Last week I posted a list of my favorite Christmas movies. Check out the list, and come back Wednesday to read about In Bruges.
Usually when a movie is populated with caricatures instead of characters it’s because depth of story has been sacrificed to kick out a precanned action flick or romantic comedy. Sometimes, however, caricatures are used intentionally to highlight the essential irony of the story, and in these cases, if handled right, the whole principle sort of doubles back on itself and the caricatures become the truest characters we could want. That probably didn’t make any sense but just trust me.
Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands is a story entirely populated by caricatures save for one, and the contrast provides the power for the entire parable. The only original character is Edward (Johnny Depp), created by unknown means by The Inventor (Vincent Price) in a haunting mansion overlooking the suburb that provides the setting for the film. The Inventor dies before he can give Edward hands, leaving him with razor sharp scissor blades for fingers. Edward lives alone after his creator’s death until Peg Boggs (the sublime Dianne Wiest), a local Avon representative, finds him on a sales call and brings him back to her home down below. Her family, which I guess we could call normal, accepts him as one of their own. Bill Boggs, the father (Alan Arkin), tries to teach him responsibility and ethics; the son, Kevin, takes him to show and tell; the teenage daughter, Kim (Winona Ryder), is scared of him at first but warms to Edward over time as his kind heart is contrasted with the bullish brutality of her boyfriend (Anthony Michael Hall).
Edward Scissorhands is a film dropped in a bowl full of irony and left to soak for a few weeks. The screenplay is drenched in it. Everything about the nameless suburb of the Boggs’ home is artificial and exaggerated. The single-storey ranch homes that line the streets are painted absurd pastel shades, as are the cars that pull out of them simultaneously every morning, ferrying the men off to work while the women stay home and gossip. The setting feels like the 1950s or early 1960s, but the cars are from the late 70s. We are not really meant to know when it takes place, because it is everytime and notime, everywhere and nowhere. Flannery O’Connor once said “for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures”, and the world the Boggs live in is nothing if not startling, yet so homogeneous with itself the citizens are bored to tears most of the time. We are meant to see ourselves, yet we’re allowed to do it comfortably by only seeing ourselves exaggerated.
When Edward shows up he’s the most exciting thing that has happened in the neighborhood in years. Everybody wants to meet him, not least of all the vapid and sexually frustrated housewives who spend most of their time spying on one another. When the neighborhood finds out Edward is a skilled artist with his cutlery hands the men put him to work trimming their shrubberies into fantastic shapes and the women all get haircuts that could only have been dreamed up at the tail end of the 80s, regardless of when the story is supposed to take place.
For a while the neighborhood’s fascination with Edward seems mostly harmless, but over time, and after some unfortunate events, public opinion changes and Edward becomes an object of suspicion. When he is set up for a crime the shift is complete and these people who were perfectly fine with his eccentricities when they benefited them suddenly want Edward to go back where he came from. Everything culminates on an evening just before Christmas, when the townsfolk chase him back to the gate heading up to the mansion of his birth. They aren’t carrying pitchforks and torches, but the image is evoked. Burton drew inspiration from the old Universal horror films, and it’s evident in this scene. Kim convinces them all to turn back and leave him alone, and Edward returns to the life he lived before the Boggs took him in – alone and misunderstood.
Aside from Universal horror films, the most obvious inspiration for Scissorhands, and for most of Burton’s early films, are the German Expressionist directors of the 1920s and early 1930s. The gothic pallet, exaggerated sets and costumes and fanciful story are reminiscent of directors like Murnau and Lang, auteurs whose work no doubt influenced Burton’s. Edward himself is a character who reminds us alternately of Nosferatu hidden in his castle, Dr. Caligari’s assistant, and the robot of Metropolis. The difference in each case is his childlike innocence and kindness.
I said earlier that Edward is the only original character, but even he is a type – he is every outcast eccentric we’ve ever known or been. He is a blank canvas on which those around him paint their own impressions and notions of normalcy. He observes, he imitates, he discovers. The only harm or damage he does is either accidental or comes after so much provocation he could hardly be faulted. Ultimately he realizes he is too different to fit in with these people he has tried to befriend and love, and he retreats. There is a scene near the end where he tackles his adopted younger brother Kevin to get him out of the way of a drunk driver, and in the process of making sure the boy is okay he cuts Kevin’s face with his razor-like hands. Most of us know what it’s like to feel like we’re hurting everyone we try to touch, like they can’t be close to us without getting harmed. We ache for Edward as he awakens to the inevitable.
Edward can be each of us. But the townspeople can be each of us too. I most easily identify with Edward, but I learn nothing if I don’t acknowledge my capacity to marginalize and ostracize as well. Edward Scissorhands forces us to see ourselves on both sides of the exchange.