Childhood Memories: Edward Scissorhands
Not a lot of memories from my time as a fresh-faced, young pre-teen stand out anymore. Even some of the greatest accomplishments that defined my young life as an intrepid 12-year-old - including epic achievements like getting an “A” on my math homework and not getting called a “nerd” or “doo-dee head” on the playground - now seem rather banal in retrospect. Still, there was one incident that remains ingrained in my mind. This event was when my older sister (typically a pillar of stoicism) came home one night from a movie-watching session (with her then-boyfriend) emotionally crippled and reduced to a blubbering wreck. This was my introduction to the powerful effect of Tim Burton’s beautiful film, Edward Scissorhands.
For those who haven’t yet been able to piece it together, Edward Scissorhands functions as Tim Burton’s cinematic biography. In short: Burton is Edward. Growing up in Burbank, California, Burton (of his own admission) felt cruelly ostracized from his bland, suburban surroundings and sought solace through the area’s cavernous movie theaters and his own interest in artistic expression. So, in knowing a bit about the director’s background it is easy to see the parallels between the film’s story and its creator. It is that element of personal connection that seems to drive the emotional core of the film.
However, Edward Scissorhands operates on a much broader level than simply being a self-indulgent excuse for Burton to work through unprocessed childhood trauma. The film can be looked at as not only an expressionistic character study but also a satirical skewering of the banalities of suburban sprawl, a riffing on 1950′s teen-romance and finally a supremely stylish evocation of gothic horror. For me, as a young buck, my interaction with Scissorhands was a revelatory experience because it was one of the first times where the influence of the director seems to be profoundly realized in every aesthetic level of the production.
Edward Scissorhands is a film made by artists working at the peak of their powers. The stellar cinematography by Burton’s frequent mid-90′s collaborator, Stefan Czapsky is not only effective in capturing the lushness of Edward’s ice and hedge sculptures but also the vapid pastel facades of the suburban neighborhood. The immaculately composed shots of Edward separated from others through panes in a glass window or through a quickly closing door brutally hammers home Burton’s theme of society’s habitual tendency towards exclusion. Equally impressive (although wildly congruent with Burton’s other work) is the fantastical production values contributed through the work of costume designer Colleen Atwood and production designer Bo Welch. Finally, Danny Elfman’s entire score is a musical wonder that the composer has never again equalled. Equally effective in articulating the innocence of Edward and the blind harshness of the society that will eventually reject him, the score is incredibly layered and always full of emotion and vitality.
Still, what really sells this film is the strength of its ensemble cast. Led by a career-making, breakout role by some guy named Johnny Depp and given ample support by a cast including: Winona Ryder, Dianne Wiest, Alan Arkin, Anthony Michael Hall, Kathy Baker, and Vincent Price, Edward Scissorhands connects so strongly because the cast is committed to the material; they tie the fantasy to reality. All of the actors are given their individual moments to shine. Especially notable is Ryder’s joyful ice-dance sequence (video posted above) Anthony Michael Hall’s dramatic role-reversal from the pip-squeaks he played throughout the 80′s, Kathy Baker’s disturbing sexual aggressiveness and, finally, the outrageously disconnected manner in which Arkin plays his part -which is simultaneously hilarious and profoundly off-putting.
Of course, as good as all the supporting actors are this is still Johnny Depp’s show. His iconic and predominantly non-verbal performance speaks volumes about the universal experience of trying to find a place in an unforgiving world. It is this performance (complimented by his pairing with Burton) which would ignite in my childish mind a multi-year and multi-movie love affair with both men. This fixation would be enhanced through subsequent viewings of Ed Wood, Sleepy Hallow and Sweeny Todd only to be irrevocably tarnished by the odious Alice in Wonderland and completely unnecessary Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (and let’s not even go into Depp’s decision to continue to prance about as the idiotic Jack Sparrow into his late-40′s). Although both men long ago fell out of favor with me I will always be indebted to them for delivering one of the quintessential movies about an outsider. They created a character defined by his contradictions including: beauty and monstrosity, artistic creation and destruction and set his story in a disturbingly familiar world that, tragically, refuses to accept them.