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Lies, Deception, and Seriously “Big Eyes”

big-eyes-01Tim Burton’s latest film, “Big Eyes”, was released on Christmas day this year without much of a marketing push or fanfare, and while I had originally planned to write about the Sony hack this week, that’s all pretty well-traversed territory at this point, and since “Big Eyes” is a film that I suspect few people have even really heard about and aren’t already planning to see, I thought I would take this opportunity to encourage others to check it out.

“Big Eyes” is set in early 1960s San Francisco, and is based on the fascinating (mostly) true life story of artist Margaret Keane (played by Amy Adams), a divorced, single mom and painter of children with anime-proportioned eyes, and  her swindling husband Walter (Christoph Waltz) who fraudulently claimed credit for her work for over a decade. The film relies heavily on the dynamic between Margaret , who is shy and submissive, unsure of herself and her talents; and Walter Keane, a gregarious man whose charm and con artistry helped make the pair millions of dollars selling Margaret’s ultimately kitchy pop-art to the beat generation’s hoi polloi.

It opens with a fittingly vacuous quote from the king of all pop-art hucksters, Andy Warhol:

“I think what Keane has done is terrific! If it were bad, so many people wouldn’t like it.”

Indeed.

For Tim Burton fans, some of the themes in “Big Eyes” will be familiar. His work regularly blurs the lines of fantasy and reality, big-eyes-03 fact and fiction; and it often centers around the contradiction of outsiders struggling to find their place in more conservative societies. Margaret Keane is a woman who bravely left a controlling husband and moved to San Francisco with her young daughter to become a painter in an era when women simply didn’t do that kind of thing, yet she ended up producing hundreds of pieces of art under another man’s name because “nobody would buy art painted by a woman”. Also a man of jarring contradictions, Walter seemed to have no talent as an artist, yet presented himself as a trained and successful painter to San Francisco’s rising fine art scene. Perhaps ironically, his lies and guile ended up selling countless originals and prints of his wife’s work when few galleries even wanted it by passing it off as his own. In a way, the pair was perfect for each other, and had it not been for the fraud it’s likely that no one would ever have heard of Margaret Keane.

But over time the deception also ate away at Margaret’s self-worth, Walter’s desire for fame and money couldn’t be satiated, and the whole enterprise couldn’t survive forever.

The film itself is tightly-paced at just 105 minutes, and the production design is actually subdued by Tim Burton’s usual standards, even given the brightly colored vibe of California in the 1960s. “Big Eyes” is one of Burton’s most mature films to date, more “Big Fish” than “Alice in Wonderland”, and that’s a very good thing. Burton is a director who can sometimes be a victim of his own artistic excess, but this is a film that reserves his trademark surrealism for just a few really effective scenes as Margaret slowly loses her sense of self, consumed by her husband’s ego and the secret she’s unable even to share with her own daughter.

Danny Elfman’s score is similarly subdued, and as somewhat of a sidenote, the soundtrack also features some incredible Latin jazz by one of my favorite vibraphone players, Cal Tjader. If you’re not aware of his work, allow me to suggest “Cuban Fantasy” and perhaps “Speak Low“.

There’s obviously a lot of competition for your movie-going dollar this time of year, but “Big Eyes” features a truly interesting story, a couple of incredibly strong performances from some extremely gifted actors, and a lightness of directorial touch that we so rarely get to see from Tim Burton.

And let’s be honest, none of that can be said of Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit”.

Watch the trailer for “Big Eyes”:

Sean Malone

Sean Malone is a producer at Citizen A Media, a creative media production company based in Washington, DC.