Friday, November 04, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Edward Scissorhands (1990)

Technically-speaking, Tim Burton's 1990 hit Edward Scissorhands is structured as a myth.  In other words, it's deliberately a bed-time tale (told from a grandmother to her grandchild) that helps to explain some aspect of nature or existence

In this case, the book-end sequences in the film reveal the reasons why it often snows in one particular American town when, historically, it never snowed there before.

Beyond this unique aspect of the film's structure, Edward Scissorhands conforms to another long-standing tradition of mythology or folklore by explicitly conveying a message that is aimed at illuminating social aspects of the film's contemporary culture, meaning us, here, in modern America. 

In particular, the film serves as an excavation of not just another notable Burton outcast or misfit -- and perhaps his most memorable one at that -- but as a careful and moving indictment of a conformist dominant culture that is unable to accommodate an outsider's presence. 

Underneath the almost Dr. Seuss-styled surface of Edward Scissorhands, the movie serves as an indictment of racism in white America, particularly 20th century America.  Although colored in cheery, light pastels, the film portrays a 1950s era "traditional" America (down to character name choices like "Peg"), that reveals an alarming sense of homogeneity and parochial thinking.  In terms of history, this was the span in which segregation laws (or Jim Crow laws) were still on the books, though the court system was slowly beginning to change that fact.

Beyond the social commentary,  Edward Scissorhands is entirely persuasive as fantasy, with an opening composition that literally invites the viewer through a slowly opening door, into the domain of Burton's vivid and singular imagination.  The film also revels in Burton's familiar obsession with Rube Goldberg-styled inventions, and even makes some trenchant observations about parenthood, notably comparing two father characters: the inventor (Vincent Price) and Bill (Alan Arkin).

Haunting and emotional, Edward Scissorhands stands amongst of my favorite Burton films, in part because it features a deliberately unhappy (if emotional...) ending, and doesn't candy-coat its commentary in typical Hollywood bromides. 

In the end, the innocent and just Edward leaves the world at large, and his community too, but in notation of what has been lost because of his absence, some magic seems to go out of that world.   Except, of course, on the nights that it snows. 

That last wistful notation -- that idea that magic can exist in our life if only we allow it to do so -- is especially resonant, and a virtual trademark of Burton's aesthetic.

"You can't touch anything without destroying it!"

In Edward Scissorhands, a struggling make-up saleswoman, Peg (Dianne Wiest), leaves the safety of her suburban neighborhood to visit a Gothic mansion atop a nearby hill. 

There, she encounters a strange young man, Edward (Johnny Depp), who -- alone after the death of his father, an inventor (Price) -- now lives alone there.

Edward is unusual not only because of his gentle demeanor, but because he possesses long, sharp scissors for hands.

Peg brings Edward home with her to live in her family's house, and the neighborhood quickly begins to gossip about this unusual newcomer.   Seeking to fit in, Edward begins to work for the people of the town in different capacities (and all for free). 

At first, he trims their hedges into the shapes of animals and other fanciful creatures.  Then, Edward uses his skill with scissors to groom the neighborhood dogs.  Before long, Edward is giving the stay-at-home wives in the neighborhoods elaborate new hair cuts.

At first, a neighbor named Joyce (Kathy Baker) is aroused by the presence of Edward -- this "foreign" individual - in her humdrum, routine life, but when he refuses her aggressive sexual advances, she turns against him.  Then, the true target of Edward's affection, Peg's daughter, Kim (Winona Ryder) involves Edward in a robbery at the behest of her obnoxious boyfriend, Jim (Anthony Michael Hall).  Edward nearly goes to jail.

Even more than before, the town turns against Edward, leaving him no choice but to return to the lonely castle where his idiosyncratic inventor once lived.  Kim and and Jim follow him to this retreat, and Edward is left with no choice but to kill the violent Jim.  Kim, who has developed feelings for Edward, realizes that she has no option but to say goodbye to this most unusual man. 

Kim leaves Edward alone in his castle.  But years later, she knows he still lives -- immortal -- because it snows in town.  Edward creates the snow himself: cast-off shavings of ice from the elaborate sculptures he creates of his one true love...

"I am not finished."

A man with scissors for hands is certainly an original and unique creation, but Edward Scissorhands thrives as much on its depiction of Peg and Kim's pastel suburban world as it does from the singular nature of its title character.

In particular, Burton imagines a flat world in which all the houses and cars look exactly the same.  There are only four of five pastel colors to choose from, and the very flatness of the terrain -- lacking mountains and high trees -- suggest the two-dimensionality and conformity of the neighborhood, the culture and the denizens.

In particular, Burton creates for us a so-called "Googie" town deliberately evocative of  the popular 1950s design.  In other words, the houses that appear in the film conform to the architecture popularized in the 1950s and termed "Googie" by House & Home writer Julius Shulman.  These popular tract homes featured such elements as large windows, up-swept roofs, pastel color schemes, and on the interior, star burst wall-clocks. And you see all of these touches explicitly visualized in Edward Scissorhands.  The production design by Bo Welch thus specifically harks back to the 1950s, that time of racial conformity in the United States and not incidentally, the span of Tim Burton's youth.

Googie architecture was essentially mid-century modern in style, associated with the burgeoning space age and thus a spirit of can-do optimism.  But, counter-intuitively, Burton utilizes the Googie neighborhood as an indicator of the unthinking and yet visceral demand of the times to conform to the majority in terms of personal beliefs and mores, right down to choice and color of family homes.  What was designed to be an optimistic look at the "future" in America instead becomes here a signifier of the sameness of the people and their narrow or limited outlook on what it means to be a "real" American. 

When Edward enters this cookie-cutter Googie town, he is, at first, an object of curiosity.  Peg attempts to help him assimilate into the mainstream by modifying his facial complexion (with Avon make-up); so he won't, essentially "stand out."  He won't be noticed and thus derided.  Again, considering the metaphor involving racism in the 1950s, it's crucial that one note how Edward is made to change his skin color to be accepted in the neighborhood.

All the women (who seem to remain at home all day) gossip about Edward and desire to meet him.  But the only person who is cruel to Edward right from the beginning of his stay is the overtly Christian fundamentalist neighbor, who warns the neighbors that Edward is evil; Satanic actually.  And of course, this attitude also alludes to the 1950s milieu, and frequent white treatment of blacks.  In particular, black music was considered "devilish" and there was a terrible fear that the sexual, insidious music would infect upstanding white youths.  Even today, this ridiculous stereotype thrives.  How many U.S. Presidents, for instance, before Obama, have been widely termed the anti-Christ by religious authorities?

Still, Edward is welcomed into the homes of most of his neighbors, at least initially.  Importantly, however, it is in the capacity of worker or servant.  Edward tends to yards, grooms the dogs, and cuts hair.  He is, essentially, then, a harmless manservant able to do the domestic work that the middle class women do not wish to do.  He is fine as long as he knows his place and understands his role as a servant; as an assistant.

Importantly, the neighborhood goes from accepting Edward in this limited capacity to actually despising and hunting him (much like the Frankenstein Monster in James Whales' masterpiece) after he is accused of making a sexual advance against Joyce...a white woman.  Notably, Joyce is actually the one who made sexual advances upon Edward, after vocally fetishizing his "foreign-ness" or "difference;" wondering aloud what tricks he could do (or undo) with those sharp scissor hands of his.  But she turns the tables and blames Edward for sexual advances, and the town takes her word for it.

Additionally, whenever Edward makes mistakes or misunderstands the nature of his place in the Googie neighborhood, the more accepting whites among the town make paternalistic excuses for him, without actually considering how he was treated by those around him. 

"He can't help the way he is," says one character.  He must learn "not to take everything literally," says Bill.  In both cases, Edward -- definitively "the other" -- is blamed when things go awry. Fault cannot rest, apparently, in such a happy, pastel, Googie place.  Instead, fault must rest with the guy who is different; not in the response of the society to the guy who's different.  That's a significant distinction.

In the end, the neighbors run Edward out of town permanently, back into the dark, menacing Gothic mansion on the hill, a place where he apparently belongs as a non-white, non-conforming "monster."  This action thus represents the town's way of rejecting racial integration, and insisting on the separate status of someone who looks different.  It's an ugly display of parochial thinking, but also a once widespread attitude.

And yet, the film makes the case -- in the last act -- that the town has lost something beautiful by driving Edward away.  The magic and happiness he brought (diversity, perhaps?) has been sacrificed and lost.  Now, he occasionally bestows his magic -- the snow -- upon the town, but he is nonetheless forever apart from those who would benefit from his presence and particular skills.

The only man with scissor hands in the 1950s-styled Googie town, Edward remains quite the outsider and misfit.  His very touch is awkward and dangerous, and we see this quality clearly as he attempts to interface with Kim's family.  On his first day in town, he accidentally punctures with his scissor hands Kim's water bed, an act which on some metaphorical level suggests his implied/believed (sexual?) danger to the women of town.  By being different, he seems to be dangerous.

The social commentary about racism in Edward Scissorhands is a vital part of the film's creative tapestry, and yet Burton creates sympathy for the character by establishing his total sense of alone-ness and incompleteness.  "I'm not finished yet," Edwards declares at one point, and there are many of us who feel exactly the same way.  Like Edward, we are in the act of "becoming," of growing and turning into something.  Because of his poor treatment at the hand of the town's people, Edward does not become part of the community.  Instead, his destiny is to be alone.  What he becomes is...separate.

Tim Burton has occasionally stated that all his films come down to issues of parenthood, or fatherhood in particular. Here, Vincent Price plays the Inventor, a kindly man who created life, but was not able to perfect it before his untimely death.  In flashback scenes, we witness the old man's kindness, but also his desire to play God, to create a life and control it.  Although it is not his fault that he died when he did, the scientist becomes an absentee father figure, unable to help Edward countenance the world when the young man needs him the most. 

Notably, Bill -- despite some kindnesses -- also fails Edward at a critical juncture.  He is never able to turn the town back to Edward's side, and does not complain or object when Edward makes his final departure.  In both cases, the fathers don't seem to want to take responsibility for the son they have made.

One of the most beautiful and emotional aspects of Edward Scissorhands involves the climax, in which Edward creates a blizzard, a snow storm, from his perch high over the town.  Like the rest of the film, this denouement is highly symbolic, and emblematic of Burton's argument in favor of diversity and against conformity (or racism, particularly). 

For instance, some people believe that in the snow we see the reflection of God him (or her)self.  Snow is pure (like Edward) and incredibly individual: no two snow flakes are exactly like.  There is diversity amongst snow flakes and that's a good thing...for each is beautiful in its own way and evidence of God's ability create beauty in all forms.  By extension, Edward's differences from the rest of the folks in the Googie town should make him an object of beauty and reverence, not a monster.

At the heart of Edward Scissorhands echoes the belief that we need not fear that which, upon first blush, appears different from the norm.  Sometimes what is different can change our life for the better and make us see life in a totally new light. 

"You see, before he came down here, it never snowed," Kim explains to her granddaughter with a sense of wonder.  "And afterwards, it did."

Watching and experiencing Edward Scissorhands, you must decide if you want to be one of the villagers, trying to destroy that which appears different just because you're afraid of the new, or someone who regards the snow...and wants to dance in it.


  1. Anonymous3:44 PM

    As always, John, we have exactly the same tastes in movies. I consider Edward Scissorhands to be Burton's finest work--it's absolutely brilliant and beautiful filmmaking.

    --Rich Handley

  2. This is wonderful bit of filmmaking by Tim Burton, and you've given it an equal examination, John. Yes, its color scheme and 50s sense offers up a facade of America where everything is ordered, safe, and with justice for all. Then the audience watches it peeled away through Edward's introduction and interaction with that affectation. It's no surprise than the only African-American character of the film, Officer Allen (the underrated Dick Anthony Williams, who played Malcolm X twice on two extraordinary series in the 70s/80s), relates to our hero.

    I tend to look at that "I am not finished." line as something meant for everyone else in the film other than Edward. He's an innocent here, with others putting whatever on to him (their pity, suspicions, desires, fears, affections). I believe the film's most powerful scene, at the end, when Edward rebells and cuts away the clothing given to him by others and reveals his original clothing (symbolism for himself) beneath. He's a fantastic character to live through.

    My daughter and I had a discussion about what she sees as the film's 'sad' ending. She didn't like or understand it. I tried to convince her it was really the definition of 'bittersweet'. Edward's discovery of who he is and his everlasting love for Kim and others (signified by his snow making) but knowing he couldn't live among them given their deficiencies (not his). But, there is a sense of hope there, nonetheless. It'll be interesting to see where her thoughts develop with the film as she grows. I appreciate, too, Burton's use of Vincent Price as The Inventor. It's a loving, heartfelt portrayal by the filmmaker and the horror icon.

    Great look at this one, John. I very much enjoyed taking another screening of this film. Many thanks.