Everybody’s Acrylic

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I liked BIG EYES but not as much as Fiona or as much as I expected to. It’s definitely an improvement on the awful ALICE IN WONDERLAND de-imagining, which caused me to skip out on DARK SHADOWS altogether. And it fits squarely into the oeuvre of screenwriters Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski, maybe the only writing team in America whose authorship trumps whoever’s directing. I mean, it’s recognizably a Burton movie, even without Helena Bonham-Carter, but it has more in common with MAN ON THE MOON or even AUTO-FOCUS (which they produced but didn’t write) than it does with SWEENEY TODD or the de-imagining of PLANET OF THE APES.

Adapting true stories of crazy people to the screen presents all kinds of problems — generally, it seems to help if the people are likable and have some kind of self-insight — Edward D. Wood Jnr. as written by this team, maybe have been delusional about his own talent, but he’s a clear-eyed American optimist in every other way (the real Wood, I would guess from reading and viewing, was more arrogant, sneaky and tortured than the fictional version). I guess it’s the reverse of fiction, where you try to figure out what yhe character would do — here, you know what they did but you have to discover or invent the WHY, then express it. The Keanes, at the centre of BIG EYES, present interesting difficulties.

Walter, played with ever-more-manic grin (and some hysterical chimp-like physical touches) by Christoph Waltz, lives in such a cloud of deceit that it’s hard to know how much self-insight he’s capable of. At times, he seems to know in his heart of hearts that he’s a fraud, but being an artist is so central to his conceit of himself that he can only survive without this fantasy for seconds at a time, before diving gratefully back into his goldfish bowl of delusion. Waltz plays this to the hilt, never much bothering to suggest the plausibility which would make someone fall for Walter’s stories or his charm.

BIG EYES

This choice, perfectly defensible in itself, puts more pressure on Amy Adams, who plays a woman who, despite walking out on one (unseen) husband at the film’s opening, allows herself to be dominated and steered for most of the movie. People in co-dependant relationships are tricky to dramatise, because in fiction as in life it’s easy to get frustrated with them for making bad choices, for being gullible, for being doormats. The movie does its best to stress Margaret Keane’s strengths, but that makes the story’s plausibility even shakier than history left it (knowing something is true doesn’t stop it being hard to believe at times). And since Margaret is still alive, and cooperated with the filmmakers, and shouldn’t be trashed after all she’s been through, there’s some particularly delicate footwork when she trades the domination of her crazy husband for the domination of the Jehovah’s Witness movement (after a flirtation with numerology).

Adams is a talented, versatile player, but holding the film together with such a passive character seemed a strain for her, or for the film. We go with her when she’s suckered in by Walter/Waltz, since the script cunningly conceals much of the truth about his background, so we’re quite prepared to accept him as a struggling minor landscape artist, like Hitler. Showing how he just sort of falls into claiming credit for her paintings doesn’t just soften his character a little, it makes it easier for us to accept her forgiving him and going along with it.

But actors like to feel positive about the people they’re playing — admirable qualities can be found even in an utter villain — and apparently being nice isn’t enough to make Margaret Keane worthy of Adams — she tries to make her smart, and strong, which I think Keane may be now with maturity and hindsight, but probably wasn’t at the time of these events. (Having her kick over a bottle of white spirits as her hubbie, gone full Jack Torrance, is shoving lit matches through the letterbox, doesn’t help convince us of her resourcefulness.)

My other problem is with the script, which has come in for near-universal praise, but which I felt was a bit talky, ploddy and expository. True, there’s nothing as bald and artless as the “As you know, I’m your father” type dialogue in HITCHCOCK and MY WEEK WITH MARILYN, but a whole lot of scenes not involving our main characters, and a whole lot of characters without any meat on their bones, have to be invented to move the events along and explain them. And we have scenes that are just characters watching TV so we can meet Terence Stamp and see Perry Mason “for dramatic purposes” as Foreign Man puts it during the opening titles of MAN ON THE MOON. This eagerness to explain everything maybe helps the average viewer cope with the unexplainable actions of the protagonists, which is what is interesting about them, but to me they felt mechanical, like the unnecessary VO and the one-note cartoonery of Jon Polito and Jason Schwartzman (Krysten Ritter pulls this off best). Although speaking personally, I was cheered to see a movie in which an art critic gets to be bad-ass. Burton obviously likes Margaret Keane’s terrible paintings the same way he likes Ed Wood’s terrible films (I prefer Wood to Keane, myself), but it was important to have SOMEONE in the film who can make the necessary point that just because Keane’s paintings are sincere, doesn’t make them any good.

big-eyes

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Real artists NEVER look at what they’re doing.

Side-note — I have a pet hate in movies, which is the unconvincing painter/artist. It’s great in NEW YORK STORIES when we see Nick Nolte getting slathered in coloured goop the way real painters do, but he has it easy, playing an abstract impressionist. Most actors seem terrified to make a mark on paper or canvas, and we see them scratching away at a line in tiny increments, when any competent draughtsman would have swept the pencil across the paper in a single unbroken arc. In RENOIR we see huge closeups of Michel Bouquet’s hand, elaborately made-up with a callous the size a second thumb, but what he’s actually doing with his pencil and brush is farcical. The shot doesn’t require him to do anything we can assess as good or bad, he just needs to MAKE A DISCERNIBLE MARK, and he’s evidently scared stiff of doing so. (What happens to most kids that makes them stop drawing as they learn to read? And become humiliated by the very notion of sketching?)

As Margaret Keane, Adams has a key scene which is all about her executing a painting under the watchful eyes of an audience, so it’s a shame this couldn’t have been handled more convincingly. (James Cameron hand-doubling for Leo in TITANIC works fine, except he draws like a 90s storyboard artist, all Jack Kirby cheekbones, and not like anybody ever drew in the period the movie’s set in — different eras have different bad habits.) Still, to some extent her incompetence can be explained as in keeping with the character’s lack of skill, and she’s slightly more convincing with a brush than a pencil. Though the whole thing makes me wonder if Burton ever really drew those cartoons of his. Maybe it was Lisa Marie?

I see the Keanes as a classic folie a deux. He couldn’t have perpetrated his fraud without her incredible compliance, and nor could his business acumen, such as it was, have found an outlet with the Unique Selling Point of her bulbous-eyed waifs. His own work, if it ever was his, had nothing to distinguish it. But since her paintings are not GOOD, we have to allow him his share of the credit for popularizing them.

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As with Ed Wood, the amount of narrative and talk does slightly limit Burton’s ability to be the visual stylist he’s known as, but at least it gets him away from stripes and curls and the film’s settings are gorgeous: the painterly depiction of period San Francisco is a constant delight (proving, as I trust the Wachowskis would concede, that San Francisco makes a better San Francisco onscreen than Glasgow does). The night scenes at the Keane’s lavish modern home are sumptuously coloured, evoking both three-strip Technicolor and Mario Bava, but landing in their own sweet, supersaturated spot. But only in the hallucinatory visit to a supermarket where Margaret’s subjects come to life and haunt her, does the film really come alive as pure cinema — a proper sequence! I wanted that bit to last three times as long.

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16 Responses to “Everybody’s Acrylic”

  1. F here – I was the one (unsurprisingly) who pointed out Waltz’s ape like physical performance. After he’s attempted to stab Terrence Stamp with a fork, he slinks off like a chimp in an ill fitting dinner suit. Brilliant.

  2. I am reminded from your remarks of the painter of “Naive” subject matter (children playing in the park with balloons) embodied so perfectly by Katerina Didaskalou in Rohmer’s forgotten masterpiece Triple Agent. It was exceptionally easy to belief she made these paintings, and thus her character’s fate all the more awful.

  3. Some actors just embody weakness or vulnerability and others tend to project strength without even meaning to. I was thinking a young Carol Kane would have been perfect here.

  4. david wingrove Says:

    I like the film more than you do. Mind you, I like Margaret Keane’s paintings better too. They are strictly pop art but GOOD pop art, the sort a mass buying public can relate to. Personally, I wouldn’t want them on my walls…but then I wouldn’t want Jackson Pollock either!

  5. I’m not sure on what level they can be considered good. I can see why they would be successful (“The world has bad taste” + they are distinctive and cutesy) but other than the fact that they attain creepiness while trying to be winsome, I don’t find them interesting and the paintwork is merely adequate. Her attempts to branch out into faux-Modigliani were a lot better.

    I liked that Amy Adams had her pronounce Modigliani phonetically.

  6. Randy Cook Says:

    In her day, M Keane was loved by America’s tastemakers https://pbs.twimg.com/media/B5QWK2aCEAEE9tr.jpg:large

  7. Awful.

    The Natalie Wood one is probably my favourite, just because you can’t go wrong with Natalie Wood, even if you don’t understand basic human anatomy.

  8. “This eagerness … maybe helps the average viewer cope … but to me… ”
    Tsk, tsk, Mr Cairns.

  9. I liked the movie better than you did too. I see it as the portrait of a talented painter with no self-confidence, in contrast to the optimistic hack represented by Walter, who is in some ways another form of the Ed Wood portrayed in Burton’s earlier film, but in a demonic light. Margaret’s passivity is used to highlight the active social exploitation of women, and the way that what amounts to a religious cult is shown to help her finally take stand for herself is a nice piece of human perversity. Loved the bemused comedy of the scene where the daughter asks whether Jehovah approves of lawsuits.

  10. Well, I’m not average. I don’t say I’m ABOVE average… that is for others to say. :) But I certainly don’t seem to be the target audience for most of what’s out there.

    Let’s be clear: by any standard available that actually takes account of technique, Keane is not talented. She had a schtick that made her work distinctive, and she mostly stuck to it. What Stamp’s character in the film is trying to say is just that: the fact that lots of people like this stuff does not mean it has any merit. He’s arguing for elitism, I guess, but we have to accept that the public is capable of responding favorably en masse to bad stuff (like fascism, at one extreme), and that some people know more about painting than others.

    People should still be absolutely free to love whatever art they like, and just because a critic tells them it isn’t good shouldn’t stop them enjoying themselves.

  11. I think you’re absolutely wrong about her lack of talent, especially when you’re only considering technique. She absolutely had talent on the level of technique. Her subject-matter may have been twee, tacky, and bizarre, but the execution is topnotch.

  12. Consider the image of Jerry Lewis’s family linked to above. Why is the kid on the lower right holding his own severed head in his hands? Because she can’t draw him so that he looks like a single body. Mrs Lewis’ head doesn’t look quite right either.

    Since nobody presumably saw this painting happen, I assume it was copied from a photograph. The trick to that kind of painting is to understand what you’re looking at before copying it.

    She has a variety of ways of applying paint — she’s not totally devoid of technique. But she’s below the level of the average commercial artist.

  13. And critics should be free to smack them upside the head. Rhetorically-speaking of course.

  14. david wingrove Says:

    But I don’t think the creepiness Keane’s work is accidental! She clealy found the world a bizarre and frightening place – as Tim Burton does too, which may be their point of contact. It’s only natural that her painting should reflect that. You may criticise Keane for her lack of technique…yet even in those terms she’s streets ahead of overhyped nobodies like Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst, and they seem to win awards on a daily basis.

  15. Well, I think her anxiety is indeed getting into the work, but I doubt if it’s deliberate. Unless she’s morbidly afraid OF children. Im inclined to accept the naive but not-unconsidered explanation given by her character in the film: windows of the soul, etc. The darker explanation is something she concocted with hubbie so he could explain the work. So I think she’s aiming at cute and landing somewhere else because of a perfect storm of inner neurosis and poor execution.

    In a sense, as with Ed Wood, the work can be seen as more interesting because of the subconscious tensions exerted upon it without the author’s choosing. That does make it more interesting as a psychological case study, and with some artists it would elevate. Here, it does arguably enrich, but that doesn’t make them good paintings.

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