chocolate box suburbia or the Gothic grime of cities and history) we get wonderful characters.
Look at the reverence in which Burton treats Edward, Beetlejuice, Ed Wood and even Batman (though it is clear that his favourite is Oswald Cobblepot). Tim Burton loves the freaks. So if everyone is a freak, he doesn't know where to lavish his attention. He doesn't know where to focus the beauty.
I'm glad I've said all that because Edward Scissorhands is probably the epitome of Burton's 'outsider in the real world' work. It is his most beautiful, touching and emotional story and it has some wonderful characterisation. I think it is because this is one of his most personal stories. Certainly the most personal original story (Big Fish is an adaptation he took on in tribute to his father). Edward even looks a bit like Burton, with his big messy mop of hair. He is an outsider, naive and wondrous at the world. A world in which he can make great art, but a world in which he feels like he can't touch anyone without hurting them. It is a really poignant story and a really beautiful one.
However before I start to look at the story I want to begin with the characters.
Let us start with the titular Edward. Johnny Depp is an amazing actor. He is one of those few people who can completely change themselves and embody the character. Even in the crappest of films he is a joy to watch. It was only a matter of time till he made it big and when Disney unveiled him to the world he became not only a star, but a sensation. He had always enjoyed playing oddballs and freaks and Disney played to this by gradually making Captain Jack Sparrow weirder and weirder, less and less hinged.
Even Burton began to play up to the typecasting.
Kooky Depp. Mad Depp.
But with Edward, Depp shows us how good he is with restraint. Of course the idea of the character is strange, he is a Pinocchio with scissors for hands. But the character itself is very restrained. He is almost emotionless at times, a vacant, bemused, wondering child who experiences the strangeness of the real world after an undisclosed length of time in isolation. For all his Gothic freakery, Edward is quite a normal person. Just a very sheltered person. His character is all about restraint and reaction.
Even Burton shows restraint. Journies into Edward's past may be a window to the madcap and Gothic, complete with a wonderful turn from Vincent Price (a hero of Tim Burton's) but they're brief and they have a point. They show that once, potentially decades ago (Price dresses like a Victorian aristocrat, but it could just be that Price dresses like a Victorian aristocrat) he was a normal part of his world. Then his world 'didn't wake up'.
So from the cobwebby world of Vincent Price's castle, Edward travels to the pastel pinks and yellows of a very 50's themed suburbia. Here he meets Kim, the young daughter of his hosts, and he falls instantly in love.
To be fair, Winona Ryder is beautiful in this film, mixing teenage sass with a wonderful naivety, it is obvious why Edward falls for her. Also, does Winona Ryder sleep in Tupperware? She seems to have the same impishly young face from as far as I remember. Edward's infatuation with Kim is at the centre of the film's downward spiral. That, and her jealous boyfriend Jim - who, in an amazing piece of counter casting is played by Anthony Michael Hall! I only noticed it on this viewing but what a beautiful change in teenage credentials.
Kim's family take Edward into their home and the entire gossiping street flock to her home to meet the new guest. Edward has some mad skills with his scissors and quickly moves from trimming hedges to dog grooming to hair styling and all the community loves him. Incidentally, whilst the topiary is outstanding, the dogs and women look ridiculous in their hairstyles.
Throughout this journey we see Edward become more confident with his place in society. Dressed in 'normal' clothes he looks into get a salon and becoming a member of society. Naturally things go wrong and Edward ends up an outcast again.
It is interesting that Edward's outfit becomes more and more tattered as he becomes more of an outcast. They black leather and buckles of his 'freak' self glistening through the cracks in his outwards outfit.
The story really is that simple - outsider is accepted and then rejected and chased out by their community. The story is not the important element of the film, it is the characters and the relationship between the characters.
In that respect it is Burton at his finest, most subtle and most beautiful. I don't think he has ever shot a moment as beautiful as the Ice Dance - moment which may not be 'Burtonesque' but which captures the fairytale element he always puts on film.
You see - it is this one final fact that makes me love the film. For all the doomed romance, Pinocchio twists and Beauty and the Beast homages... it is actually a story about why it snows in that town.
And there is something truly beautiful behind the melancholy of the tale.