by Douglas Messerli
Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (screenplay), Tim Burton (director) Big Eyes / 2014
But Walter wanted all the credit, turning his wife into a virtual slave, who, hidden away for hours each day, created closets and closets of the stuff. Perhaps even more importantly, the work she was pouring her heart into was not precisely what one might imagine as the best definition of “art.” Burton’s film, presumably, would like to argue otherwise, hinting that its creators would like its audience to engage in such questions as “who decides what’s good or bad?” and, as with issues such as Warhol argues, “how can anything so beloved by so many be anything but good?” The filmmakers even proffer the possibility, in their often inane declarations, that Margaret was a sort of pre-feminist, willing in the end, to fight to get her own name and identity back.
The problem, however, is not that she painted doe-eyed, saddened gamin because—hint hint—she too felt so terribly said—but that she painted figures that looked somewhat human beings without identity themselves: their only claim for existence being their big, empty eyes.
If Margaret had her identity stolen through her art, so too had she created an art that, although imminently recognizable, had no identity itself. Every gamin, be it boy or girl, dressed as a harlequin or in Hawaiian garb, playing with a dog or simply moping around a darkened corner, is precisely like every other one of its kind: a thing (unrecognizable ultimately as a depiction of a human being) of horrifically large peepers.
Why unsophisticated US consumers were so attracted to these monstrous figures —monstrous, when we recall that that word is derived from meanings that express a “warning” or “demonstration”—that point to one thing only, their unnaturally enlarged eyes, is inexplicable. One might almost be tempted to argue that it expresses either immense sentimentality of post-war US culture (“aren’t these unidentifiable interplanetary figures absolutely adorable?”) or, possibly, the postwar adult generation’s purposeful goal of terrifying their children the way the war had terrorized them. Fortunately my parents preferred rustic rural scenes and faux Monets to cover our suburban house halls!
It should come as no surprise that the only art historical reference Margaret makes mention of is her admiration for Modigliani, who painted exceptionally elongated necks. For her art clearly represents, much as it did for her gold-digging husband, merely a gimmick rather than an engagement to comprehend something within the world or one self.
It is also absolutely predictable that even when Margaret does succeed in regaining her name, she gives over her life once more to a force bigger than her, the religion of the Jehovah’s Witnesses—who firmly believe in a patriarchal-based society in which abortion, marriage outside the religion, homosexuality, and even political involvement with the world around them is a sin. They can drink (as everyone in this film does—heavily), and they can sue.
And it’s hardly surprising that a film devoted to the abolishment of what makes someone different from someone else, should ultimately lose its own identity, hammering down its subjects with simple-minded prescriptions of humankind. Amy Adams does her best to reveal a real being beneath the meek and nearly speechless Margaret by expressing through facial and other body gestures a whole range of internalized tensions. Waltz is nearly perfect at playing the Jekyll and Hyde alterations of charmer and abuser. But these roles, like the nasty hiss of Canady’s proclamations, are so one-dimensional that even these talented actors have a difficult time in showing us anything to care about.
Burton, for his part, has become so trapped in his simplified notion of the 1950s suburban world—a period which hardly he can be said to have himself experienced since he was born in 1958—that his movies are all beginning to look alike: certainly we’ve seen that tract-house settings with which this movie begins in works such as Ed Wood and Edward Scissorshand, And I am, admittedly, wearying a bit with the director’s vision of artists as alienated and suffering weirdos. Yet it’s hard to deny the visual beauty of his San Francisco and its environs, brushing them with a smear of gold that I haven’t seen since Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
But the only vertiginous sensation one might feel in Burton’s film is expressed in the artist’s own distress in observing her large eyes being pasted across the faces of everyone she meets in a local supermarket.
Los Angeles, April 21, 2015
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (April 2015).