Big Eyes (2014)


Art for Sale

— An off-putting eccentricity, especially in the Johnny Depp era, has been the hallmark of the unimpressive films of Tim Burton. The director’s latest, Big Eyes, is a revelation, not for its expansion of his idiosyncratic personal style, but for its sublimation. Big Eyes is by far Burton’s most conventional film: it ends with a comic courtroom scene, like some kind of My Cousin Vinny (1992) of the art set. Yet what is delightfully surprising is that it is also Burton’s most sophisticated film: the submission to Hollywood conventions makes Big Eyes popular filmmaking at its very best, entertainment combined with the director’s clearest examination of the tragedy of mixing commercialism with art.

Burton’s career began as an animator at Walt Disney, where he bristled against the corporatization of the film industry. His tenure at Disney in the early 1980s was coincident with the demise of that studio’s boutique filmmaking past, and the birth of its vast expansionist success as a multi-national media conglomerate. Burton directed a quirky and violent adaptation of Hansel and Gretel, which aired on Halloween night in 1983 on the company’s fledgling basic cable outlet, the Disney Channel. The morbid nature of Burton’s hand-drawn animated shorts, Vincent (1982), about a boy who is obsessed with Vincent Price, and Frankenweenie (1984), about a boy who reanimates his dead dog, caused a parting of the ways between himself and the studio.

A recurrent theme in Burton’s films is the relationship between art and commercial culture. His struggles with Disney engage the typical dynamic of this conflict: the beleaguered but brilliant artist is constrained by the crass values of businesspeople. Thus, Vincent Price, whose star persona harkens back to Edgar Allen Poe’s critique of burgeoning corporate America as ghoulish, is rescued by Burton, thus lamenting how commercial film studios treat even their most famous artists.

The daughter in Beetlejuice (1988), Lydia Deetz (Winona Ryder) is a Burton stand-in, gothic and out-of-place in her stepmother’s new household, a showplace for high art. With the aid of a trickster ghost, Beetlejuice (Michael Keaton), Lydia drives her snobbish mother and her pretentious interior designer screaming from the house; Lydia enlists Bettlejuice to animate the objects d’art, turning them into monsters who threaten the phonies, to the delight of our heroes.

The success of Beetlejuice gave Burton the opportunity to direct a big-budget Hollywood film, Batman (1989). It is telling that Burton took his trickster, Michael Keaton and turned him into the dour, internalized mess that is the Batman. Instead, it is the film’s mega-star, Jack Nicholson’s Joker, the film’s purported villain, who takes on the role of the trickster. Unlike Bruce Wayne, who collects art without even looking at it, the Joker conceives of crime as an art form, and pursues what he calls “the avant-garde of a new aesthetic.” He poisons the city’s make-up supplies to reveal the artifice from which televisual beauty and glamour are constructed: within days, the city’s Barbie newscasters’ faces looked ravaged with pimples and blemishes, just like the rest of us.

In the film’s best scene, the Joker invades an art museum and sprays bright colored graffiti all over the high art objects. The scene is an exquisite undoing of the moralism of Walt Disney’s masterpiece, Pinocchio (1940), in which Lampwick takes the errant puppet to Pleasure Island. There, feral children strike matches across Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” while destroying the model home of American small-town living, which Disney dreamed of building in the real world. In Pinocchio, the immoral children are turned into donkeys: the liberation of destroying art comes at the price of eternal servitude in the salt mines, where one’s labor will serve the profit of the masters.

In Ed Wood (1994), Burton most thoroughly interrogates the commercial art world. In choosing his doppleganger, Johnny Depp to portray Wood, the terrible filmmaker responsible for many of the worst films ever made, from Glen or Glenda (1953) to Plan 9 From Outer Space (1956), Burton revels in the joys of making not great cinema, nor generic Hollywood blockbusters, but instead something in the middle: deeply personal films that do not alienate with their artistic pedigree.

But the secret owner of Ed Wood is not the terrible filmmaker himself, but his doppleganger, the Hungarian Bela Lugosi, played by Martin Landau in by far his greatest role, with a virtually unbearable level of pathos. Despite being forever associated with the role of Count Dracula in the 1931 Universal film, Lugosi’s career was cursed. He was pigeonholed into horror roles, and worse, billed below his nemesis, Boris Karloff, even in films where he had larger roles. Destroyed, Lugosi became addicted to morphine, and found himself being cast only in the dreck being made by Wood.

The threat that commercialism poses to the popular artist is the theme of Big Eyes as much as it is of Ed Wood. Both films are biopics, a genre with which one would not normally associate Burton. However, the fact that his two great films are biopics is of more than passing importance. Furthermore, Big Eyes clarifies the relationship between popular art and commerce in a way the prior film does not. Landau’s Lugosi role is re-imagined by Viennese actor Christoph Waltz, who plays Walter Keane in continuity with his two prior great English-language roles, as Colonel Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds (2009) and Dr. King Schultz in Django Unchained (2012).

Big Eyes tells the story of Margaret and Walter Keane, who in the 1960s mass produced a series of kitschy paintings of little girls with huge dark eyes out of proportion with their bodies. Walter took credit for his wife’s work, a fact that was proven in federal court in 1970 when Margaret sued her former husband for slander. But the film’s representations and the facts do not add up in one respect: Walter Keane was born in Nebraska. He claimed to have studied art in Europe, stumbling upon the big eyes as an expression of the post-war devastation of continent, expressed in the eyes of the war orphans. Yet, Waltz’s heavy Austrian accent suggests quite the opposite: like Lugosi, he is the European fish out of water, drowning in American values.

Big Eyes’ screenwriting team Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski also wrote not only Ed Wood, but also Man on the Moon (Milos Forman, 1999), another biopic about an avant-garde artist, Andy Kaufman destroyed commercial television. The script for Big Eyes clarifies Burton’s statement about art, commerce, and American civilization in beautifully subtle ways. In Beetlejuice, Burton’s persona is not expressed by his fellow travelers, Michael Keaton or Johnny Depp, but instead Lydia Deetz, a teenage girl. However, in Beetlejuice, the artists surround the protagonist: Beetlejuice the ghost is a performance artist/comedian, while Lydia’s adoptive parents are building an intricate model of their small town in the attic of their house.

Margaret Keane in Big Eyes is Lydia all grown up, who in adulthood discovers her talent for painting, not European masterpieces, but Americana. At the beginning of the film, we see the motivation for this maturation: Margaret flees her abusive 1950s marriage with her daughter in tow, moving to San Francisco during the Beat revolution. In a brief shot that speaks volumes, we see Margaret briefly drive her daughter Jane away from cookie cutter suburbia. The shot is muted, and thus profoundly effective. Compare this with the ham-fisted critique of suburbia in Burton’s Edward Scissorhands (1990), where the introduction to American suburbia is belabored, and unfair. The garishly colored houses are bitterly deployed to show what garish monsters live in Levittown, NY and its deadening ilk in post-war America.

Instead, all of the garishness in Big Eyes is dumped into Walter Keane, the villain because he takes credit for a more talented woman’s work. The fascinatingly manic performance of Christoph Waltz expresses the critique of commercialism in Big Eyes. Unlike in Ed Wood, where the American film industry destroys the Hungarian Bela Lugosi, here the dangers of Europeans (false, duplicitous) threaten American values.

Walter is undone by his misreading of American culture in the comic trial scene with which the film crescendos. In the courtroom, when his lawyers abandon him, in his arrogance, he replicates his artistic plagiarism by attempting to impersonate a lawyer. Earlier, we see him watching Perry Mason on television. In the courtroom, he schizophrenically jumps back and forth between the roles of lawyer and witness, botching both performances, and laying bare the emptiness of his soul. When the judge has finally had enough, he demands that Walter and Margaret sit and produce a painting with big eyes. Margaret does so with ease, having toiled in the salt mines of Walter’s mass production profit juggernaut, while Walter himself pretends his wounded shoulder precludes him from painting.

It is Walter Keane’s lack of artistic talent that ultimately dooms him in Burton’s eyes. Margaret is Burton’s hero, a middle ground artist. She is not ruined by Walter’s business uses of her work: the business provides her and her daughter protection against hardship. Despite having her work mass reproduced and sold for pennies in five-and-dime stores throughout the United States, her work’s focus on little girls’ eyes expresses her artistic vision, which is banal but heartfelt. When Walter asks her early on why her painted girls have such big eyes, she spews a cliché: “the eyes are the window to the soul.” Of course, the art form that best articulates this cliché is not painting, but the cinema, a medium built upon gazing into people’s eyes, and watching others look. The film works so well to defend Margaret Keane as a popular artist because Burton has spent a lifetime learning to use the cinema to depict artists who struggle to express themselves in a cold, indifferent capitalist economy. In Burton’s great film, Big Eyes, the cinema is a window into soulful art, and it is worth a look.

– Walter Metz