edward scissorhands (dir. tim burton, 1990)

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We begin with an Avon lady. A woman who sells the modern ideal of beauty—or, more precisely, the appearance and means of achieving that beauty. When she meets Edward Scissorhands (Johnny Depp)–a leather-shrouded man locked away in a dark house on a tall hill with, literally, scissors for hands–she meets her greatest challenge. A person immune to the means of beauty, but deeply in touch with the meaning of it.

The Avon lady, Peg (Dianne West), takes pity on Edward and brings him home. She attempts to acclimate him to normal life. She begins by getting him to look the part. A fresh, white shirt, an old pair of trousers, snappy suspenders. She dabs his scars with concealer. At dinner, Edward struggles to use his knife and fork. The son, Kevin (Robert Oliveri), struggles not to stare. Peg tells him it’s not polite to stare. The daughter, Kim (Winona Ryder), struggles to hide her frustration and embarrassment at everything. Peg asks her husband how it went at work. There’s nothing so lonely as being surrounded by people pretending that you might be something other than what you are.

Edward Scissorhands has, for a long time, held a special place in my heart. Not for what it meant to me so much as for what it meant to someone I loved. She grew up in Florida, where the film takes place, and she saw in Edward Scissorhands, I think, a mirror of herself. A grotesque creature in love with, and shunned by, the idea of beauty. A tender, if awkwardly assembled, creature who believed themselves unable to touch anything without destroying it.

Edward is a great artist because of his awkward assembly. As a creature constructed from a hodgepodge of curious hope and industrial machinery, Edward knows what it is to construct beauty from the humdrum materials of our world. Women from all over town fall in love with his ability to recognize the beauty tucked away beneath the surface of things. They see him turn hedges into art sculptures and, before long, they get him to style their hair. They hope, I suppose, that as go his skills with topiary, so go his skills with women. They hope that he might cut free the beauty trapped inside of them.

It is the mission of Tim Burton, I believe, to transform fear into tenderness. Edward is not a natural being. Like all of us, he is a constructed one. And, like all of us, he is unfinished. He wears in his body a permanent state of incompleteness. No amount of make-up will make him appear more beautiful. He already contains all the beauty he needs. We hope he understands this. We hope even more that everyone else does. It is a hopeless hope. Most hopes are.

Peg brings Edward down from his dark house atop that tall hill, but she is not really interested in him so much as she’s interested in what she can make of him. She wants to force him into a role that doesn’t quite fit. She is either unwilling or incapable of engaging with Edward as he is. This is true of almost everyone in the film. No one seems capable, or willing, to grapple simultaneously with the horror and pain and tragedy and beauty and rage and love and gentleness which comprise Edward’s life and heart. See how the husband imagines that Edward can just go to the bank and get a loan. See how the son imagines Edward a kind of deadly cool monster thing worth bringing to school for show-and-tell. See how that one neighbor sees him as an exotic creature destined to unleash something warm and dark from inside of her.

Depp plays Edward as an innocent in the way a child is innocent, which is to say not all that much. He wants and feels and loves and when betrayed, when the world, or a person he cares about, fails to live up to his expectations, he goes into a rage. He lets go of all the safeguards that have kept him from destroying himself. In these rages, he confirms his worst ideas of himself. He destroys. He destroys. He destroys.

For most of the film, Edward is happy to play along with what people ask of him. He cuts their hedges and their hair and their dogs. He tries to eat with a fork. We laugh and we cringe and we cry because this doesn’t seem like the life for him or for us. But it does seem to be what we’ve built for ourselves. It seems to be all that we have.

Kim’s boyfriend, at one point, wants Ed to help him break into his own house and steal many of his father’s fine and beautiful things. Kim knows this is wrong. But, she asks Ed for help anyway. It all goes wrong, of course. It was always all going to go wrong. Kim asks him why he ever agreed to do such a thing if he knew that it wasn’t going to work out. Ed has a very simple and heartbreaking answer for her. Because you asked me, he says.

This is, I think, Burton’s most delicate, and perhaps saddest, film. It is the story of a creature perpetually misunderstood and doomed to solitude. In that way, I suppose, it is–like all great art–a description of someone so individual as to contain within them the plight of everyone. Who among us isn’t doomed, in one way or another, to being perpetually misunderstood and, for the most part, entirely alone? If there is any hope here–in this film anyway–it is that Edward experiences a moment of love and connection with Kim.

Still. I’m not sure whether to think of this as hope or tragedy.

I think often of the end of the film. Of how, it turns out, Edward lives on, forever honoring the memory of that moment of love, carving its image over and over, but never finding his way back to it in real life. He is always, and forever it seems, kept separate from the reality of love. He can only ever imagine it. Maybe this is true of all of us. I like to think not, though.

Kim is the teller of this story. She is a grandmother at the beginning and end. The story belongs to her, in this way, more than it has ever belonged to Edward. For most of her life, she has been afraid to go and visit Edward. She arranged his “death” to protect him, and so, perhaps, at the start, she left Edward alone because she needed to protect him from the town. But, now, when her granddaughter asks why she doesn’t go visit Ed, Kim says that she is too old. She doesn’t want him to see her like this.

Has she forgotten, or has she never really known, what Edward was like? Out of all of them, he was the one who could see the hidden shapes inside of bushes. He could see their true form. That she refuses to go and see him, and that she imagines, or truly believes, it is because of how she looks–well, that breaks my heart. I imagine this was Burton’s intent.

I have had trouble with Burton, from time to time, as one can only have trouble with an artist, or lover, or family member, who seems to struggle with many of the same questions as you, but who seems to have made of their life some very different answers.

Where in my own work and in my life, I have worked to see everyone, including monsters, as people, in that they are made of a mess of good and evil and sin and innocence. Burton often works to see monsters as innocent of good and evil and people as monsters of both. I think, at one time, I thought this was too cruel in regards to people and too simple in regards to monsters. I have changed my mind.

Monsters are, for the most part, only symbols. They don’t really exist. And so, by definition, they exist outside of our ideas of good and evil. People do exist. And, in the way that Edward cuts beauty from the heart of the world, people cut good and evil. People aren’t the real monsters. But they are the only species of life, perhaps, capable of creating them.

Of all the monsters here, only Kim seems to have glimpsed something of the true nature of Edward’s soul—and in so doing, perhaps something of her own and of life’s true nature, as well. I like to imagine when she tells Edward, “I love you,” that it is a love that will sustain for her a new way of seeing. That she tells his story to her granddaughter means that perhaps it has. That she refuses to visit him makes me doubt. There is no answer here. I don’t know what Burton meant. I don’t know if I am right. I love this film for so many reasons. It took me a long time to come to terms with that love.