08 January 2005

Edward Sissorhands reading

An essay from my time doing Film Studies A-level, from the time I first started toying with the idea of being a film maker (about 5 years ago). My lecturer Cath Davies (who is now teaching cultural studies at UWIC) was an ex-goth and huge Tim Burton fan (could there be a connection? :P) and so along with German Expressionism (an essay on which I will be posting in a minute) the films of Tim Burton played a large role in the curriculum. I can't remember what grade I got, or whether the thing is any good, but I do dig Burton, so up it goes.


reading of Edward Sissorhands (Tim Burton)

Mise-en-scene is the language of film. It is through mise-en-scene that we are able to gather and extract information. It enables us to make observations about what is going on in the film, the motives of the characters and also, and arguably most importantly, what the film maker is try to say.

The Auteur theory is a major field-stone in film critique. It argues that films are the singular vision of the director. This, of course, does not apply to all films just as not all directors are Auteur directors. In order for a film-maker to be classed as an Auteur there has to be common themes and ideas that run throughout his movies. The question is, Does Burton meet these requirements?

Burton has a clear auteur signature. When he makes a film, he unleashes his imagination and his experiences.. He creates dreamscapes of unusual, freakish characters, outsiders conflicting with the so called “norm”. The clashing of two worlds that co-exist. His childhood influenced him a lot and this filters through into his films with lots of childlike imagery – the idea of innocence and taking pride in childish things. Theme of Childlike innocence is particularly clear in ‘Edward Scissorhands’ and yet, so is the perverse.

The scene we are going to be analysing opens with Peg sat in her car pondering whether or not to go up to that gothic mansion at the end of the street, it seems so out of place in this pastel suburbia, like a black smear on a white page. You wonder if the people who live in this suburb have put a mental block around it to protect themselves from it’s ghastly presence or that they merely don’t see it because it doesn’t fit their narrow reality tunnel.
Knowing Burton’s feelings towards Suburbia it’s probably the latter. Peg is full of indecision; she doesn’t know whether or not to go up there or not. It is as if that acknowledging this smear is an unwritten taboo. When we first see the mansion, in Peg’s wing mirror, seemingly floating in this pastel suburbia, a world within a world, all kinds of preconceptions are dragged up from out memories. Burton uses the image of gothic architecture created by the Universal horror movies of the 50’s, films like the pit and the pendulum, the black cat and Frankenstein, to control our feelings and to make us think certain things. We know the kinds of things that live in those mansions. We have built up sympathy for Peg throughout the previous scenes – she is rejected again and again by her neighbours and we feel sorry for her. Because of this, we don’t want something nasty to happen to her.

As she gets closer to the mansion we can see the two worlds, that of the mansion and that of the suburban, fighting for space. Shadows are cast over the walls of suburban homes and lichen covered gargoyles look over the proceedings. This gothic architecture is out of place in this world. It is an outsider, just like Edward is. This is Edward’s world and as Peg enters it, she becomes the outsider, Just like when the maitlands enter the afterlife Waiting-room, the startlingly normal clashing with the outrageously weird and spooky. In Beetlejuice this is played for Comedy, in Edward Scissorhands it’s played for surreal effect.

As peg enters the garden we are very much in the same place as she is. She is a stranger in this world and what she sees fills her with wonder. The bush sculptures that surround her cause her mouth to hang a gasp. We were not expecting this, the beauty of the garden. We were expecting dark, twisted and ugly, not colourful and awe-inspiring. This world pulls us in as the camera pans around to show us it’s contents, a great stag, a sea monster, a hand. It all looks like the creations of a child. The garden radiates innocence, but then there is the castle. It stands in the background, the greys of the concrete structure accenting the greens of the garden. Gargoyles peer down from it’s roof, as if they are watching Peg and a stone eagle looks as if it’s about to swoop down and carry her away. We feel an uncanny feeling of ethereal. As peg moves through the garden we feel Tension and fear mingled with awe and wonder. It is very much like when we first enter the world of the Sewer in ‘Batman Returns’. We have a feeling as if Peg is being watched, long-shots peering at her through the hoops of the sea monster, It’s creepy.

As she steps up the great iron-oak arch door, we are feeling quite apprehensive. Burton is playing on his love of horror movies and we recognise the conventions. The score, provided by Danny Elfman ranges from childlike glockenspiel tinkerings to creepy, sweeping strings. They heighten the ambience, they make us fearful. In the garden scene they add to it’s ethereal nature. Burton has used Elfman is a lot of his films as it seems Elfman knows what Burton wants from a score, it reflects his childlike personality.

She knocks twice and some birds flutter away, causing Peg to look around in a slightly shocked manner. The tension is building in the audience, we know what happens in these situations, we've seen it happen before, in many films. It creates expectations of horror and fear but yet, we are surrounded by this beauty, causing conflicted feelings inside of us. We're not sure what to think.

As peg pushes the creaking door open, our fear and wonder reaches new heights. The hall she enters is large, light pouring through the windows, shot with a blue filter. The feeling of the ethereal is heightened. Pegs calls out a “Hello?” which echoes through the hall, heightening our fear. Peg appears small and insignificant here as the scene is viewed through a long-shot. The walls and windows seem crooked and so do the flight of stairs at the other end. There is a clear expressionistic resemblance and we are reminded of the sets in “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”. Burton clearly has a love of Expressionist art as this eschewing of angles and perspectives can be seen throughout his movies, particularly in Beetlejuice and ‘The nightmare before Christmas’. The is a statue of a monstrous creature at the bottom of the staircase that is also very expressionistic, it fills us with foreboding and creates expectations as to what is going to happen next. What is Peg going to find at the top of the staircase?

As Peg begins to climb the stairs we can barely stand to watch for her horrific end, but yet we do, as this is the beauty and attraction of horror. It's perverse nature is what draws us to it. As Peg gets closer and closer to the top, and the camera cuts in for a close up (as we have been in a long shot all this time, to show Peg's smallness in the grand, fearsome, scheme of things) and Peg mutters "Thank goodness for those Aerobics classes...." Slowly streaming off into silence as she sees the sight that is presented to her. We see that she is in a large loft, the roof above her broken in places, allowing the light in. Again we see how insignificant she is in the scheme of things. She walks slowly across the wooden floor, the boards creaking beneath her. Again, we are reminded of the conventions of the horror movie, creating heightened tension. Her eyes are drawn suddenly to a collage of newspaper and magazine clippings in what appears to be a dilapidated fire place. We feel what she feels and we go where she goes. As we get closer we see the details, we notice that all of them concern hands in some way. Again, it looks like the workings of a child, or a childish mind. There is a clipping about a boy who reads with his hands and there are picture of hands. We begin to wonder about the significance of hands. Suddenly our attention is drawn to the shadows in the corner of the loft by a soft 'snip, snip' sound, metal on metal, creating fear. Peg looks around and we see a stooped figure hiding in the very corner. We sense danger, Peg does not. A million horror movies play in our collective mind. This highlights, not for the first time, the overall innocence of her character. There is no point in this movie that we see Peg as the enemy. She calls out to the figure, telling him not to be afraid, talking her Avon talk. But as he draws nearer her attitude changes somewhat. We see a strange looking creature, with wild, out of place, black hair, pale skin and freakish dress. We also see blades, sharp, pointy, in his hands. Peg begins to mutter about something about this obviously being a bad time and is backing away, telling the creature to stay back, when a timid, child-like voice whimpers "Don't go..."

In this scene, we see Edward for the first time. His appearance is scary, a twisted and pale Frankenstein of leather and metal. The very sight of him creates fear, but yet he has a very childlike nature. Later in the film where we see him sculpting hedges into wondrous shapes or cutting the suburbanite’s hair, he takes simple, childlike joy in these tasks. He is only too happy to do them. Later still in the film, when the suburbanites turn against him, labelling him a monster, he flees through the street, hacking limbs off his creations. He feels rejected and angry. His character has obviously matured. It is his isolation from the world that has made him the innocent and shy creature that he is and as he learns more and more about people this innocence is slowly replaced with hatred and fear.

The topic of innocence in ‘Edward Scissorhands’ comes up quite a bit. The two most innocent characters in the film are Peggy and Edward. It was Peg that introduced Edward to this world, unaware of what would happen. She meant no harm, she was merely trying to help. The scenes where she is trying to fix up Edward’s complexion and where she dresses him up in some of her husband’s clothes illustrates this very well. She wants to help him fit in. Hers is a kind of unaware innocence. She doesn’t realise how cruel and evil people can be. Edward’s innocence is that of a child’s. He too is unaware of how cruel the world can be because of his sheltered existence. He is at first in awe of this world, and then angered at it. In the scene where Peg is driving Edward back to her house, Edward stares in awe out at the pastel houses and the perfectly manicured lawns. We see his reaction to this new world in which is so out of place.

‘Edward Scissorhands’ is clearly the work of Tim Burton. The themes and ideas, the visual landscapes and the architecture is clearly his. As is the theme of duality that runs throughout the film, of two alien worlds clashing, and of childlike innocence faced with adult cruelty. It is clear that Burton has a very unique and auteurist style that runs throughout all of his films. His style is one that I enjoy immensely, one with which I can relate with implicitly and delving deeper into this style has been a real joy. I can say without a doubt that Burton is one of my favourite directors, for his style, for his stories and for his characters.



Burton on Burton – edited by Mark Salisbury