Friday, May 11, 2012

My Favorite Tim Burton Film

Writing about "Edward Scissorhands" for this blog was inevitable, as it was one of the movies that I became briefly, but overwhelmingly obsessed with as a teenager. I didn't see it in theaters in 1990, but several years later on television. It was not my first exposure to the work of Tim Burton, who I knew from "Beetlejuice" and "The Nightmare Before Christmas." I was familiar with his monochrome circus imagery and his pale, odd heroes who never slept well, judging from the dark circles under their eyes. Some of them had the excuse of being dead, but others were just different, which was arguably worse. So Burton was a favorite among artsy weirdos and alienated loser kids in the early 90s, when the term "emo" just referred to a music sub-genre, and anything with a whiff of the occult was still treated as something unseemly, practically unhygienic.

Over the years, Burton's work has become more conventional, though it had always been very commercial from the start - this was the man responsible for the 1989 "Batman," remember - and in recent years it's become fashionable to mock him as a sell-out regurgitator of his earlier, more beloved films. I don't think this is true. Burton just got older and found more success, so his perspective and outlook on the world changed. It happens to almost everyone. And It's harder to make films about the loneliness and alienation of adolescence, a major theme in most of his early work, the further and further away you are from the reality of it. "Edward Scissorhands" is one of those films that is best enjoyed when you are a teenager, a fable about horror movie monsters and suburban wonderlands that is much too obvious and hits a lot of wrong notes. But it is so earnestly, emotionally genuine, and hits most of the right ones too.

Maybe "Edward Scissorhands" would be better regarded if it was a straight comedy, like "Beetlejuice." It seems to start out this way, with an Avon lady named Peg (Diane Wiest), a resident of a pastel-hued, 60s-kitsch-slathered neighborhood paying a call to a huge Gothic castle that towers over the rest of this little universe on a gloom-enshrouded mountain peak. She finds a young man living there alone, who calls himself Edward, and has sharp shears in the place of hands. Edward, though he looks like an 80s slasher psycho, is an utterly guileless innocent. His "father," played in flashbacks by Vincent Price, is long dead. What can the warm-hearted Peg do, but bundle Edward into her car, and take him home with her? Soon Edward is using his unique talents to clip hedges, groom dogs, and trim hair for the neighborhood ladies, and seems well on his way to becoming a productive member of the community. And then he makes the mistake of falling for Peg's daughter Kim (Winona Ryder), who already has a thuggish boyfriend (Anthony Michael Hall).

What strikes me now about "Edward Scissorhands" is how unreal it is on the surface level. The whole film feels constructed from disparate pieces. The neighborhood is a cartoon version of Burton's own childhood memories of the 60s, with the bizarre neighbors and the garish decor. And then you have Edward's home, which is straight out of the stately old black-and-white Hammer horror movies that Vincent Price used to headline. The narrative is equal parts "Frankenstein" and fairy-tale, except when Edward is making himself useful in the neighborhood, a string of macabre comic set pieces that I appreciate a little more each time I see them. The film hinges on Burton's visual sense, his ability to translate all these bizarre concepts and ideas into coherent film images, and then mix and juxtapose them for maximum impact. Now that I'm older it's clear that he was not only poking fun at the ticky-tacky sameness of suburbia, but the grandiosity of Gothic horror too. The opening title sequence gives us a look at the workings of a mechanical monstrosity of groaning iron gears - that makes dainty sugar cookies.

Now where I depart from most critics is the melodramatic parts of the film. Burton goes for tears and transcendence in the flashbacks with Vincent Price and the romantic moments, particularly the snow dance sequences. Many found these too maudlin and underdeveloped. I never bought into the romance myself, as Winona Ryder is really pretty terrible as Kim, not that she had much of a character to work with. The action climax in the last act, where "Edward Scissorhands" briefly turns into the horror movie it was doing such a good job of not being, feels out of place. Nonetheless, Burton's spectacular imagery wins the day in the end. I remember welling up during the last flashback sequence with the Inventor's last moments, and being absolutely transfixed by the final scenes of snowfall. With a big assist by one of Danny Elfman's most unsubtle, choral-heavy scores, that you can bet I know every note of after countless repetitions, the melodrama was the reason I loved the movie so unreservedly. How often do you see emotions that big on the screen anymore?

And then there was Johnny Depp. This was the first of his collaborations with Tim Burton, and the first movie role he got any serious attention for. Up until that point he had been a fairly successful TV teen idol, but clearly busting to do more. "Edward Scissorhands" proved he could be a star, that he had the acting chops to play wildly unconventional characters, long before he was Captain Jack Sparrow. Most of his performance as Edward is silent, and heavily reliant on physical comedy and pantomime. The visual design of the character is iconic, and perfectly realized, but it is impossible to think of Edward without the petrified, awkward stiffness, the childish eagerness to please, and the aching melancholy. That was all Depp. And it's what spurred my high school self to develop a monster crush on the actor, and watch everything in his filmography I could get my hands on. After the early exposure to Jim Jarmusch, Lasse Hallstom, and Terry Gilliam films, I regret nothing.

I think Tim Burton's best film to date is "Ed Wood," but I can't deny that "Edward Scissorhands" remains my favorite. It's more nostalgia than anything else, admittedly, but that was one of the first times I really got excited bout a film and everything associated with it. "Edward Scissorhands" helped make me the movie geek I am today. And it's why I still watch every Johnny Depp movie, and every Tim Burton movie - he's one of the few directors whose filmographies I've actually finished. You can expect a "Dark Shadows" review here eventually, good or bad.

Sometimes it's just nice feeling like a teenager again.
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What I've Seen - Tim Burton

Pee-wee's Big Adventure (1985)
Beetlejuice (1988)
Batman (1989)
Edward Scissorhands (1990)
Batman Returns (1992)
Ed Wood (1994)
Mars Attacks! (1996)
Sleepy Hollow (1999)
Planet of the Apes (2001)
Big Fish (2003)
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
Corpse Bride (2005)
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)
Alice in Wonderland (2010)
Dark Shadows (2012)
Frankenweenie (2012)

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