A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Big Eyes (Tim Burton, 2014)

It's a great idea for a movie: the downfall of a hugely successful artist who took the credit for the work done by someone else. It allows a filmmaker to explore such topics as fraud, the difference between capital-A Art and works that are just popular, the nature of value when it comes to works of the imagination, and in this case, the relationship between men and women. Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) persuaded his wife, Margaret (Amy Adams), to let him pass off her work -- paintings of large-eyed waifs -- as his own. The trouble with the movie is that it never quite decides what it wants to say about any of the important issues it raises, other than that Margaret Keane was a victim of the male-dominated society of the 1950s and '60s. It doesn't even settle on the issue of whether Margaret's paintings were mawkish kitsch or actual works of Art, though I think it rather smugly assumes that viewers will be smart enough to have decided on the former. But it complicates this position by starting with a quote from Andy Warhol proclaiming that the Keane art is "terrific! If it were bad, so many people wouldn't like it." And it turns the critics of Keane into pretentious snobs, represented by the gallery owner (Jason Schwartzman) who resents the fact that the Keane paintings outsell his rather arid, minimalist abstractions, and by John Canaday (Terence Stamp), the New York Times critic who prevents a Keane from being exhibited at the 1964 World's Fair in New York. So what we are left with is Margaret Keane, the victim who finally has the courage to turn against her monstrously manipulative husband and become a hero. That she is a hero in the cause of women's rights is presumably fine. But is it also fine that she becomes a hero by asserting her right to profit from making bad art? I don't think either screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski or director Tim Burton have decided for themselves. So we are left only with Adams's terrific performance as Margaret, which could have been bolstered by a fuller backstory, and Waltz's somewhat overdone performance as Walter. What Burton does best in his movies is milieu, especially when he can caricature it, which he does here, with a little more restraint than usual, in his portraits of the business of art in the 1960s. And he gets us into the head of Margaret Keane: When she is grinding out big-eyed paintings for Walter she goes to a supermarket and hallucinates the clerks and customers as big-eyed grotesques. But the movie probably should have gone more in one direction or another: Either into a realistic portrayal of the relationship of the Keanes or into a more vivid and surreal lampoon of the art world. Trying to do a bit of both undermines the film.

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