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Notes from the Labyrinth
Unobtainium and Dragons' Bones
movie: Edward Scissorhands 
1st-Sep-2003 07:16 pm
Sidneyia inexpectans
Continuing our Johnny Depp Filmfest, heresluck, Mirrorthaw, and I watched Edward Scissorhands last night.

Spoilers, of course.

I saw Edward Scissorhands when it first came out, and what I found remarkably about watching it again thirteen years later was how vividly I remembered it. Tim Burton is a fairly erratic director, in my experience, but when he's on, he's on, and ES has the same iconic quality that his Batman movies do, only with something real to back them up.* Kim dancing in the snow, Jim lying dead beneath the window, Edward himself and his terrible hands, and the way in which these iconic moments are set against the candy-colored subdivision and the garishly dressed housewives who populate it.

ES is, of course, allegorical, but what interests and moves me about it is the way in which (in particular) Johnny Depp and Dianne West inhabit the allegory. (I have no complaint with Winona Ryder in this movie, but she has nothing to do except be an ingenue, which leaves one with very little to talk about.) West is an actress who impresses and annoys me in almost equal measure. She's really good, but I cannot stand her voice. In this movie the voice works, because it fits Peg's character so well, and because Peg is supposed to be just slightly grating. But the basic kindness of Peg (a characteristic which arguably only Edward, out of all the characters in the movie, shares with her) makes her more than a housewife, more than an Avon lady.

Depp's performance amazes me, as it amazed me thirteen years ago; it's a completely egoless performance (i.e., there's no Depp in it, only Edward), and one in which Depp has to do without most of his repertoire. As HL pointed out, he can't act with his eyebrows because Edward doesn't have eyebrows. I was thinking about how incredibly frustrating it must have been to act without the use of one's hands, and Edward's mechanical, slightly autistic body language is remarkably inexpressive.

This time I noticed clearly the way fidgeting is conveyed by the scissors (that little snick-snick noise, even when you can't see his hands clearly), and the way that Edward's defensive gestures always become inadvertent acts of seeming aggression. The most extreme example is when the police tell him to come out with his hands up and then, of course, can't understand why he doesn't "drop his weapons," but it's a pattern throughout the movie. Edward can't defend himself in any way without hurting someone, any more than he can express caring except through topiary hedges and bizarre haircuts--or through stillness.

The strange central moment of the movie, when Edward tells Kim that he knew it was Jim's house, I think expresses this catch-22 most succinctly. Edward loves Kim, but he can show his love only by (a.) committing a crime--the metaphorical violence of robbery--for her sake and (b.) by not speaking, by holding perfectly still. (Thus the resonant poignancy of the moment when Kim takes the initiative and finds a way for Edward to hold her--or perhaps more accurately, although the movie doesn't put it this way, for her to hold Edward.) Joyce's seduction attempt operates on the same principle; it's Joyce (whose incredible fingernails are a strange half-echo of Edward's scissors, although in her case they indicate the fundamental selfish aggression of her nature) who moves Edward's scissors--Edward seems to be perfectly petrified.

Edward is androgynous to the nth degree, but is perceived, particularly by Joyce and Jim in the latter part of the movie, as a sexual threat. Edward's virtuosity with his scissors is depicted as incredibly seductive, as Joyce's orgasmic reaction indicates, and Joyce's use of his scissors in her seduction attempt emphasizes that. After it ends in catastrophe, she propagates the accusations of rape, of Edward as sexual predator, and that idea gets picked up strongly in the other half of the plot, where Jim becomes increasingly obsessed with Edward's sexual access to Kim (which is of course nonexistent). What caught my attention this time is the fact that, as far as anyone in either movie or audience knows, Edward has no sexual organs. It's a little difficult to imagine Vincent Price's debonair, elderly inventor equipping his creation with functioning genitalia when he didn't get as far as hands. Moreover, Edward's elaborate black leather armor, with its profusion of buckles, is clearly nothing he can take off--if in fact it should be read as clothing rather than as merely his body. Edward's sexual potential is effectively nil in the literal sense, despite the metaphorical eroticism of his art.

The androgynity of Edward points out another characteristic of the movie: how much it is dominated by women. Alan Arkin as Bill Boggs is brilliantly distracted, his one moment of paternal authority being undercut by his children. Other husbands are only peripherally existent, visible mostly as candy-colored cars going to and returning from work. The Inventor is dead; the other father-figure offered, the cop, is hamstrung by the pressure of society, and that society is made up of women. They are sheep--in that sense Esmeralda is right and Edward wrong. The women of Peg's subdivision follow the strongest leader: Joyce. And the men follow the women. Unawakened, stupid sheep, all of them.

The exception--aside from Peg, who doesn't realize it, and Kim, who awakes in the course of the movie (although she apparently is reclaimed by suburbia, if the frame story is anything to go by)--is Jim, who is the pure, brute distillation of masculine aggression. Jim and Joyce, with their alliterative names, and their extreme performances of their genders, are the two base angles of the triangle of which Edward is the apex. They are his enemies; they are the real threat. We can see Peg caught between Joyce and Edward, just as Kim is caught between Jim and Edward. The dramatic choice is Kim's; another way to put Peg's dilemma is that she is trapped between her own sense of right and wrong and the pressure of the society in which she lives. But Kim has to choose between two entirely different ideas of love, two entirely different expressions of romance. Jim's careless ability to overpower her physically is set against Edward's inability to touch her. With Edward, Kim always has to make the first move; with Jim she is unable to make any move at all. Neither Jim nor Edward, in the final analysis, has any ability to judge right from wrong (as the psychiatrist says about Edward). The difference between them is that Jim acts only out of selfishness, whereas Edward acts only out of selflessness. They are equally immune to the social pressure that Peg feels so acutely, Edward because he cannot fathom it, Jim because he doesn't care. Jim's parents make no appearance in the movie; despite Edward's isolation, it is clear that he has more experience and more understanding of love than Jim does.

Joyce never confronts Edward directly after the failed seduction; she works by word-of-mouth as women in this movie do. Jim seeks out physical confrontation. It is Joyce's handiwork that drives Edward out of the subdivision; Joyce knows how to rabble-rouse, and doubtless if the Peg-Edward-Joyce triangle were the only one in the movie, we would end with the traditional mob of torch-wielding peasants and the monster hounded to his death. But the other triangle is based on individual action, not the manipulation of a community, and Jim's relentless hostility gets him there first--and drives Edward to kill him.

That, I think, is Edward Scissorshands's great tragedy. Not on Jim's account, but because Jim and Joyce between them finally force Edward into an action which accords with his monstrous hands. If the truth in the movie is in the disjunct between Edward's nature and his form, then that terrible moment of Jim's death--the only moment in the entire movie at which Edward is frightening--is acknowledgment of the deeper truth that even the gentlest nature can be pushed too far.

If the movie has a flaw, it is that it does not deal with this revelation. Kim kisses Edward and lies to the crowd for him, and the movie ends there, with her and her granddaughter and Edward and his ice-sculptures. The devastation is simply left, without acknowledgment or articulation, just as the effect of Edward on Peg and Kevin (in particular) is unexplored. Burton retreats from his careful, stylized observation of human nature, perhaps recognizing that within the world he has created, there is no way for Edward to deal with the consequences and repercussions of his action. I think this accounts for the weirdly unfinished feeling of the movie; so many stories are truncated by Kim's lie, including the story of Edward's bildungsroman. At the end of the movie, he is still unfinished.

*That isn't quite fair to his two Batman movies, which are each about 2/3 brilliant and 1/3 dreadful. I still wish Burton could have made one movie, with Keaton, Pfeiffer, and Nicholson, and not inflicted de Vito and Bassinger on the hapless public.
1st-Sep-2003 06:06 pm (UTC)
Ooh, that's brilliant. Love the analysis. *adds to memories*
1st-Sep-2003 06:18 pm (UTC)
Thanks! Glad you like.
1st-Sep-2003 06:15 pm (UTC)
You make me need to see this movie again.
1st-Sep-2003 06:19 pm (UTC)
My work here is done.

1st-Sep-2003 09:07 pm (UTC) - Johnny Depp movies
Are you including Lost in La Mancha?
2nd-Sep-2003 05:16 am (UTC) - Re: Johnny Depp movies
Not this time around. Do you recommend it?
2nd-Sep-2003 11:01 am (UTC) - Re: Johnny Depp movies
I've heard good things about it, and rented it, but ended up returning it before actually watching, so I don't know how much of Johnny Depp is in it.

It's a documentary about the collapse of Terry Gilliam's "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote" -- Depp was cast in one of the roles. It's supposed to be really good -- I'll grab it again sometime. :-)
2nd-Sep-2003 03:47 pm (UTC)
...That makes my brain hurt.

Your analysis of Edward is suddenly reminding me of Joe Christmas in _Light in August_ , as another character who is poised between social forces and who can't do anything at all without committing a sin.

(I hate Faulkner, but that story was seared into memory by a term paper long ago.)

And...does the movie feel truncated because the story should end with the traditional mob, as _LiA_ does? It's hard to see how Edward *could* be finished, as you say. Everything's in place for a tragic denoument, in which Peg and Kim and Kevin learn the hard way that surviving means conforming - and then Kim takes Edward's piece off the board.
2nd-Sep-2003 04:09 pm (UTC)
Sorry to cause brain-hurtage.

I haven't read LiA, so cannot comment, but I think you're right about the way in which the unfinishedness of the story is in part a refusal of the tragic ending. And I'm all for that--I'm DELIGHTED that Edward doesn't have to die. But Burton refuses the tragic ending without really having anything to put in its place except the (very slightly lame) frame story. And there isn't anything wrong with that, except the frame story itself, which lends a spurious air of closure (ring-composition does that, after all) to a story which has been broken off at an abrupt and unnatural point.

The frame-story also bothers me (as I think my comments in the original post suggested) because it gives us either too much or not enough information about Kim's life post-Edward. Because here she is, in the same subdivision, with all the trappings of suburban feminine domesticity about her. I don't care for didacticism in art, but that frame positively howls for the question: did Edward have any effect on Kim at all? Does she ever really grow out of being a spoiled suburban princess? And we don't get an answer.
7th-Nov-2003 04:17 pm (UTC)
you are good
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