Brand Quirkby Brandon Edmonds / 11.04.2011
I grew up with Johnny. Saw him debut and die in Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). Crying biker boy tears in John Waters’ Cry-Baby (1990). Snitching on 21 Jump Street. Loved Gilbert Grape (1993) whose small-town frustrations chimed with my own in Durban. He is the best looking American male lead of the last half century (and now the highest paid – banking $100 million in 2010 – thanks to an inspired karaoke take on Keith Richards). Johnny’s beauty is as rare as Guido Nobel Laureates and Tibetan serial killers. And he even acts a bit. Watch how still and stricken – like an ikon of St Sebastian – he stays in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995) and how tough-guy pretending poisons his marriage in Donnie Brasco (1997).
The Johnny film that crystallized his global persona, the emo wellspring of Brand Depp, is 1990’s Edward Scissorhands. Eddie is a freak in suburbia. Misunderstood, feared and loathed. He sticks out, he’s funny looking. But – he has mad skills. Exceptionally marketable abilities and uniquely useful qualities. His weirdness is recuperable by capitalist society. The quirk can be put to work.
This places Scissorhands at the very center of geek culture. The cultural backdrop to the story of the internet and the ‘ideas economy’ and technology-driven innovation and growth of the last 20 years is really the triumph of outsiders. As Depp puts it: “If there’s any message to my work, it’s that it’s OK to be different, that it’s good to be different.” Geeks may have inherited the earth but they’re still unsure little boys inside. Johnny’s characters, weird and put upon, carrying something special deep down, are oddball redeemers, they dramatize the logic that drives so much contemporary culture from Twilight to Gaga. I’m different. Pay me.
Johnny’s career is itself the relentless marketing of quirk, the mighty branding of an oddball, the utter mainstreaming of an outsider (which explains Depp’s undying love of the Beats and Hunter S Thompson – genuine rebels with real social impact versus his own commoditized play-acting). Tellingly, Johnny calls himself ‘Novelty Boy’ in interviews. And Scissorhands set the Johnny template for all subsequent Johnny product (which explains Depp’s lasting devotion to Tim Burton). “We’re all damaged in our own way,” Depp says, “we’re all somewhat screwy.”
We might evaluate that product using the Scissorhands touchstone: how successfully (in both business and artistic terms) does it put quirk to work?
Ed Wood (1994) gets the quirk just right while Johnny’s sole attempt at directing, The Brave (1997), gets it all wrong. Ed Wood is essentially Scissorhands redux. An outsider with skills. Except this outsider never gets accepted in his own lifetime. The film’s touching elegiac glee lies in both Depp and Burton’s resurrecting a figure (Wood made terrible movies, cross-dressed and died unheralded) whose quirk didn’t make it to market. Today, of course, Wood’s films are cult classics. The Brave saw Johnny, himself part Cherokee, play, bizarrely, a native American who consents to his own murder on film to help out his struggling family. Audiences and critics refused to go there with Johnny. The film bombed.
Quirk has to be saleable and Depp has never ventured as deep into his dark side again. During the nightmare years of the Bush presidency, with Iraq on fire, he called America “a dumb puppy that has big teeth that can bite and hurt you” – and the right-wing media lost it. Called Johnny un-American. The cultural space of quirk is highly circumscribed. It doesn’t include foreign policy critique. Depp soon backtracked: “I was talking about the government…never about the troops. I love my country.” This happened in the shadow of Captain Jack Sparrow. In 2003. The release of the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. The Damascus moment in Depp’s career, when quirk is perilously overtaken by its marketability.
The last Johnny performances where quirk and substance are artistically in balance are Fear and Loathing and Blow over a decade ago. Both detailing, yet again, outsiders and goofballs with marketable skills. Then the Pirates Franchise and quirk becomes an end in itself. It no longer speeds us into the character, one look at those Scissorhands and we empathize, or furthers the plot, quirk has become the character, it is the plot.
If audiences want Johnny quirky – just look at the mountain of Pirate receipts – then that’s what they’ll get. Quirkus Maximus. Hence the dumb parade of a Mad Hatter, Sweeney Todd and Willy Wonka. Quirk without substance. Characters who have little to do with reality. Excessive, superficial creations referring only to themselves, never really letting us into their motives or inner lives, too self-contained in their weirdness to identify with. His John Dillinger in Public Enemies was ineffectual, empty, as if Depp can no longer play flesh and blood men in a social reality. His soporific maths teacher in The Tourist was worse.
The Pirate money means Johnny has an island in the Bahamas he calls “Fuck Off Island” amongst friends. Apparently dollar bills with Captain Jack’s face are used as mock-currency there. It’s a joke that replays precisely what’s happened to Johnny.