The Big Eyes Are Watching
There are so many film talents I once admired, followed religiously from film to film, that no longer seem to excite me at all. If anything, I shy away from their films where I used to be there opening night. Ridley Scott. John Carpenter. James Cameron. And Tim Burton. Especially Tim Burton. Burton over the years has lost himself in the imagery of individual scenes. Baubles strewn on the floor, pearls in with the swine. A cacophony of pictures, with nothing to back them up. Culminating in DARK SHADOWS two years ago, which was a mess in every way – script, acting, and sadly even the imagery. Even the attempt to capture the early-70s fails miserably, with markers of the times that would be more in place on a made for television movie than in a big budget film.
But his newest, BIG EYES, is a complete turnaround from that Burton. Gone is stylistic camera work, the gothic imagery, the flashy flourishes. This is straight forward, almost flat, film-making. I was reminded of later period Fritz Lang like WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS or BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT, where he eschews the baroque filmmaking of METROPOLIS so that we focus on the baroque characters we have in front of us instead. Totally unlike Burton’s previous biopic ED WOOD of twenty years ago, this is a stripped down, solely character driven film. It’s not the physical grotesques of Wood’s players, but the mental grotesques that are Walter and Margaret Keane, that take center stage. The few glimpses into the Burton bank of imagery, a few fleeting images of the big eye paintings come hideously alive, are all the more stark for their not in every scene, around every corner. The assault on the senses, as we are assaulted with Margaret, are conveyed largely by Amy Adams’ acting, and the subtly suffocation of the camera work. Not canted angles, but simple accumulation, the dark studio filled with the haunting paintings.
The late-50s/early-60s period is deftly captured here, again so unlike the clamor of DARK SHADOWS, or even the overly sentimental 40s and 50s of ED WOOD. Simple muted dates and cities slide across the bottom of the screen. We believe this the real San Francisco of the time, built up in simple accumulation. First, the houses, the cars, the streets, of the city. Then, the art galleries, the jazz clubs, and those ridiculously cramped studios, all perfectly kissed with the bright sun of Northern California. The simple transition to the later scenes in Hawaii, with a subtle change in the color palette, perfect. It’s familiar, and yet strange, distant, as unnatural to us the viewer as this world is to Margaret. She is our visual anchor, and yet an anchor without a compass, pushed into the corners.
Divorced of his “usual suspects” in the cast, Burton focuses back on the actors, not on their tics, something he hasn’t done in a long time. Instead of wondering what Johnny Depp is going to do as Johnny Depp pretending he’s Willy Wonka or Barnabas Collins, we get to see Christoph Waltz and Amy Adams inhabit Walter and Margaret, we get to see them be them. I usually find Adams insufferable, but she subsumes her cutesiness into a larger performance. Arguably the last time I saw this breadth of acting in a Burton film was BIG FISH. He uses Adams here much as he does Ewan McGregor there. It is an amazing performance. Waltz is more troublesome, his Walter falls into the overripe as the film progresses, although the amp up from slightly off into full psychosis as Margaret progressively become more aware of his madness does work. It just brings an unbalance to the second half of the film to a certain degree.
I don’t presume to know how “true” the Walter and Margaret Kean presented here are to those that lived and loved and painted and fought in our world. By its very nature, two hours of film for a life will miss so much nuance. Even a mundane life would be ill-served by only two hours summation. But what Burton does here is carve a distinct vision of art v. commerce, of creation v. imitation, of life v. artifice. It’s odd, but watching this, you can see a whisper of Burton’s career in the recesses, the striving between kitsch and culture. BIG EYES lingers under the surface long after you’ve left the theatre. The desire Walter has, far outstripping his talent, consumes him, and turns his creativity, his vitality, into self-loathing, into madness, and really into death. The death of art. The death of creation. The death of life. It’s no surprise when it finally comes to him threatening Margaret under a painting he never painted that has nevertheless bought him free meals, forever. It’s one of the most powerful scenes in the movie, his moment of destruction.
I hope this a turn for Burton towards a new direction in his career. It’s a refreshing change of pace from him. Check out BIG EYES before it leaves the theatre. You will not be disappointed.