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Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Age Of Irony: "Edward Scissorhands" and the cult of the cinematic “freak”

(previously published at )

My earliest memories of watching an English movie were that of seeing Johnny Depp clakkety-clak snippety-snip his way to Hollywood stardom in Tim Burton's superbly quirky "Edward Scissorhands". I was eleven, maybe twelve, but I quickly formed two conclusions: the first, (which proved to be right), that I wasn't appreciating this nearly as well as I should; and second, (which was just as easily proved to be erroneous) that the shift in language from Hindi to English was the driving facor behind the shift in quality of the film.

Before the language Nazi gets ready to sharpen its knives, might I point out helpfully that this article has nothing to do with cinematic idioms vis-a-vis language or nationality of filmmaker. What I actually want to talk about is that elusive something which passed my eleven-year old avatar by completely. In "Edward Scissorhands", Johnny Depp plays the eponymous Edward, an unusually gentle, kind young man who just happens to have scissors for hands: the reason being his creator, (Vincent Price), died before giving him humaneiform hands.

I draw your attention to the last sentence, where I mentioned the fact that Edward was in fact, a Frankenstein-like creature of sorts, towards the end, in a deliberate manner, without fuss, without the slightest build-up. This is reflective of the manner in which Edward's character has been treated by Burton: his deformity, his quirks, the very thing which makes him different, certainly, grotesque to some, fascinating to others; above all, the thing which makes him worthy of our attention as viewers, the scissor hands in question; have been treated time and again with nonchalance, with a cinematic straight face, so to speak. He is adopted into a nice, quiet American suburban town with almost comical ease, his mad scientist creator living conveniently atop a nearby hill. A very Betty Crocker-ish lady fawns over him, often exclaiming her happiness aloud when Edward uses his metallic appendages to snip her lawn, cut her hair or generally pull off some feat of aesthetic worth. She shows him off to her gossipping, incestuous group of suburban cougar friends, one of whom actually becomes sexually interested in young Edward.

Why was Tim Burton hell-bent on making us feel as if Edward had been seamlessly integrated into the ideal suburban family, not despite his seformity, but perhaps because of it? Consider this: Burton purportedly envisioned this film on the basis of a single, telling sketch he made when he was still a teen, a troubled misfit growing up in suburban California. He himself has a very perceptive comment about this: "I get the feeling people just got this urge to want to leave me alone for some reason, I don’t know exactly why.." Burton, whose "freakiness" tended to err on the side of silence rather than cacophony (Caroline Thompson, the scriptwriter of the movie, said that Burton was "the most articulate person I've ever met who couldn't string together a sentence.") could not figure out why he was being ostracised. He must have stumbled intuitively upon the reason behind this (but in true Burton fashion, he couldn't express it well enough): that we, as a society do not know how to react to anybody who does not fit in with the mob; or rather we lack the capacity for a balanced reaction, and opt instead for a kind of perverse celebration, a morbid and ultimately tragic fascination that does none of the parties involved any good whatsoever.

To look at this in a broader way, one is tempted to plump for the easy option: that storytellers all over the world have been known to embellish, to paint their characters in such a way that we see nothing but extremes all around, to use caricature as a means of generalisation, to use the characters (and not the story) themselves as fuel for polarization and ultimately, confrontation. But this phenomenon, this cult of the "freak" or the "beautifully ugly" outsider is too conspicuous a phenomenon in world cinema to ignore. Some of the early examples include Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, whose 1970 film "El Topo" (The Mole) inspired filmmakers like David Lynch, who'd go on to make the delightful "The Elephant Man" based on the life of Joesph Merrick, a severely deformed 19th century London man. It is instructive to remember that although Lynch had, by that time, directed "Eraserhead", a future classic, it was only after he directed the Merrick biopic that he achieved mainstream success. To quote a desi example, "Meri Surat Teri Aanken" (1963) dealt with a character (played by Ashok Kumar) which had both the deformity and the otherwise desirable attributes, of Burton's Scissorhands.

The American writer Susan Sontag, in her seminal work "On Photography" painted an unforgettable portrait of Dianne Arbus, her celebrated compatriot and photographer, whose snapshots of dwarves, giants, gypsies, and other assorted "freaks" gained her fame and notoriety in equal measure. Sontag argued vehemently against the "ugly is beautiful" easy ironism which was much in vogue then, and which Arbus and others of her ilk exploited to the hilt. Arbus' suicide in 1971 was a poignant footnote to this debate, which already risks getting lost in a web of semantics. Were Arbus and the others really saying "Gee! Isn't that just the ugliest thing?" or were they really saying "I find that ugly thing to be so beautiful!" Sontag opted for the latter... and it falls upon each of us to make up our own minds, whether towards the literal, or the ironic.

But the fact of the matter is that irony, once a powerful device in the hands of master artists, risks dying a premature death because of lazy and indiscriminate usage (of which "Edward Scissorhands" is not, I repeat, not an example). David Foster Wallace, the virtuoso American writer whose microscopic examinations of the human condition make him one of the most important authors of recent times (and whose suicide in 2008, like that of Dianne Arbus, sent shockwaves through artistic circles everywhere) warned against the role of television, and the pitfalls of irony in fiction (it is worth noting that Wallace himself used several forms of irony in his fiction, often to devastating effect) in his essay "E Unibus Pluram". Wallace had this to say about postmodernism and its ulterior motives: "one can define postmodernism as it exists today thus: "How totally banal of you to ask what I really mean!" "

One feels that something of the kind is in play when one switches the television on to see, say the Wayans brothers pretending to be criminally inclined midgets, or Billy Bob Thornton play a thieving dwarf Santa, or John Travolta with his over-the-top interpretation of Hairspray, or even good old Tyra Banks slapping on a fatsuit in real life "just for kicks". If this is not enough, we have the altogether more sinister cult of reality TV shows like "The Biggest Loser" , "Beauty and The Geek" and others, which take this opportunity to parade people who are easy targets for being labelled "freaks" of sorts. Wallace further explains his thesis: "I want to convince you that irony, poker-faced silence, and fear of ridicule are distinctive of those features of contemporary U.S. culture (of which cutting-edge fiction is a part) that enjoy any significant relation to the television whose weird pretty hand has my generation by the throat. I'm going to argue that irony and ridicule are entertaining and effective, and that at the same time they are agents of a great despair and stasis in U.S. culture, and that for aspiring fictionists they pose terrifically vexing problems".

In this respect, I should mention the odd beacon of hope, like Judd Apatow's TV series "Freaks and Geeks" which handled several issues of this kind (I distinctly remember a transgender storyline) with humour and sensitivity, aided of course by a more than capable cast including the amazing James Franco, the swaggering Seth Rogen and the ever-reliable Jason Segel. But as we all know, the show didn't quite click with the audience and was subsequently cancelled after just one season, all of 17 episodes.

Coming back to "Edward Scissorhands", it is actually Edwards's other, more conventionally "human" (I mean close to the image of an ideal young man, in a very Sooraj Barjatya kinda way, to borrow an altogether different cinematic metaphor) aspects that have been treated with a sense of bewilderment, disbelief even: What is it that makes him so kind, so unbearably, undeniably decent? What kind of freak does that anymore? Nobody is ready to believe Edward’s version of the events throughout the story. Even more disturbingly, every attempt which Edward makes to fit in, to be more like the strange creatures who inhabit the town in the guise of human beings, is nipped in the bud: one such attempt leads to his ultimate manhunt.

What does all of this mean for the future of cinema, and indeed all narrative art? One might be inclined to think that this is merely a business-like response to, rather than a direct descendant of, the prevailing populist sentiments of our time. But there is no doubt that we’re all at the risk of losing our way a little, because we just can’t seem to keep off the straight and narrow path. And if you think that last statement is ironic, Lord help you.

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