Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Big Eyes

Eyes Wide Shut
That Would Be S© Keane

Tim Burton and Johnny Depp* do a trial separation as Burton tears himself away from fantasy/horror territory and out of his comfort zone (which usually produces his best movies). Re-teaming with Ed Wood writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, he tells the story of one of the most popular artists of the 1960's...and the strange story framing the canvas.

I like Burton when he's not in his mock-horror groove. That sensibility still informs his "normal" (non-genre) movies and it gives them a Fellini-esque quality that makes the material rise above the norm. Those rarities like Ed Wood (which is about horror movies) and Big Fish (and not forgetting his two "Batman" movies) are two of his best. Burton is capable of bringing magic to life, a talent not to be dismissed or neglected. That Big Eyes is "based on true events" gives it and its subjects a special quality beyond the mundane. Burton's films, whatever you think of them, are never mundane.
Big Eyes tells the story of Margaret Doris Hawkins (Amy Adams), amateur painter, who would marry Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), who describes himself in a moment of honesty and humility "a Sunday painter." At sidewalk sales in San Francisco, Margaret does charcoal sketches for $2 ($1 if you insist)—she's a single mom trying to scrape by painting designs on baby furniture during the day. Keane does the same sidewalk sales, selling paintings of empty Paris street scenes. He doesn't sell much, but he's a charmer and can keep up a steady stream of salesmanship.   
Watching Margaret draw, he's intrigued by her style of drawing faces with huge, out-sized eyes and notices they do (once in awhile) sell, and that Margaret's output is prodigous. The two have a whirlwind courtship and marry. They combine their efforts to sell their paintings at a local jazz club (when Keane offers the owner—Jon Polito—his services as a painter, he cracks "Sure!  What color you thinkin'?"). Margaret's work begins to sell but his make bupkiss.

Then, something happens. Margaret's paintings start selling at the jazz club. When she drops by to deliver another painting, she finds Walter talking up the paintings as if he were the artist. For him, there's no conflict—she signs them "Keane" and he's Keane.  They're married; she paints and he sells. They share the profits. He attracts the attention of a reporter (Danny Houston) and suddenly, he's the face of the waif paintings. But, at the jazz club at that first inkling of credit-grabbing, a prospective buyer (from the wealthy Olivetti family-makers of typewriters—where are they now?) asks "Who is the artist?"
There is a very long uncomfortable pause...as they stare at him, knowing the truth, Margaret unsure to paralysis. Then Keane jumps in—I am—leaving her holding the new picture, and realizing that she's lost control...of her art, and maybe, her life. 

The Keane empire grows—enough that Walter opens a gallery, selling top dollar for Margaret's waif paintings, while she sits in a corner with her paintings attempting a different style. Meanwhile, posters for the gallery are being ripped off telephone poles, so Keane starts to charge for posters, for prints, and they become a cottage industry for primitive art. All the while, Margaret grows more resentful, less enamored of her art—and begins to hallucinate big eyes in real life.
It's an interesting story (no matter who directed it) focusing on the sacrifices one makes for art...and marriage...or simply comfort. But, the psyche that created those bowling-ball eyed orphans also is a projection of a soul in torment, holding in any objection or protest and reflecting it in those haunted, out-sized eyeballs.
But Margaret Doris Hawkins is no waif. It's another great performance by Amy Adams—tremulous in times of doubt, but worldly-wise in moments of triumph. Burton is well-prepared for stories of outsiders, but Margaret is a bit more normal than the freaks and geeks that generally inhabit his movies. He's less successful at making feminist statements—women are usually supporting characters in his films and the strong ones tend to be villainous. The last time he had a strong female character who stood up for herself was Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman away, way back in Batman Returns, another woman who refused to be victimized. Here, Margaret Keane has society to blame as much as her husband. At a job interview, she's asked if her husband might object to her working, and Walter manages to get away with so much subterfuge because it's a societal given that successful artists are rarely women (stick that in your ram's skull, Georgia O'Keefe).  

But, Burton does not make these points subtly, even if they're set up as background for the story at large.  One can point to Waltz's performance, also, as being none too subtle—it may be his weakest screen appearance in its effectiveness, despite all the energy he puts into it.  Burton suggests things far more effectively with his subtle echoes of Hitchcock, specifically Psycho, that pepper the movie at moments of difficulty for Margaret—stagings, settings that recall the desperation of that movie's characters, and make the situation seem far more insidious.
Margaret Doris Hawkins Keane (McGuire) and Amy Adams
* Depp does a turn as "The Wolf" in Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods (directed by Rob Marshall), which takes so much of its style from Burton that one could almost be confused into thinking it was one of his.

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