Tim Burton’s “Elephant Man”
After hiring on as a director to projects developed without him (PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE, BEETLEJUICE, BATMAN), Tim Burton showed what he could do when he developed a project of his own. The result is this sweet 1990 fantasy that for the first time crystallized the latent themes in the director’s work: the notion of the artist as outsider, of skills that make one special but at the same time different. A sweet but tragic fantasy, the film borrows much of its imagery from Gothic-styled genre films (the lone scientist [Vincent Price] creating an artificial being) but stops just short of going full-tilt horror (Edward’s frustration at not fitting in never quite leads to a CARRIE-like revenge-rampage). Although there seems conventionally-minded critics who prefer ED WOOD for its well-written drama, EDWARD SCISSORHANDS is probably Burton’s best live-action fantasy.
Decades later, the film remains Tim Burton’s finest work as a director. His visual style has always been inventive, imaginative, quirky, and entertaining, but more often than not you rely on the high points to carry you past the awkward moments; his films tend to be great collections of bits and pieces rather than organic wholes. Yet Edward Scissorhands really does work as a complete film, mixing a fairy tale sensibility with a satiric view of life in the suburbs and crystallizing for the first time the essential themes underlying Burton’s work. (Burton’s other truly great film is his producing effort Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas, which was also written by Caroline Thompson. Coincidence? We think not?)
The titular character (played with moving pathos by Johnny Depp) is a symbol of the Artist as Outsider. His talent (trimming topiary animals or fashioning women’s hair styles) derives from the physical abnormality from which he gets his names; the very characteristic the separates him from everyone else also makes him special. Ten years after David Lynch’s take on The Elephant Man, Burton displays a similar take on a similar idea, although brushed with more colorful strokes. Like Lynch, Burton shows a fascination with the unusual and the bizarre that urges you to look closer rather than turn away in disgust and it’s not just because of the humanity underlying the deformed exterior. For Burton (and for Lynch) the way their characters look is actually part of who and what they are. The unfortunate aspect is mostly the negative reaction provoked in other characters; the director’s camera lens, on the other hand, encourages you to experience a sense of wonder.
Since this film, it’s been clear that all of Burton’s work is about demented artists either isolated in their own little worlds (Pee Wee Herman, Batman) or trying to refashion the world to suit themselves (the Martians in Mars Attacks, who seem to delight in destruction for the sheer joy of doing it). Edward stands apart from these others because his is the sweetest, most innocent soul. Although the story briefly flirts with turning him into a vengeful monster a la Carrie, his ‘rampage’ consists merely of chopping down a shrubbery and deflating an automobile tire before he reverts back to his previous quiet and withdrawn self. The message seems to be that the gulf cannot be crossed that separates Edward from the rest of the world, and the film ends on a bittersweet note, with Edward and the love of his life (Winona Ryder) forever separated, although their brief time together remains the most significant element of their lives (think Titanic). It’s a guaranteed multi-hanky experience even for the most jaded viewer.
20th Century Fox’s 10th Anniversary DVD gives this charming film a wonderful presentation, including sharp letterboxed image (1.85 aspect ratio) and Dolby 4.0 Surround sound that wonderfully enlivens Danny Elfman’s magical score. There are also numerous extras, such as concept art, trailers, TV spots, a featurette, and separate audio commentaries from Burton and Elfman. (One minor note: the attempt to make a distinction between the term ‘letterbox,’ referring to films shot in standard format but matted to a 1.85 aspect ratio, and ‘widescreen,’ referring to films shot anamorphically or in 70mm, seems to have been abandoned on recent DVD releases. That’s fine, since many people never knew the distinction. What’s not fine is that the box cover for Edward Scissorhands refers to ‘anamorphic’ widescreen, which the film most certainly is not.)
Inside the box, the disc itself recreates a portion of the box cover art. The four-page color booklet has some nice photographs, but the text is only moderately informative, providing a few tidbits and quotes in the midst of what mostly sounds a bit too much like promotional ad copy. The booklet also lists the 24 chapter stops (with headings such as ‘Edward’s Talent’ and ‘A Christmas Past’ that will help you find your favorite scenes to view again and again).
The DVD presentation opens with a beautiful 3D animated menu (set to the strains of Elfman’s music), which resembles a children’s pop-up book in the shape of the old mansion where Edward resides in the movie. Depending on which option you choose, the camera races you through a different door or window.
The featurette is a brief compilation of film clips and interview sound bytes; unlike many of these promo pieces, it actually conveys a genuine sense of the wonder and charm contained in the film. The trailers and TV spots mostly recycle the same footage in slightly different ways (some with less narration, merely hinting at the film’s tone, others more explicitly spelled out), and some of the commercials are actually in Spanish.
The concept art will look familiar to anyone who’s seen Burton’s book ‘The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and other Stories.’ The selection is limited to a few drawings of Edward, plus one of the attic scene wherein he is first discovered by the local Avon lady (Diane Weist)the latter particularly remarkable for how clearly it resembles the shot in the finished film. It might not seem like much, but the sketch of Edward is the seed from which the whole project grew; that image was the essential inspiration that Burton gave to screenwriter Thompson, and from there the rest is…maybe not history, but magic.
Of course the real highlight of any DVD’s list of special features is the audio commentary, and this disc has two. First up is Burton’s. The director, who seems to work more on an intuitive, emotional level, is not always adept at intellectualizing his work, but he is an engaging and entertaining speaker (as shown previously on his commentary for Sleepy Hollow). He sets the tone immediately, by using the word ‘tone’ a half dozen times in the first couple minutes, but then proceeds to tell stories and amusing anecdotes that enhance the film and give a greater understanding of why the project was so personal for him.
In particular, he talks about his childhood in suburbia and addresses how he tried to capture that in the film’s setting. At one point, he even states, ‘There are lots of scary scenes in this movie!’and he’s not talking about Edward’s spooky mansion; he means the ordinary neighborhood where most of the action is set!
Unfortunately, the commentary drops out for long stretches, so if you’ve already seen the film, you might as well just sit through it with the commentary, instead of watching it both with and without. (There were also gaps in Sleepy Hollow, but those were more brief; perhaps Burton simply doesn’t remember as much about the ten-year-old film.) Despite the gaps, there are numerous amusing bits. For the first view of Edward’s mansion, surrounded by topiary animals, Burton quips, ‘Martha Stewart’s house…when she’s old and crazy.’ During Edward’s TV interview, the director says, ‘I did this to prove that I too can do bad daytime television.’ And after the police psychologist gives his diagnosis of Edward’s mental state, Burton claims, ‘That scene was for people who think my films don’t have any psychological value or foundation…. It’s a very deep movie.’
As with Sleepy Hollow, there are unfortunate omissions. For instance, Burton references his work with Vincent Price (who appears briefly in flashbacks as Edward’s creator) by mentioning that he had previously worked with the late great actor on the stop-motion short ‘Vincent,’ but he never mentions Price by name. Those in-the-know can figure it out, but younger viewers less familiar with Price may be left scratching their heads. Burton also mentions a hospital scene that was shot, then cut out of the movie, but never explains where it was meant to go or how it was to fit into the story. (To be fair, the fact that’s it’s gone and its absence isn’t felt, suggests that it didn’t fit into the story in the first place.)
Despite these lapses, you will get an interesting insight into how Burton views his work. He insists that he doesn’t see his concept drawings as ‘dark,’ and expresses his relief that the studio didn’t insist on doing market research that might have led to a different, happier ending, as opposed to the ‘bittersweet’ one that remains in the film. ‘I was lucky, because the studio got the point,’ he says, adding ‘unlike ‘Vincent”a reference to Disney’s burying the marvelous short subject for years because they thought it was too scary for its intended kid audience.
Next up is composer Danny Elfman, who begins by warning us that he will be doing only ‘a little bit of commentary.’ For his voice over, the film runs with the musical score on an isolated track, and Elfman generally refrains from talking over the accompaniment. As off-putting as this might sound, it actually is an interesting viewing experience. Burton’s commentary makes reference to the ‘silent movie style of acting’ that he enjoys (particularly in Depp’s performance), so it’s interesting to see how well the film works when viewed without dialogue or sound effects. (If you already know the story, the film works quite well, actually.) In between the musical cues, Elfman gives brief descriptions of the music and what it was meant to achieve, pointing out the different themes and how they are reused in different variations throughout the running time.
The drawback here is that, as much music as there is, there are still long stretches without any, and Elfman’s commentary doesn’t fill in all the gaps. So inevitably, you are left watching a literally silent movie for uncomfortable stretches of time. You’ll feel your finger reaching for the fast-forward button, but don’t overuse it, because you don’t want to miss any of Elfman’s comments when they do arise. (What would be really nice would be if DVDs could be set up with chapter stops specific to the audio commentary, allowing viewers to skip the dead zones.)
Anyway, it becomes immediately clear that Elfman loves the movie and is proud of his work on it, which he calls ‘perhaps my favorite.’ He mentions his appreciation of his working relationship with Burton, who allows much of his eccentric sensibility to show through when other directors would want to tone it down: ‘Tim, thank god, let’s me get away with that stuff.’ He also specifies tricky moments, such as flashbacks to the inventor’s machinery, which suggested a certain tempo for the music; the only problem wasthe rhythm of the machines was not constant from cut to cut in the sequence!
In other places, Elfman credits Burton for the choice of source music (such as several Tom Jones songs, including ‘It’s Not Unusual,’ which would later show up in Mars Attacks! ). He also credits actress O-Lan Jones for her brief organ performance seen in the film; Elfman calls the music an original composition, although it strongly resembles a traditional Christmas carol (which makes sense, as scene is set during the Christmas season).
Elfman claims that this was a job he never wanted to end. ‘When it was done, I wanted to keep writing variations… I wished I could keep doing it forever.’ In a way, those variations do continue: Elfman calls this music ‘his most copied score,’ adding, ‘In one or two films per year, since then, variations of ‘Edward’s Theme’ keep popping up in film scores…. Worse than that is the television commercials!’
Edward Scissorhands was not a blockbuster hit like Batman, but it is the far more profound and personal work. This is Burton’s most perfectly realized film as a director, and for fans this is really the essential film. There’s a sad sweetness to it that imbues the usual exaggerated production design and visual stylings with some genuinely moving emotion. Even for people who don’t like fantasy, this film is a wonderful experience, filled with warmth and humor. Despite the occasional gaps in the audio commentary, the DVD offers the great special features that a film of this caliber deserves.
NOTE: The 2006 “tin case” collectors edition recreates the old 10th anniversary edition in new packaging.
In 2006, the film was adapted into a stage-dance-musical by British choreographer Matthew Bourne, with the help of screenwriter Caroline Thompson. Read a Q&A with Bourne and Thompson, discussing the production on the eve of its opening night in Los Angeles – here. Read a review of the L.A. stage production here.
EDWARD SCISSORHANDS (1990). Directed by Tim Burton. Screenplay by Caroline Thompson, story by Burton & Thompson. Cast: Johnny Depp, Winona Ryder, Dianne Wiest, Anthony Michael Hall, Kathy Baker, Robert Oliveri, Conchata Ferrell, Caroline Aaron, Dick Anthony Williams, O-Lan Jones, Vincent Price, Alan Arkin.