Seen: On my parents’ tv, on some HD movie channel.
It cannot be denied that Tim Burton’s career has petered out in the last decade, with a string of uninspired features that transmogrify known properties into predictable, insipid fantasies. That being said, I do stand by many of his earlier films, and I was happy to recently catch one of my favorites, Edward Scissorhands, a film I hadn’t seen in at least five years. Made between Batman and Batman Returns, it shows Burton at his height, his most imaginative and quixotic. Johnny Depp stars as the titular character, a scientist’s creation who has lived alone in an isolated castle for most of his existence, an incomplete construction with sharp knives in place of hands. Upon discovering him, Peg (Dianne Wiest), a wandering Avon lady, decides to take him into her home and he quickly becomes a beloved fixture in her small, tittering community. Naturally, he also falls in love with Peg’s daughter, Kim (Winona Ryder). But over time it becomes clear that his complete innocence of the world and tendency to accidentally destroy anything he touches can only lead to strife.
For my Master’s thesis, I managed to work several film topics into the general art historical/museum studies theme- exciting, right? I had a section on the 2009 Tim Burton exhibition at MoMA, which I was lucky enough to see in person at the time, and reading through my research materials had me reflecting on the filmmaker’s career and my own response to his movies. Burton has long been fascinated by suburban Americana, infusing many of his earliest artworks and films with parodies of domesticity both playful and monstrous. Here, he places a gentle but outwardly irregular man into the very picture of a 1950s stereotype, a candy-colored community with gossipy housewives, moralistic patriarchs, perfect hedges, pastel wallpaper, and, of course, a lot of white people. This clash of sentiments proves perfectly suited to Burton’s aesthetic, as he can blend whimsical fantasy with cheesy American satire, while allowing plenty of room for surreal nightmare imagery.
Honestly, I think Edward Scissorhands is such a beautiful film. Every shot manages to blend sentiment and weirdness effectively, with both humor and romance but nowhere near that dreaded genre, “romantic comedy.” The pleasantly windy streets are lined with eerie topiaries, the denizens of the sleepy town sport cartoonish hairstyles, flashbacks reveal a lonely past filled with smiling robots. Danny Elfman’s lilting score moves softly around these painfully optimistic characters, struggling to connect despite personal isolation and physical impediments. It is primarily a comedy, true, but I find myself honestly moved by this off-kilter story, and that emotional impact is aided largely by the visual and audio stimuli. That’s not to say Caroline Thompson’s script isn’t strong: blending different genres and moods, biting satire with gushy heart. And of course, the cast is great, from Depp’s surprisingly quiet but unquestionably silly performance to Wiest’s and Alan Arkin’s ridiculous but well-meaning couple. I have a thing for Vincent Price, and his small but immensely moving role is key to the entire story, and somewhat intimate given his real-life connection to Burton.
With his signature macabre quirk and offbeat humor, Burton has made what will probably remain his best film, and while I’m disappointed his more recent work has been so bland, I’m glad we’ll always have Edward Scissorhands.
Pair This Movie With: Another visual treat in the Burton vein is of course A Nightmare Before Christmas, with a script also by Caroline Thompson.