It always seems unkind to artists that commentary can sometimes reduce their body of work down to a couple of unnuanced sound bites. Exhibit A among filmmakers for this issue might be Tim Burton. Even his recent or uneven films have more to them than the usual talking points of spirals, black and white, Johnny Depp, and misunderstood outsiders. Ironically, the latter theme encompasses this very problem, and it’s one Burton has never been shy in discussing.
The misfits of his movies have been a source of identification for viewers who’ve felt that sort of alienation from the world around them, but even among this collection of outcasts, there’s a range I don’t often see acknowledged. Just how much of a range becomes apparent when you compare other Burton protagonists to his most raw expression of this theme: Edward Scissorhands.
Count me among those many lonely filmgoers who found succor in Burton’s work growing up. Edward Scissorhands is as honest a picture of adolescence (and, frankly, the college years) as I’ve ever seen. To this day, if you ask me for my favorite film, I’ll almost always answer Edward Scissorhands. But it isn’t a film I came to easily. The first time I ever tried watching it, I think I got as far as the first flashback with Vincent Price before I shut it off. I had to shut it off. The movie, even in those first few scenes, was overwhelming.
Films had left their mark on me before but never induced such a swell of emotion that it seemed I might burst. There was no outlet for it; I couldn’t burst into tears or think of any drawing or writing that might exorcise the feeling; I just felt, and it was too much. No film before or since has hit as hard. The next two or three tries at watching Scissorhands went the same way, though I think I made it as far as the attempted burglary once. Ultimately, I had to skip ahead on the DVD to learn how the story turned out before I could manage watching it from beginning to end. The experience confounded me.
I was in my early teens when I first attempted to watch Scissorhands, just old enough to think of movies as a possible career path, and Tim Burton as a filmmaker of note. As teenage musicians often idolize and emulate rock stars, I idolized Burton through high school theater and film school. He remains the man behind my favorite musical, favorite take on Batman – and, as I’ve said, my favorite movie. But nothing else he directed was such a difficult and emotional watch, and it was hard to understand why. Even then, I could see the recurring theme of societal outcasts in his main characters (and the man himself mentioned it often enough in Mark Salisbury’s Burton on Burton, which I read and reread religiously). The rest of them were comparatively easy to engage with.
Jack Skellington never cut so deep with his midlife crisis that I had to shut the movie off. Burton’s well-meaning but scatterbrained interpretation of Batman was still as exciting and comfortable a watch as more conventional adaptations. Pee-Wee Herman and Beetlejuice were hilarious in their respective films, not heartbreaking. And the Bloom family, for all its dysfunction, was oddly comforting and accessible in Big Fish. What was it, then, that made Edward Scissorhands so raw?
The answer, I think, is that Edward and his film are uniquely exposed and vulnerable as an expression of alienation. This is where broad stroke summaries of Burton’s misfits can mask the variety on offer. Many of his protagonists, for all their angst and detachment from society (chosen or imposed), have mitigating circumstances that Edward doesn’t have. Some of them benefit from being perfectly content with who they are.
Beetlejuice may want to gain corporeal existence through marriage, but he’s secure in his rotted, moss-covered, perverted skin. Pee-Wee seems to have no complaints about his lot in life; some of the people he encountered may not like him, but it’s no skin off his nose. Ed Wood is too optimistic, and too deluded, to mind his reputation. While Edward Bloom may put some distance between his home and the outside world through his tall tales, everybody loves him, and he’s very pleased with his life. And Victor is solitary but not lonely; he seems happy to stay in his attic, making movies with Sparky (a childhood I can relate to, minus the dog).
Other Burton heroes, if less content, have some sort of safety net. Ennui may plague the king of Halloween, but if Jack Skellington’s subjects don’t always understand him, they still love him. Jack’s passion for Christmas can’t translate into being able to do it, but the attempt reinvigorates him and leads him to Sally. Emily of Corpse Bride may never find true love, but preventing tragedy from befalling other lovers still sets her free. Burton’s Bruce Wayne is dismissed as a “trust fund goody-goody” by day, his impulsive heroics only marginally tolerated and appreciated by night, but he still has Alfred, and a measure of success against crime. Jake Portman is never going to be the happiest boy in the world, but by the end of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, he does have friends and his grandpa back.
Edward doesn’t have any of that. Skittish, doe-eyed, scarred from his own hands, he comes into his own movie wounded and vulnerable. His very being risks constant injury to himself and others, a serious liability for a curious and sensitive soul who tries to reach out, touch, and belong to the world he’s brought to. Belonging of any kind is not only denied him, but it’s necessary for his survival that he remains an outcast on the mountain.
The only bittersweet connection he can maintain is his memories of that brief time in the world below, memories that inspire the ice sculptures that give suburbia its snow. The only other protagonist in Burton’s filmography who begins and ends at such a lonely place is Sweeney Todd, but Todd is a hollowed instrument of vengeance who needs only to live until his obsession is fulfilled. Edward is a dog – that is, both Depp and screenwriter Caroline Thompson based the character on loving and longing dogs, with all their unconditional affection, befuddlement towards human inventions, and impulse to wince from scolding and attack. That’s a much more exposed character than a skeleton king or a superhero, even a manic-depressive one.
Even the film is more exposed than many of Burton’s other efforts. Screenwriting 101 inveighs against passive protagonists, but Edward spends most of his movie being led around to places he doesn’t know, told things he doesn’t understand, and reacting rather than acting. Thompson’s screenplay never really explains what Edward is or how he was made, so the story doesn’t have any logical grounding to guard itself with. It’s unfiltered expressionism, the design and performances embodying an emotional experience rather than the experience being part of a more structured and literal-minded plot.
That’s not easy territory for a screenwriter or a director to occupy: since they don’t offer the audience a link back to reality, the film only works if a viewer just gets it. According to a blurb written for The Art of Tim Burton book, even some of Thompson and Burton’s collaborators struggled to “get it.” Stan Winston, accustomed to working through scientific and practical implications to his effects, took a long time to get on board the expressionism express.
There’s also the little matter of Edward bearing an undeniable resemblance to Tim Burton himself. Burton has acknowledged the autobiographical nature of the character to an extent; the sensation of swelling emotion that can’t be expressed was a part of his upbringing and the impetus for the character. But he’s also spoken of seeing the character “more thematically than personally” and even lamented that a reading of the film that centered too much on himself made him feel he “wasn’t one-hundred percent successful” with it.
And reducing Edward Scissorhands down to just how tender it is, is exactly the kind of limited commentary we should avoid. Its supporting characters, inspired by Thompson’s own upbringing, are hysterically funny. The film is unappreciated as an actor’s movie; every time I watch it, I notice something new and fun in the small choices made by its cast, particularly Alan Arkin as Bill. The quirky touches to Bo Welch’s design, Danny Elfman’s score, and Stefan Czapsky’s photography are delightful. The fact that the film isn’t all raw emotion, all the time, leaves the expressionism behind Edward all the more evident when it does appear. That’s why I think it hit me so hard when I first tried to watch it, and why it remains the most successful – and vulnerable – exploration of alienation that Burton has yet made.