Rob Harmon’s Picks 5/19/15

Rob_photo_031715_WebBig Eyes (dir. Tim Burton, 2014)

Not all great artists, writers, or directors become the inspiration for words in the English language: for example, there are no such words as Leonardoish, Hemingwayian, or Truffautian — not officially in the dictionary, anyway. (These words, besides, are a little clunky!) Other artists, however, achieve such a degree of iconicity, either by creating a new brand of art or by coming to embody one that already existed, that inventing or coining an adjective to describe that art, or one particular aspect of it, becomes practically imperative, as in Rubenesque, Aristotelian, or Hitchcockian.

Still, as speakers and as writers, we tend to invent words all the time – whenever convenient, really – boiling the essence of something down to a single adjective or verb, a sort of shorthand referring to something or someone’s most salient aspects. Cineastes do this all the time with directors: for example, if I were to tell you that a certain film was “Carpenter-esque, Lynchian, and Wilder-esque,” you might understand this to mean: a film – possibly horror – with a minimal, widescreen visual aesthetic, and equally minimal music – probably synthesizer-based (à la John Carpenter); which, further, is surreal (David Lynch); and features strongly-written characters and a scathingly acerbic sense of humor (Billy Wilder).

Burtonesque is not in the dictionary (I just checked, although one website offered up this priceless definition: “a general feeling of mystical and somewhat dark wonderfulness”), and may never be, but for those who know movies well the word evokes rich and potent images: a darkly Gothic and comic, fairy-tale-like atmosphere; the subtle satire of suburbia, middle-class values, and the dysfunctional family unit; the aesthetics of Edgar Allan Poe, Roger Corman, and England’s Hammer Studios; the campy-but-endearing theatrics of Vincent Price; wounded, child-like heroes cast adrift in a world they never made; and, of course, the hauntingly innocent musical stylings of frequent-collaborator and composer Danny Elfman (former frontman of legendary band Oingo Boingo; for more on this “other” side of the versatile Elfman see 80s midnight classic THE FORBIDDEN ZONE in our Cult section!).

Director Tim Burton achieved such astonishing success early in his career (PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE, BEETLEJUICE, BATMAN, EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, ED WOOD) that he had solidly established a house style – call it “Burtonesque,” if you will – at a point when most other filmmakers are still struggling to find their voice.

Yet, for a time, all of that seemed to work against Burton, as he fought to stabilize his career after the days of heady, early success. As he labored through a seemingly endless array of remakes and remodels, Tim Burton seemed to be forever in the shadow of… well, his younger self. Tim Burton – the wunderkind who shook up Hollywood with his whip-smart comedy/horror pastiches – now seemed a shadow of his former self, an illustrator of others’ ideas, his patented Burtonesque house-style forced into servitude. Not long ago it would have been legitimate to ask: “Whatever happened to Tim Burton?”

2844957BIG EYES is based on the life of painter Margaret Keane, beginning in 1958 in a typically-ordered and candy-colored Burtonesque suburbia somewhere in northern California, as soft-spoken housewife Margaret Ulbrich (Amy Adams) works up the courage to walk out on her stifling, loveless marriage. With young daughter Jane in the back seat she drives to San Francisco and sets up a new life as a single mother (San Francisco in 1958? Shades of VERTIGO, anyone?), struggling to find employment, before, ultimately, succeeding.

Additionally, fueled by the energy of the city around her, she channels her latent artistic impulses by going to art fairs on the weekends and applying paint to canvas: her pet theme the portrayal of children – inspired by her daughter – with eerily large and disproportioned eyes. The windows to the soul, she says. It is while rubbing elbows with the bohemian set that she meets the larger-than-life Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), an artist and all-around-operator, whose secret that he is actually a well-off real estate agent proves to be only the tip of the iceberg. Walter and Margaret are married and Margaret continues to develop her portraits of destitute and lachrymose, staring waifs. Recognizing that the rapidly-growing middle class has a healthy appetite for the snobbery associated with art, Walter hits upon new, undreamt-of ways of promoting Margaret’s paintings to the masses, even taking his role as salesman to another level by assuming credit for his wife’s work once it begins to sell… and sell and sell…. Ultimately, of course, as Keane Mania sweeps the nation, attracting the supercilious derision of the critical establishment, the fraudulent enterprise becomes ever more difficult to keep under wraps….

BIG EYES was written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, a team best known for biopics, such as Miloš Forman’s THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT and MAN ON THE MOON, as well as Burton’s exceptional ED WOOD. BIG EYES is well-acted, particularly by the two leads Adams and Waltz.

Proving that there are second acts in life, Burton’s BIG EYES manages to be: a smart and subtle parable about art and the artistic process; a send-up of the unholy marriage of art and commerce; a pseudo-feminist statement, as Margaret struggles to find her voice in a patriarchal society, with daughter Jane’s staring eyes (and, by extension, the eyes of her painted subjects) calmly recording the abuses which mother is subjected to; as well as a meditation on the greater values of cheap, mass-produced “art” (as in, *ahem*, movies…): all-in-all, an understated work from a matured director – one whose career has already seen its fair share of ups and downs.

Burton clearly recognizes Margaret as a kindred spirit in kitsch, a fellow creator whose private obsessions may too easily be dismissed or written off as specious. Burton seems to also identify, up to a point, with husband Walter, a sort-of P. T. Barnum of the art world, whose business savvy ignites a firestorm of demand in the belly of Middle America. Margaret and Walter are presented as two halves of a duality, as yin and yang, two forces who can’t seem to live together or apart: a powerful metaphor, indeed, for the creative process.

For more “Burtonesque” works check out our Tim Burton section in Best Directors!