From The Shelf – Edward Scissorhands

What makes a film appeal to one person more than another? How does a film impact someone so much as to make them want to watch it over and over — to the point where they can reenact every scene and quote every line? What actually makes a film significant and memorable? Does it have to impact cinema as a whole or just impact a single person profoundly?

In this periodic column, the Inside Pulse Movies staff delves into their own collection of films in order to discover the merits of some of their favorite movies. Today: Edward Scissorhands.

It’s easy to look at Tim Burton’s career and be a little disappointed.

For a filmmaker who once infused every project he worked on with an overwhelming amount of originality, Burton’s recent output as a director has been a bit underwhelming. Between the remakes and the derivative adaptations, Burton has seemingly become a gun-for-hire — attaching himself to studio-suggested projects that may receive his visual spin but lack the passion palatable on his earliest films. Even Burton’s best film of recent years, Big Fish, was lacking that extra bit of heart that could have made it an all-time classic. It was a great film but there was just something missing from the equation.

Earlier this year, College Humor released a video that poked fun at the Tim Burton formula.

While it’s not hard to look at Burton’s last several films and see a pattern emerging in the tapestry of his filmography, this isn’t a phenomenon exclusive to Burton. A lot of directors’ first films are clear harbingers of their career to come. A storyteller spends his entire life imagining and dreaming. Some dreams reoccur — becoming as much a part of the storytellers’ identity as their hair color or fingerprint. When a storyteller gets the chance to finally tell their first story to a captive audience, it’s not surprising that they would blow their proverbial wad all over their first movie — throwing in as many of the ideas and visuals that have been haunting their dreams throughout their life.

Look at Guillermo del Toro’s Cronos. The film is an overture of del Toro’s future career — containing preliminary glances at some of the concepts — both story and visual — that del Toro will spend the next 15 plus years developing.

For Burton, his career overture is Edward Scissorhands, a movie currently celebrating its 20th anniversary.

A Director’s Stamp

Edward Scissorhands is not Burton’s first movie (that would be Vincent, a stop-motion animated short produced while Burton was working at Walt Disney Animation Studios). By the time Tim Burton directed Edward Scissorhands, he had already proven himself to be a successful director both critically and commercially. Beginning with 1985’s Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and continuing with 1988’s Beetlejuice and 1989’s Batman, Burton had directed a series of successful films that showcased his knack for the dark and whimsical. It is Edward Scissorhands, though, that truly announced the full extent of Burton’s vision.

Beetlejuice is clearly a movie that Burton put his directorial stamp on — despite not having developed the story himself. The movie’s look — especially the scenes set in the afterlife — are a clear representation of Burton’s own visual panache as evidenced in the developmental concept artwork Burton produces for most of his films.

Batman too represented a clear look at Burton’s visual style — or at least his stylistic take on another’s style. Batman is far more influenced by the four-colored world of comic books than anything from Burton’s own imagination. He took what came before and added his own twist — an omen of things to come, perhaps.

Edward Scissorhands, on the other hand, is as clearly defined Burton as anything you’re likely to find. The script was developed from sketches and ideas Burton imagined as a teenager living in Burbank, California and 20th Century Fox, who bought the film rights from Warner Brothers after the movie had already begun pre-production, decided to give Burton complete creative control.

A Dark Fairy Tale

For those who haven’t seen the film, Edward Scissorhands stars Johnny Depp as the lonely, abandoned creation of a mad scientist who decided to go from concocting elaborate machines designed for the sole purpose of baking cookies to taking one of the machines and turning it into a man. Vincent Price plays the inventor, a kindly old man who in many ways is an even more reclusive version of Willy Wonka.

Edward is a pale, often emotionally alien modern-day Pinocchio. Unfortunately, before he can finish his transformation and become a real-life boy, his “father” dies — leaving Edward all alone and with massive scissors for hands.

It’s not known how long Edward lives alone in the giant gothic castle his inventor called home. It isn’t until Peg Boggs, a persistent Avon saleswoman played by Dianne Wiest, discovers him and brings him home that Edward is given his first glimpse of the outside world.

Despite having a genuine android as the film’s hero, Edward Scissorhands is not a science-fiction film. Nor is it a horror movie (as last year’s Academy Awards tribute to horror would have you believe). Edward Scissorhands is a fantasy film with each of its themes (romance, storytelling, conformity) given a larger-than-life, fantastical edge.

Not The Love Story You Expect

Edward Scissorhands is bookended by sequences in which Winona Ryder, slathered in old lady makeup, tells the story of Edward to her granddaughter.

Ryder plays Kim, the daughter of Peg and the love of Edward’s very sheltered life. Edward Scissorhands is a romantic movie but not necessarily about Kim and Edward. Not soon after Edward moves in with Peg, he is given a tour of the house. More so than any of the kitschy home décor of modern-day suburbia, it’s the pictures of Kim that captures Edward’s attention. Kim is probably the first real-life young woman Edward has ever seen. For Edward, an imperfect man covered in scares and perpetually dressed like an escapee from a German expressionist film, the pure, teenage beauty of Kim is breathtaking.

I have to wonder, though, if Edward would have become just as infatuated with any other girl who happened to be the first to cross his line of vision. He seems more drawn to the pureness of Kim than her personality. At first she treats him like the complete weirdo he appears to be — shunning him around her friends and avoiding any of his attempts to befriend her.

As Kim and Edward spend more time together, though, the two begin to develop something deeper than pure teenage hormonal attraction. There seems to be a connection brewing between the two and I can’t help but feel it rings a bit false.

Kim’s attraction to Edward seems a little unjustified and, if truth be told, smacks a bit too much of a fantasy of some repressed young Tim Burton crying out from within the director — still sore that he never got noticed by the cheerleader during high school.

Even though I don’t completely buy the relationship between Edward and Kim, I still feel Edward Scissorhands is a romantic movie — the romance, though, is between Edward and his new suburban home.

When Peg brings Edward down from on top his mountain home, he instantly becomes the talk of the town. All of the gossipy, big-haired stay at home housewives want to know who the tall, dark stranger is that Peg has staying at her home.

As Edward begins to encounter Peg’s desperate housewife neighbors (led by the noxiously sleazy Joyce, played by Kathy Baker), the neighborhood takes a real shine to him.

The women are attracted to the quiet strangeness of their new neighbor and his cosmopolitan chic style. To a group of professional housewives whose daily schedule consists of daytime television, trashy tabloids and gossiping with each other, the black and white starkness of Edward against their vivid, pastel lives draws them in like moths to a flame. And for a while, all is good.

Edward finds a place for his skills — using his scissorhands to design and sculpt in an ever-increasingly mundane serious of canvasses. First it’s topiary lawn sculptures, than wild new wave-inspired haircuts for dogs, and finally Edward finds himself the hairstylist of choice for the neighborhood’s entire female population.

Despite the fact that Edward looks like a cross between Robert Smith of The Cure and Cesare from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and stands out from the rest of the suburban neighborhood like a pimple on a supermodel’s face, the neighborhood takes a real shine to Edward Scissorhands — treating him like an adopted son.

And for a while, Edward’s creativity and artistic bent begins to change his surroundings. The uniquely Tim Burton sculptures that adorned Edward’s castle home begin to pop up around the well-manicured lawns of the neighborhood in the form of sculpted bushes and hedges. Even his wavy, freshmen art student haircut stops standing out as much when the neighborhood women begin sporting Edward designed hairstyles of their own — outlandish doos that would look more appropriate on a Rob Liefeld-designed comic book character than a middle-aged woman.

But, like the human immune system targets and eradicates alien bacteria, Edward eventually finds himself on the wrong end of the neighborhood’s patience. After a series of misunderstandings — most brought on by the machinations of bully Jim, a love rival to Kim played by Anthony Michael Hall — Edward finds himself mistrusted and despised by the neighborhood that once opened their doors to him.

Soon, the women begin seeing Edward’s creative streak as something to be wary of rather than celebrated. It all culminates with Edward literally being chased back to his castle by an angry mob of nightgown wearing housewives.

Edward Scissorhands is easily the most personal of Tim Burton’s films — he’s admitted to as much himself. In retrospect, it’s easy to see the film as a parallel to Burton’s own life. The critics that once championed the man as a visionary are now, more often than not, the same ones who chased him down the rabbit hole with their critical drubbing of Alice in Wonderland.

Edward Scissorhands is a love story of an artistic genius and the community that at first adores him — until he refuses to conform. The interesting part, though, is that Edward wants to conform. He patiently and hopefully sits through hours of make-up tests as Peg attempts to find the right blend of Avon products that will give life and color to his face. As people casually mention that they know a doctor that might be able to help Edward replace his scissorhands with prosthetic, normal-shaped ones, he eagerly listens — hoping to be able to finish his transformation into normalcy.

Edward Scissorhands is not willfully different — unlike many of the emo-loving teeny boppers that cling to the movie today. Edward doesn’t shop at Hot Topic, dye his hair bright shades of pink or walk around perpetually in a foul mood. He wants to be happy and he sees the way to achieve this is by being just like everybody else — he’s just not given the chance.

This characterization of Edward might offer an interesting insight into Tim Burton’s own career. If Edward sought conformity (tainting it in the process with his distinct outlook), might this explain why Burton has clung to remaking or readapting beloved stories instead of taking artistic chances on some of the truly oddball ideas he has floating around in his noggin. He wants to be a commercial director on par with Michael Bay or Steven Spielberg — he just can’t help but leave the same old thumbprints over every movie he touches.

Forget the details

The final theme of Edward Scissorhands is the art of storytelling. The movie, as mentioned before, is told as a bedtime story from a grandmother to her granddaughter. This explains, then, why the movie is so unconcerned with details.

I once got into an hour-long argument with a friend who scoffed at Edward Scissorhands‘ unbelievably.

“How come nobody had ever noticed the giant castle at the end of the block before?”

“Why didn’t anybody question where Edward had come from or who made him the way he was?”

“What ever happened to the inventor’s body?”

None of these questions matter to the film’s characters because none of them should matter to the audience. Edward Scissorhands is a film that has no back-story or future. It stand alone in its being. Nobody noticed the castle before Peg drove up to it because before she glimpsed at an image of it in her rearview mirror the castle did not exist. The same goes for the inventor played by Vincent Price. As soon as he died, he ceased to exist as a character and his body vanished.

Edward Scissorhands is invited a movie as the story is told — constructed out of thin air like a lie. Motivation (like the one explaining why Kim fell in love with Edward) or details (such as where does Edward get the giant blocks of ice in which to carve ice sculptures from) don’t matter because the story is cobbled together from half-remembered details and larger than life hindsight. In many ways, the main plot of Edward Scissorhands can be seen as the same type of story as those that Big Fish‘s Edward Bloom would tell his son as he grew up. There’s a basis of truth in there but the truth is warped through the lens of imagination. Edward Scissorhands is just as much about telling the story as it is about the story itself.

Final Thoughts

If you’ve never seen Edward Scissorhands, there really is no better time than the present. The film holds up remarkably well 20 years after its release and is perfectly suited for winter watching as the movie takes place during the Christmas season. Scissorhands is the first and still the best collaboration between Burton and Johnny Depp.

Depp, in a role that’s largely silent, manages to convey more emotion and pathos in a single furlong glance than he did in the entirety of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or Sleepy Hollow.

Edward Scissorhands also represents a distinct peak in the partnership between Burton and composer Danny Elfman. Elfman’s score for the film is perhaps even more haunting and memorable than the movie itself.

The music even inspired a ballet of sorts that was performed live in a touring company. You can see pictures and video from the performances here.

Edward Scissorhands is a film that has certainly not been forgotten. Every year new teenagers are initiated into the film’s cult audience thanks to the stranglehold the goth and emo communities have on the film.

Even though I feel many of the teenagers who count the movies as one of their favorites may not quite grasp the film’s true message, I’m happy that they are discovering the film and that it is bringing some measure of joy or happiness to their life. That is, after all, Edward’s message — not standing out for the sake of anti-conformity.

Edward Scissorhands, like Tim Burton, only wanted to interact with a world that he couldn’t help but stand apart from. He sought to conform as much as he possibly could but in the end found that he left a larger mark on his surroundings than he had initially planned — much to the disapproval of society.

Rewatching Edward Scissorhands was a great reminder of who Tim Burton is as a filmmaker and — in the end — helped me to understand and forgive some of his more recent sins. Let us learn from the doomed plight of Edward Scissorhands and give Burton a break the next time he releases a visually stunning but cookie-cutter film. He is, after all, just trying to fit in.

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