January 29 — February 05
|Sat & Sun||2:00||5:00||7:15|
Unless otherwise noted, films begin on Friday and run through the next Thursday.
“Margaret Keane” may not be a well-known name to most people, but her artwork is instantly recognizable, as familiar to Americans as the Saturday Evening Post covers of Norman Rockwell or the “splatter” paintings of Jackson Pollock. Yet her work was a minor cultural phenomenon in the early to mid-‘60’s, and her favorite subject, eerie, doll-like children with enormous, often tear-filled eyes, could be found in many middle-class American homes. Keane’s work was never critically respected and even today is more of a fetish for lovers of kitsch than real art enthusiasts; yet there was something about her schmaltzy, creepy kids that genuinely touched the hearts of many consumers: her idealized vision of innocent children, in frilly dresses, with long, unkempt bangs, shy expressions, beloved pets in their laps, and nearly always with those unexplained tears streaming down their porcelain faces. Lovers of Keane’s work could interpret the underlying emotion however they wished, which was one of the keys to their appeal; her little girls could be contrite daughters trying to muster the courage to ask for their parents’ forgiveness, or memories of the shy, lonely children that adult collectors remember themselves being. Today, we can add another interpretation: those distraught, big-eyed kids might have reflected Margaret Keane’s inner sadness, her cry for help to be released from a loveless marriage with her conniving, emotionally abusive husband Walter, who claimed credit for her work when it started to become popular. The fascinating idea behind director Tim Burton’s unusual biopic of Keane is that her paintings, reviled by critics as fatuous, schmaltzy, cynical, shameless, emotionally vacant hack work, become legitimately fascinating when we learn the painful details of Keane’s domestic life and the context in which she produced this work. And “produce” is the right word: Keane’s husband basically forced her to produce Big Eyes paintings like a hen laying one golden egg after another. Knowing this, her work becomes a disturbing expression of psychological distress, a commentary on her exploitation. Great art? Not by a mile. Burton doesn’t go that far. But we can empathize with Keane’s situation without elevating her to the pantheon of true artistic geniuses. Even failed artists deserve our interest, consideration, and respect, at least for what they try to achieve. That was the upbeat message of Burton’s Ed Wood, the classic story of a true Hollywood outsider, an inept film-making auteur who couldn’t make a decent movie if his life depending on it. Margaret Keane might be considered Mr. Wood’s equivalent in the world of painting (except that her work was, and remains, enormously popular), but Burton gives his subject dignity, pathos, and human dimension. Just as Ed Wood, Jr., became a surrogate for all moviegoers who dream of making their own film one day, ignoring their lack of talent, Margaret Keane becomes a survivor-hero who made art for the masses, toiling in anonymity before eventually escaping her personal prison. Amy Adams, who won a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical for this role, is terrific as Margaret, whose innate passivity helps inform her unique artistic style but also makes her easy prey for a flashy, “sophisticated” bounder like Walter Keane to bend her to his will. As Walter, Christoph Waltz breaks free of Quentin Tarantino servitude with a character whose oily charm masks a coldly domineering personality. Walter becomes incrementally more intimidating as the film progresses, and Waltz is mesmerizing even without Tarantino’s trademark baroque dialogue. This is not the epitome of evil like Hans Landa, but Water’s a monster we recognize more often in real life, and thus more frightening. Though Waltz has the showier role, it’s Adams who undergoes the film’s pivotal character change, with meek, put-upon Margaret finding the courage to stand up to Walter, and this gives Big Eyes a welcome emotional catharsis. The real joy of the film, though, is Tim Burton getting his mojo back after a series of increasingly noisy, bombastic CGI re-imaginings of various pop artifacts. Big Eyes reunites Burton with material suited to his genuine gift, shown in early films like Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice, his unique ability to sympathize with, and make viewers relate to, eccentric outsiders who inhabit the fringes of respectable, “normal” society. Burton is helped immensely by Ed Wood screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who are in perfect sync with Burton’s sensibilities. Like Ed Wood, Big Eyes is an unspoken love letter to the impulse that makes people want to create art, even if it’s not “art” according to most critics and aficionados. That impulse, for Burton and company, is worth celebrating in and of itself, even if it results in Bela Lugosi fighting a rubber octopus or a one-woman cottage industry devoted to images of weeping, sinister, big-eyed urchins. To Burton, it doesn’t matter. What matters is what the artist experiences from the act of creation, that transcendent moment of joy, heartache, frustration, and exultation that comes from putting your feelings out in front of the world—regardless of whether or not that world is full of “haters” like Big Eyes’ imperious art critic Terence Stamp. Big Eyes is the first Burton film in a long time in which he’s been so emotionally invested, and it’s a pleasure to see the Burton of old effortlessly comment on weighty issues like Mad Men-era sexism, post-WWII patriarchy, canonical vs. popular art, and how social revolution affected pop culture in the early days of the Vietnam War (some critics assert that Keane’s popularity was influenced by conservative fear of the increasingly vocal and demanding youth culture of the time). While other films would clumsily trample these ideas with elephantine feet, Big Eyes lightly evokes them and lets viewers draw their own conclusions. The film never descends into utter grimness, and neither does it trivialize Keane’s exploitation. It finds the right balance to tell a strange but compelling story of a woman artist who was inspired to paint, and her struggle against the commercial-minded husband who wanted to turn her into an art factory, churning out Big Eyes paintings as fast as humanly possible. (Critic Travis Hopson of the Film Examiner mused that Walter’s money-hungry imperative might be a subtle metaphor for how Burton had started to feel about himself and his own recent, soulless work). It’s an excellent, thought-provoking film anchored by two wonderful central performances and a heroine of unexpected psychological depth.
Cinema NewsManhattan Short Presents Film of the Week. Each week the Festival Screens a Past Finalists Award Winning Film Online. Click here to watch the film short of the Week.
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