Sunday, May 17, 2015

Douglas Messerli | "Identity Theft" ("Keane on Film," Big Eyes, on Margaret Keane)

identity theft

by Douglas Messerli 

Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (screenplay), Tim Burton (director) Big Eyes / 2014

If there was ever a serious case of identity theft—yet involving no stolen credit cards, social security documents, or captured bank accounts—it is the case of Margaret Ulbrich (Amy Adams) who we first see as a woman with a child on route from the collapse of an unhappy marriage, which a voiceover, rather smugly reminds us, “Women just didn’t leave their husbands in those days.” She hardly gets settled into a new life in San Francisco working as painter in a furniture manufacturing plant before she meets and falls in love with the obviously caddish Walter Keane (a sleazily charming Christopher Waltz) and, threatened by her former husband with the probability of being an unfit mother, decides to marry him, one of the early clues that Margaret is an extraordinarily naive woman, desperately seeking for something or someone to believe in.

     Before she can even adjust to the new marriage, he has stolen the two things she loves most in her life: her daughter and her art. He steals away the child not through paying any unusual attention to her, but by challenging the young girl’s memory of her mother and severing their relationship as he puts Margaret to work at creating the saucer-eyed nymphets that dominate her art, which he quickly grabs away by taking the credit for creating, insisting that the Keane signature with which the married Margaret now signs her work, is his, while hissing out to her calm her demurrals that “lady art doesn’t sell.”

     Walter, who has long pretended to be a painter, it turns out, cannot even paint by the numbers; although we are told he has survived by being a real estate agent, we are also given no evidence of his skills in that profession. The only thing he appears to be brilliant at is conjuring up schemes which require larger and larger lies. True, his expertise in drawing attention to Margaret’s hackneyed work is something close to genius: even before Warhol and the numerous others who would soon depict ordinary everyday objects such as a soup can in their art and sell that work through some of the same advertising methods of that soup company, Walter was able to sell his wife’s kitschy paintings by giving them away to famous celebrities (such as Joan Crawford), reproducing their images in posters and postcards, and plying those images of images in the very stores which sold those cans full of soup. 
     With the help of a local newspaper writer working on celebrity columns, the shyster Keane was able to somehow get front cover newspaper, television, and radio attention for a product that the noted art critic John Canady (played here by the always watchable Terence Stamp) proclaimed as being “atrocious.” Despite the cynicism of other local art gallerists to the contrary, is it any wonder that Walter desired to take some of the credit for creating the art itself?
      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).

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