Edward Scissorhands and Postmodern Aesthetics

Edward: A Gothic-postmodern protagonist
Edward: A Gothic-Postmodern Protagonist

Tim Burton’s film, Edward Scissorhands, begins with apparent binary oppositions: life/death and joy/melancholy. In the first scene, Edward is born, and just as he begins to understand life, he is faced with his inventor’s death. To cope with his loss, Edward crouches in a dark corner of his castle, using pinned photographs as referents to the real world. This continues until the Avon lady “rescues” him and thrusts him into society to serve as an emblem of the sensational to the local conformists.

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The Avon Lady views Edward’s Pictures: Signifiers of the “Real”

In many ways, Burton’s film is a blending of avant-garde, Gothic, and postmodern aesthetics. In Postmodern Hollywood, Professor M. Keith Booker writes the following:

Burton’s films are almost like slide shows, fragmented streams of images, and in this sense, might be said to employ avant-garde techniques.

In addition to utilizing the fragmentary nature of the avant-garde in his visual presentation, Burton gathers elements from Gothic fiction to create his story line. Edward is a remaking of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and he acts as a hybrid figure, an outcast, a cyborg of sorts. As a cross between the human and machine, Edward evokes the eerie and uncanny dread common in the Gothic aesthetic.

The Haunted Castle: A Gothic Trope
The Haunted Castle: A Quintessential Gothic Trope

Touching on the blending of Gothic and postmodern elements in Burton’s work, Professor Maria Beville puts it this way:

The work…offers a darkly self-parodying Gothic response to modern and postmodern terrors such as alienation, evanescence, and death…

Although the film carries the air of humor, superficiality, and self-parody, the issues it confronts are far from superficial. Beneath the uniform color scheme of suburbia, there lie issues that those living in a postmodern society must face, and Edward is an embodiment of those terrors.

Edward: A rebirth of Frankenstein
Edward: A Rebirth of Frankenstein

In Gothic-Postmodernism, Beville also writes that there are four specific ways in which Burton’s films can be described as Gothic-Postmodern. These are her points simplified.

  1. They serve as artistic explorations of terror and use unimaginable outcomes to gain access to what Baudrillard would call the “real” and Levinas would call “infinity.”
  2. They take the concept of objectified horror to the internal, unstable locus of the individual human subject through Gothic imagination.
  3. They destabilize accepted oppositions such as self/other and good/evil by focusing on the postmodernist approach to reality as unlimited and unquantifiable, thereby exposing the prejudices of modern society.
  4. They focus on sensationalism, the supernatural, mystery, suspense, and the fabulous.
Edward's Postmodern Melancholy
Edward’s Postmodern Melancholy

Edward speaks to the postmodern ideas of Slavoj Žižek, who explains that melancholy results when one refuses to accept the loss of the real as it is understood by Baudrillard. Edward’s differences make it impossible for him to attain what he perceives as the real, which is actually the ideology of American culture, and when he grasps at the “real,” he cuts it apart. This loss of the “real” is what causes him unbearable suffering. It is not until he accepts that he must let go of the idea of attaining the “real” that he simply exists in transcendence.

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