Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Cut from a Different Cloth

Film: Edward Scissorhands
Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.

About half of the classes I teach are English composition. One of the problem areas many students have when it comes to writing a paper is writing a good conclusion. I tell them, because it’s true, that a good paper with a bad conclusion is like a good movie with a bad ending. When the ending punks out, it ruins the entire experience. Every time I talk about this with a class, the movie I have in mind is Edward Scissorhands. While melodramatic, this is a film that more than any other I can think of is Tim Burton at the height of his visionary powers. The fact that it muffs the landing makes it a complete tragedy. Because of this, I can think of at least three Burton films I’d have rather seen on the list: Beetlejuice, Ed Wood and Big Fish. If you press me, I’d rather watch Sleepy Hollow and Peewee’s Big Adventure, too.

That’s not easy to say because Edward Scissorhands has a lot going for it. When I call this the height of Burton’s vision, I mean that sincerely. The look of Edward Scissorhands is a bizarre combination of gothic and idealized Eisenhower America. It’s cute punk, the basic palette of Beetlejuice with an overlay of pastel blues and pinks. It shouldn’t work, but it does almost in spite of itself.

Our titular hero (Johnny Depp) is a construct created by a man known only as “the Inventor” (Vincent Price in his last non-voiceover movie role). Sadly, the Inventor dies before he can complete his greatest work. Edward is left with a series of scissors and blades instead of hands. Naturally, this causes a great deal of problems despite his ability to create incredible topiaries and works of art as a hairdresser.

Edward lives in a castle-like building at the top of the massive hill in our unnamed setting. All is fine until one day, a busybody Avon lady named Peg (Dianne Wiest), desperate to make a sale, drives up to the evidently deserted house and discovers him. She brings him home where he causes his share of mischief, but is accepted by the family—father Bill (Alan Arkin), son Kevin (Robert Oliveri), and especially daughter Kim (Winona Ryder). Edward falls hard for Kim, who is initially terrified of him but eventually comes to reciprocate his feelings. Naturally, this causes friction between her and her boyfriend, Jim (Anthony Michael Hall, who buffed up big time for this role).

Edward is a classic fish out of water and this causes all of the typical fish out of water problems. He’s both incomplete because of his unfinished hands and completely na├»ve because his initial departure from his home is his first time in the real world. This means that virtually everyone he meets wishes to exploit him and is more than willing to accuse him of various evils when they don’t immediately get their way. All of this culminates with Edward’s actions always being taken the wrong way, a reenactment of the townspeople marching on the castle a la Frankenstein and a conclusion. All of this is told in a framing story. The details of this are best kept under a spoiler, which will also deal with exactly why I hate the ending of this film.

***SNIP SNIP ***

The framing story, we discover at the end, is told by none other than a now-aged Kim relating the tale of Edward to her granddaughter. Kim tells us that she claimed to the townspeople that Edward was killed in the final battle in the castle, keeping his presence a secret from everyone. And then she tells us she never saw Edward again despite being fully aware that he is still alive and living on his own, isolated from humanity in his prison/home.

Okay. Fine. So she tells Edward that she loves him, and as a price of that love she what? Goes on and has a life without him knowing that he’s always nearby? This is supposed to be somehow romantic? She can’t sneak the poor guy out of town some night and run away with him? She instead marries someone else and lives in his shadow for the rest of her days? Man, this pissed me off the first time I saw it, and it pisses me off now. It sends a terrible message. Worse, it’s completely unsatisfying.

***SNIP SNIP***

The hell of all of this to me is that everything else here works better than it should. We’re given a glimpse as to why the scissor hands are there in the first place, but no indication of why they wouldn’t be among the first things the Inventor chose to replace (they’d certainly be my choice), but we never think to question this. We never question where this takes place, or the fact that it seems both a part of the world of 1990 and the world of 1950. The bizarre world of pastel America works so well otherwise that I never question some of the ridiculous choices I would question outside of the film.

So I’m not lying when I say this is a film that was spoiled for me because of the ending. Even worse, there’s such an obvious better ending that I can’t believe it wasn’t opted for. Edward Scissorhands will thus always be a film that I want to like far more than I am able to like, and that’s just damn sad.

Why to watch Edward Scissorhands: A unique vision when Tim Burton was capable of unique visions.
Why not to watch: The end sucks and it sucks very hard.

6 comments:

  1. When I gave this four out of five stars and referred to it as the best movie Burton had done, you commented then that you hated the actions of Ryder's character, so I've been waiting since then to see your review of this to find out what it was.

    First, let me say that I completely understand how a bad ending can ruin an entire movie.

    SPOILERS

    I have to say that I disagree with you on the ending - and I'm usually the guy who wants the happy ending. In fact, your reaction to the end of this brings to mind my reaction to the end of Once - I hated it and it ruined the entire movie for me.

    Here's why this ending doesn't bother me - unlike Once it's obvious it's going to be tragic almost from the beginning (you mentioned the parallels to Frankenstein.) Kim comes to the realization that for Edward's own safety he MUST stay away from the world that will misunderstand and hate him. That extends even to her. If she's seen sneaking up to that house over and over to visit him people will know that she lied about Edward being dead and they'll go back and really kill him. The two can't just leave because the people in that neighborhood are a microcosm of the entirety of humanity, all of whom would react in a similar manner to Edward. Yes, she could move away to at least put some distance between herself and Edward, but maybe she can't bring herself to do it. The final scene of the film, with Edward's gesture to her delivering snow is the only way that he can ever do anything for her (safely) and her telling her grandchildren the true story is the only thing she can do for him. It's tragic, but in a touching way. That's why I like it a lot. In fact, I love the final scene.

    END SPOILER

    Just for my own curiosity - why do you own a movie you dislike?

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    1. I get the ending, I just hate it. In fact, I get the ending in exactly the way you've described it--it's just an ending that I find really objectionable because it's so completely different from any action I would take. Kim is smart enough to figure something out. I guess ultimately I found the ending...too simple for other options I'd prefer.

      Why do I own it? Technically, I don't. I watched the copy owned by my kids.

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  2. It's been ages since I've seen this film, but maybe, with your comments about the ending, that explains why this film never resonated with me to the extent that pop culture told me it should have. I feel like everyone kept screaming "ZOMG SO GOOOOOOOOOD" and I saw it (and saw it several times, too) and was all, "It's alright. Pretty good." But nothing more.

    I played in a community band for about five years and the conductor of this particular group would always tell us right before a concert to nail the opening of the piece, because that grabs the audience's attention, and to finish strong, because the ending is the only part the audience will remember. So it is for concerts, so it is for films.

    I will say that not only is it true that a crap ending can spoil an otherwise awesome film, but that a really staggering ending can elevate an otherwise "decent enough" film. I'm thinking specifically of "Easy Rider" and "Night of the Living Dead" as films whose final five minutes manage to transform the entire story into something much more than the rest of the story.

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    1. I agree with you on Easy Rider, which has an ending far out of proportion to the rest of the film and in a good way. I like Night of the Living Dead stem to stern, though, but I'll agree that the end is really the best part, if only for the insane level of nihilism.

      Obviously, as Chip's comment above indicates, opinions vary on this one. I just don't buy the ending as given because I don't buy it from the characters.

      The whole "nail the intro, nail the ending" thing has psychological roots. We tend to remember the first and last things we encounter/see/read/hear and remember a sort of mush in the middle. So, any movie/concert/book/whatever that punks its ending is remembered as being far worse than it would be with even an average ending.

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  3. Your take on this film is very interesting, especially since it is one of my favourite Burton movies. I really need to re-watch in light of your comments.

    While I agree that the ending is not what we want to see, I always thought it was the most fitting ending. Perhaps it's overly manipulative, but as a tragedy, I thought it worked.

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    1. I accept that I'm in the minority on this film and on the ending in particular.

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