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Edward Scissorhands, Johnny Depp

Brand Quirk

by 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).

Johnny Depp, Dead Man

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.”

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Johnny Depp

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.

Johnny Depp, Pirates of the Caribbean

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.

Alice in Wonderland, Johnny Depp

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RESPONSES (36)
  1. minutestealers says:

    i am sad i can never get those 10 minutes back.

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  2. BM says:

    “The last Johnny performances where quirk and substance are artistically in balance are Fear and Loathing and Blow over a decade ago. ”

    You’re forgetting The Libertine.

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  3. Aarrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr says:

    @ minutestealers – but somehow you find the time to leave a post?

    Good article Brandon. What oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed. Kind of like that other sad sack, Nic Cage.

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  4. Thishiwe says:

    Does this Edmonds guy even live in South Africa? I mean what the fuck does this have to do with my life? It may be well expressed and all but really?

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  5. Brian says:

    Great to see my increasing annoyance with Depp (& Burton) so well expressed. Also a timely reminder to watch Gilbert Grape again.

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  6. ling-ling says:

    you are a naff. Johnnys like a frikken god.

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  7. big bad world says:

    Thishiwe, your own unwillingness to assimilate cultural literacy in the ever-shrinking global marketplace will ensure that you remain irrelevant, even here in the Chinese colony of Mzansi.

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  8. Tim says:

    Please let Rum Diaries be different, please let Rum Diaries be different, PLEASE LET RUM DIARIES BE DIFFERENT!

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  9. dudie says:

    @ thishiwe – if the article doesent have anything to do with you, dont read it. no one put a gun to your head, did they?
    really, stupid statement on your side. if you really want to read shit that has direct influence on your life, you should just click on the SA section on news 24.
    Oh – and what makes you think that your life is so important – do you live in some ivory tower that no one has told me about. youre nobody – relax and begin reading for the fun of it, as it were.

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  10. Thishiwe says:

    Guys. Depp doesn’t have a movie out and the island shit is old news. So what is the point of this article now. I mean, it wouldn’t even be relevant on the AV club or Slate.

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  11. brandon edmonds says:

    What does it matter dude? Points, relevance, ‘what does this have to do with my life’ – I mean read Pascal or fucking Montaigne if you want transcendent self-changing insight. This is just another culture blog not the Book of Revelation. Jesus.

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  12. dudie says:

    yeah – should have spoken a little about rum diary, since it’s coming out end of october.

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  13. LukeSkyCrawler says:

    Johnny Depp is a fuckn legend , i bet he can act twice as better as your chick does an orgasm act …. He’s so good he made me watch Alice In Wonderland twice … His rendering of Carrolls , Jabberwocky poem had me mesmerized …

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  14. Thishiwe says:

    Okay, Brandon. If this is “just another culture blog” then surely it should strive to be in touch with culture. You know, as it happens. This is like a Premiere magazine cast-off from 2 years ago.

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  15. Somnambulist says:

    @Thishiwe: Rango is voiced by Depp you twat. Not that you aren’t talking out your ass anyway.

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  16. brandon edmonds says:

    And what is this incredibly limiting consumerist obsession with ‘topicality’ – are you that insecure?

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  17. Andy says:

    I’m with you Thishiwe… Mahala is not “just another culture blog”?

    Edmonds, the goons are coming to break your knee caps.

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  18. brandon edmonds says:

    I’m going to work for the IFP. They have that topless thing for the king every year.

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  19. Chinless fake titted ho says:

    I liked The Secret Window. Quirky!

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  20. ling-ling says:

    I find this whole conversation soooooo Quirky.

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  21. Lonsdale says:

    I completely agree with Thishiwe but lack the motivation to make my soap-box loud on the internet.
    Bottom line: We get it. Johnny Depp “selling out” and Tim Burton being a one trick pony is a dead horse receivein’ beatings. FTFY.

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  22. big bad world says:

    Beneath Thishiwe’s first comment is a subtle insinuation that’s been voiced by others on mahala in recent months, something which points to an attitude and an ethos along the lines of: White South Africans, if you want to be part of a sociopolitical future in this country, then you need to shift your cultural obsession from mainstream America and Europe to a more regular focus on indigenously flavoured events happening closer to home. It is a school of thought that places our future welfare more squarely within a home-grown and introspective gaze, one that places greater faith in the merits of locally germinated ideas and practices than internationally honed sensibilities. Or as stated by some, Africa needs African solutions to African problems. This is perhaps something that could be covered more overtly by future opinion pieces on this site?

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  23. ling-ling says:

    8. be nice the world is a small town.

    African, Europe, America whatever, come one, surely we can discuss any part of this world we live in and the culture of it. lets get off our high african horsies.

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  24. Rare,Golden.Collectables says:

    ^ Lol

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  25. dudie says:

    @ big bad wolf:
    i disagree. globalization is where we are today. there is no such thing as african solutions for african problems. africa’s problems are universal problems, you find them everywhere. its really simple concepts that have been around for thousands of years. namely: greed, lack of social/communal being, illiteracy, nepotism, murder, totalitarianism etc. etc. etc.

    just to veer off for a sec: that whole story of africans being so ‘together’ is the biggest fallacy i have ever heard. i have never seen people kill each other, rape each other and steal from eachother quite like in SA – and that’s within a the homogeneous (if i may broadly call it that) society.

    the irony is that africa is probably the most barbaric continent, and yet the propaganda machine always turns our focus back here for some unrealistic solution instead of douing the opposite and focusing our attention at the rest of the world and it’s colorful and in many, many instances very philosophical accountable history. don’t forget that the europeans, for instance, were just as illiterate a few hundred years ago; they too burned witches publicly and believed in magic, much like the muti users and abusers in SA.

    africa and african ‘enthusiasts’ need to start reading foreign content, foreign stories and views about ‘the foreign’ and its past experiences – because foreign history and its many forms of socio-political discussions throughout the years is much of the time light years ahead of this country’s puny and almost irrelevant existence. if you are a descendant of the nguni, you better learn about your very short history in the civilized world before you try argue against me … and this is not an attack on any social strata or race; just simple logic and history.

    sa is going through some form of post-millennium enlightenment that america and europe has already forgotten about. i say we read and learn before our own vanity bites us in the ass.

    and by the way, i don’t think thishiwe had any subtle insinuation at all, but rather a rant about an article that does not interest him one bit – boredom is what all this is.

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  26. Thishiwe says:

    Why does everyone think I’m a boy?

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  27. dudie says:

    cos we can see your penis from here.

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  28. brandon edmonds says:

    Really the um thrust of the article is the terrible fate of excellence in the ‘culture industry’: now the filters in local culture are pretty extreme (income factors, language factors, literacy factors) and as such excellence seldom appears. When it does it aint pretty. Brenda Fassie turned herself inside out. Shit that would probably have been a more interesting angle. But insisting writing be local and associating that with ‘relevance’ is the reason our greatest living novelist fucked off to Australia.

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  29. big bad world says:

    Doctor L, paging Doctor L…..

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  30. zee says:

    it’s like you didn’t even finish the article. i read the last line and looked for more… leaving me hanging there…

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  31. brandon edmonds says:

    Well being the last line, you were probably a little over-ambitious looking for more. The last line is called the last line because it’s the last line.

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  32. Mick says:

    Ozzo’s greatest living South African novelist is very much welcome to stay put right there.

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  33. vuyo seripe says:

    you see why i don’t like this commenting culture! people just get wrapped up in their own little arguments and the writers fuel the fire by responding. i say if you hate the article – move on to the next one – and stop being nasty wankers!

    Nice Piece, Brandon 🙂

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  34. whatever says:

    the oldest culture living in SA was the san & koi-koi.They were Anialated by all the invading races .We anialate people verbally these days it seems .at least the crap artickles piss us off and get us talking.communication is the modern way but it is also ancient.the red indians had a talking stick,whoever held the stick had the chance to talk and express his views,when he was finnished he would pass it on .this is sort of like the internet and these discussions .wow have we really evolved or have we just progressed technikly?

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  35. The Real Thishiwe says:

    First of all, who is this Thishiwe guy/chick?

    I am the real Thishiwe. And yes, I am standing up. (Partially, as I fit my tampon in – see defintely couldnt do that if i was a boy, at least not without inflicting some grievous bodily harm)

    Just to say I hav eno opinion on whatever youre all going on about but I do have an opinion about this imposter (who may even be tansgender, dear jesus, what on earth shall we do) there is only one Thish and this I know because my parents made my name up, perhaps in a drunken stupor, as is often the location for most things made up. So’ Thishiwe’, with your boisterous views, whats your real name and why are you hiding behind mine and how do you even know my name?

    Though I must say I am flattererd that soomeone finds me so fascinating that they must shadow me (my potplants thinks theyre more interesting than me) id feel a whole lot better if my clone actually had something intelligent to say instead of bashing everything published on mahala in effort to sound intelligent. shame on you, even my potplants have better strategies.

    Make yourself known, ye of little confidence!

    Peace to all the planets beasts

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  36. The Real Thishiwe says:

    First of all, who is this Thishiwe guy/chick?

    I am the real Thishiwe. And yes, I am standing up. (Partially, as I fit my tampon in – see defintely couldnt do that if i was a boy, at least not without inflicting some grievous bodily harm)

    Just to say I hav eno opinion on whatever youre all going on about but I do have an opinion about this imposter (who may even be transgender, dear jesus, what on earth shall we do) there is only one Thish and this I know because my parents made my name up, perhaps in a drunken stupor, as is often the location for most things made up. So’ Thishiwe’, with your boisterous views, whats your real name and why are you hiding behind mine and how do you even know my name?

    Though I must say I am flattererd that soomeone finds me so fascinating that they must shadow me (my potplants thinks theyre more interesting than me) id feel a whole lot better if my clone actually had something intelligent to say instead of bashing everything published on mahala in effort to sound intelligent. shame on you, even my potplants have better strategies.

    Make yourself known, ye of little confidence!

    Peace to all the planets beasts

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