Thursday, December 6, 2007

Tim Burton: Edward Scissorhands (1990)

Though Ed Wood and Sweeney Todd are probably better films, Edward Scissorhands is Tim Burton's defining masterpiece as cinema auteur. Crystallizing and distilling the directors thematic preoccupations, Scissorhands is a remarkable achievment of artistic purity and personal expression.

The persona of Edward himself is Burton's cinematic avatar par excellence. With his wily main of black hair, emotional isolation and unique talents, Edward is a none-too subtle representation of Burton himself, or at least Burton as a child. The story is a fairy tale in unambiguous terms, with an eldery woman recounting the story to her young granddaughter the way one might Hansel and Gretel or the Ugly Duckling. Most of Burton's stories have been fairy tales of one kind or another but here his commitment to the narrative structure is total. As such, the world created for the movie is fully fantastical, though refracted from reality in clever and effective ways. The ludicrously colorful suburb that serves as the films location is nothing less than a fantasized (infantalized?) version of the Burbank neighborhood that Burton grew up in, though it is as unreal in design and detail as anything in Middle Earth. (Burton however asks us to embrace the fantasy as fantasy while Peter Jackson wants us to embrace it as real.) The Gothic castle where Edward is discovered, hilariously located just down the block, is a warehouse of Burton-ana, the whimsically macabre inner mind of pre-adolescent Burton, literally constructed in the middle of middle class domesticity. It anachronisity is, of course, comically massive, a reflection of Burton's depth of feeling about his own off-beat sensibility.

The plot of the movie is well known and so I won't go into much here except to say that Edward, the unfinished creation of an old, reclusive, inventor (Vincent Price in his last screen role) is discovered alone in his castle by a friendly Avon lady (a wonderful Dianne Wiest) who, seeing a helpless and lonely child, takes him in. As he becomes the town novelty, Edward attempts to fit into suburban life-he even falls in love with Weist's teenage daughter Kim (Winona Ryder)and she with him. Tides turn and Edward becomes manipulated by local hooligans, one of which is Kim's bully boyfriend Jim. Tensions escalate and finally Edward is driven back to his castle where, defending his love, his murders Jim and with him any chance to return to the world below.

The film marked the first collaboration between Depp and Burton and there is little question that in Depp Burton had found his muse. His performance is a beautiful and minimalist character study notable for it's voluminous expressiveness and almost total lack of dialogue. But performances in Scissorhands are all the service of the film's fully conceived production design by Bo Welch where fairy tale whimsy meets a toothless but effective form of social satire. The music by Danny Elfman is the composers supreme achievement, light and mysterious with innocent yet eerie choral passages (performed by what sounds like the Vienna Boys Choir)it is no coincidence that the Edward Scissorhands became a popular ballet by Matthew Bourne. So complete and successful is Elfman's score here that future endeavors would become an exercise in diminishing returns with the composer sounding either tonally monotonous (Batman Returns) or simply unmemorable (Sleepy Hollow, Big Fish). This of course is not helped by Burton's usual overuse of scoring for easy and oppressive emotional manipulation. In Scissorhands though, the music serves an invaluable ingredient to a meticulously crafted mise en scene.

Edward Scissorhands is a total externalization of Burton's internal emotional state, exemplified by the manifestation of scissors for hands. Edward's difference-his dangerous appendages-is also the thing that gives him his talents. Of course, so it goes with Burton, who has taken the macabre sensibility that isolated him as a child and turned it into a wildly successful film career. Perhaps Scisccorhands is an exorcising of Burton's fear that his difference would be his undoing;he locks Edward away for all time, alone in his castle, expunging the person he might have become. Edward ultimately couldn't survive amongst the mortals below, Burton figured out how. Almost uniquely innocent for a major motion picture not geared to children, Edward Scissorhands, for all it's personal quirks, is a story that a great many related to- we all feel a little bit of Edward inside. And that peice of us that has scissors for hands is a thing of beauty. As Edward sculpts a massive piece of ice, Kim lovingly dances in the impromptu snowflakes; Burton has given us one of the loveliest moments in American cinema.

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