Before cinema, photography, sculpture, and cave paintings there were stories. As new technologies and skills arise there will always be stories behind the images and new ways to tell different kinds of stories visually or through words. Not all books are science books, biography, or nonfiction but they are still books. Fiction, fantasy, and sci-fi books can tell captivating stories and reveal truths about the human experience by taking us into extraordinary worlds with extraordinary characters and they are indeed real stories that real people can relate to and learn from. In Siegfried Kracauer’s essay, Basic Concepts; Inherent Affinities, one of the arguments he makes is that cinema can only have aesthetic validity if it “record(s) and reveal(s) physical reality,”(Kracauer 297). With film, he believes that all creative endeavors must benefit “the mediums substantive concern with our visible world,”(Kracauer 298). In this paper, I analyze the 1990 Tim Burton film, Edward Scissorhands, and argue how this perspective is very limiting to the potential film has to offer and how even in a set design of fantasy it does capture an essence present within the physical world.
Kracauer was very critical of German Expressionism, he believes that, “films of this type are not only intended as autonomous wholes but frequently ignore physical reality or exploit it for purposes alien to photographic veracity,”(Kracauer 298-299). Tim Burton’s films have been inspired by German Expressionism, and I would think that if Kracauer were alive today he would feel the same about Burton’s films.
Edward Scissorhands is a story within a story that begins with an old woman telling a bedtime story to her granddaughter. It takes place in American Suburbia; the houses made of ticky-tacky very reminiscent to the Malvina Reynolds song, “Little Boxes.” The houses are pink, green, blue, and yellow, much like the song. Mise-en-scene within this film employs a commentary about the ‘perfection’ of the All-American Dream with the house and nuclear family and middle to upper-middle class income by exaggerating the characteristic of American suburban life through the set. A woman named Peg sells Avon make-up products and finds her way up the hill to a mysterious and isolated gothic-looking castle where she meets Edward, a man with scissors for hands. The costume and make up of Edward visually tells us of his otherness and his character implies that appearances are not always what they seem. His hands may be scissors but he is gentle, polite, and kind. At one point in the film, a psychologist tells the family, “He’s a highly imaginative character. It seems clear that his awareness of what we call reality is radically under-developed.” Indeed, “we” being the suburbanites and ‘normal bodies.’ The film reveals to us that the ‘normal’ people are the ones who have defects of ulterior motives and exploitative tendencies surrounding Edward. Perhaps the reality we are seeing is the reality of Edward, suburbia and its people in all its exaggerations and their flaws.
With music, memorable characters, and a visually dazzling world, Tim Burton captured a reality that critiques Suburbia, a work of art that critiques an aspect of real life. The story of wanting to belong, being different, unrequited love, and identity is a timeless story that’s been told over and over again. Although this took place in an exaggerated sense of the physical world, the message is relatable. Not all films are documentary, but they are still films. Fantasy and Sci-fi films capture the visual metaphors of the stories that have been told for millennia.
Kracauer, Siegfried. “Basic Concepts; Inherent Affinities.” Critical Visions in Film Theory: Classic and Contemporary Readings. Ed. Timothy Corrigan, Patricia White, and Meta Mazaj. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011. 289-306. Print.