The American film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum once proposed a terse epitaph for the mainstream blockbusters of the 1980s, in particular the fantasy-adventure epics of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Their approach, he suggested, was "founded on the exaltation of arrested development".
If this is true, then perhaps what makes Tim Burton such an interesting director is that the "arrested development" of his heroes happens to be his keenest subject. Paul Reubens in Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (1985) and Michael Keaton in Beetlejuice (1988) offered a persuasive case for eternally retaining one's childish imagination, or adolescent rebelliousness. Keaton as Batman (1989), on the other hand, embodied the flip-side of the argument: a painfully shy crime fighter locked inside an impervious suit of armour, he seemed patently unequipped for the emotional realities of adult life.
Burton's inspired imagination combines many unlikely elements in Edward Scissorhands. Edward may be a variant on the legend of Frankenstein's monster, but his outward appearance is pure op-shop punk. His 'character' is tragically incomplete: he learns some etiquette, and possesses an innate poetic sense (he is all 'heart'), but lacks the 'higher' understanding of human ethics. And his destination is not a haunted castle but suburbia itself – a wildly fantastic suburbia caught in a time warp of eternally garish 1960s clothes, hairdos, lawnmowers and cars. It is a world dominated by gossipy, predatory, larger-than-life women, towering over their wimpy, ineffectual husbands.
The film owes a large debt to the American comic actor-director Jerry Lewis. Many aspects of Edward's story recall Lewis, like the central figure of the innocent, 'holy fool'. More generally and profoundly, the film stages a spectacular return to the bizarre, Freudian fantasy-nightmare of Lewis' The Ladies Man (1962): a Pop Art world ruled by anxious male regression and a dread of suffocating Momism (as sociologist Philip Wylie called it in the 1950s).
At first, it seems that Edward Scissorhands will be a finger-wagging tract about social conformism, the unfair exclusion by the pack of those like Edward who are outwardly different. Instead, the film becomes a bent, contemporary comedy of manners about how, in a suburbia peopled by loveable eccentrics, Edward finds himself right at home. This is a twist beloved of much '80s cinema, wherein everyday normality is lovingly redefined as the home of the bizarre.
Ultimately, Burton gives the story another twist. Edward becomes the ultimate alienated teenager. His scissorhands hurt himself, and anyone who attempts to come near him. The final scenes, swept by Danny Elfman's powerfully melancholic musical score, are among the most disturbing of recent American cinema. Edward becomes the archetypal Tim Burton hero, locked into a withdrawn, 'pre-social' position, unable to integrate himself into the world.
Burton is what the industry calls a high-concept director. He describes his filmmaking as the gesture of "putting images out there" – resonant, spectacular images from folklore, art history and contemporary popular culture alike. His films are fuzzy, dreamlike amalgams of surreal pictorial concepts (a gothic castle at the end of a suburban street), classic situations, intriguing ideas and strong, ambiguous emotions.
Inevitably, Edward Scissorhands displays a myriad of fascinating internal contradictions and incoherencies. It is striking, for instance, how this decidedly 'pop' film ends up reaffirming the old-fashioned distinction between vacuous, superficial popular culture (Edward's haircuts and lawn hedge art) and 'true' artistic expression (his ice sculptures in a lonely tower). It is also telling that Burton nervously evades the most explicitly disturbing moment of the story – when Edward wounds the young boy.
Although there is much that is conservative and unreflective in Burton's vision, what finally makes his work so fascinating is the presence of such powerful and unresolved emotions. Edward Scissorhands is an unusually sad and unreassuring movie in the contemporary mainstream Hollywood context. Burton 'puts things out there' which he can neither control nor make sense of. But he is driven to do so, and that is ultimately what drives us towards his work.
© Adrian Martin September 1992