A world that has tired of Tim Burton’s universe of live cartoons may be heartened by the director’s return to weirdo-bio with “Big Eyes,” the story of Margaret Keane, whose husband Walter claimed to be the creator of her big-eyed children paintings. Her story is to the San Francisco art world what Ed Wood’s was to the Hollywood movie scene. “Ed Wood” and “Big Eyes” might be catalogued as the Mr. And Mrs. Bad California Art duology. Both films are attuned to the eccentric personalities behind the art that fails, and have little interest in ridiculing those efforts that fall short of the sublime.
Burton does a wonderful job of recreating a kodachromed era in which women artists were not taken seriously. It was only when Margaret’s husband marketed her paintings that they attracted the attention of the public. Unlike Wood’s movies, Keane’s art was commercially successful. Demand for the paintings by those who could not afford to buy the originals created a market for prints and poster art that legitimized the silkscreens of Andy Warhol and set the commercial ground for the headshop resurrection of Maxfield Parrish.
Burton handles the period detail of the late fifties/early sixties with the sort of loving nostalgia that Todd Haynes lavished upon “Far From Heaven” as opposed to the sociopathic disdain that oozes from the David Lynch palette. He emphasizes the strangeness of the era through a radioactive color scheme that suggests a polaroid snapshot about to dissolve in the sunlight.
The film opens with Margaret, daughter in tow, leaving her first husband. We are somewhat misinformed that this was a rare move for a married woman to make in the late fifties, as that was the time in which many wartime marriages broke apart, and single mothers became a regular sight in the supermarkets. However, these mothers did not remain single long enough, as they did in the next wave of domestic ruptures, to establish a cultural stereotype, so Burton is somewhat correct in his assertion, at least enough so to give Adams the freedom to create an original character. In the early scenes, she comes across as a Doris Day in search of her inner Marilyn Monroe. By the end, she has moved beyond both stereotypes to discover her true self.
Christoph Waltz, continuing a career of movie villainy, is less cartoonish here than in his work for Tarentino, and, if he doesn’t succumb to self-parody, could well graduate to become one of the most memorable of Bond villain’s in the upcoming “Spectre.” We can only hope he doesn’t share the fate of Aaron Eckhart, who has been in nothing but crap since his turn as Harvey Dent “The Dark Knight.” The supporting cast boasts fine work by Danny Huston as Walter’s media stooge, Terrence Stamp as an adversarial art critic, and Jason Schwartzman as an art dealer who simply stares at Keane’s rising success in disbelief.
Tim Burton is one of the most original US directors, and his recent work has been unfairly disparaged and neglected. “Big Eyes” could be a career turnaround for him, unless it is dismissed as being no less kitschy than its subject matter.
Finding Vivian Maier
Another excellent investigation into the plight of female artists is the Oscar nominated documentary, “Finding Vivian Maier,” which belabors the question of why this brilliant photographer buried herself away in the obscurity of domestic servitude when she might have been famous. To me, the answer is so obvious that the question is hardly worth asking. First, fame itself is a kind of disease that strikes one in 20,000 people who are all doing the same thing. The famous person is removed from normal life in order to represent whatever mass movement it is for which they have become famous. The result is that the 19,999 non-famous people are both inspired and neutralized by the adoration and martyrdom of the celebrity. Secondly, Maier was a street photographer and would never have been able to do get up in people’s faces on the streets of Chicago to get the shots she is looking for. And finally, perhaps the life and work of a nanny had more value to her than hobnobbing with a bunch of phonies in the art world.
Co-director John Maloof, the real estate agent who discovered over 100,000 of Maier’s photographs in a posthumous auction of her rat-packed junk, stands with gaping mouth in wonder that a person could have produced so much excellent work without being discovered. Well, he might be surprised at how much art has been lost amid the seemingly worthless left behinds of dead artists who cared not a damn about fame, devoted their lives to the work itself. Maloof whines about the lack of interest from MOMA and other museums in Maier’s work, but the film shows that her work is being shown and praised in museums and galleries across the country. She was lucky to have been able to maintain her privacy in life, and now to have her work revealed and prized after her demise. The paradox is that she has, in becoming famous, now represents those 19,999 artists with untold masterpieces in their abandoned storage lockers.