Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Awful Art

It's rather hard to know what to make of Tim Burton's new movie, "Big Eyes."  Is it an absurdist, satirical comedy about the abiding  power of fads, fame, high-level marketing combined with the low level of American artistic taste?  Yes.  Is it an appallingly sordid tale of domestic abuse, child endangerment, alcoholism, fraud, greed and quintessential and astonishingly successful American huckesterism on a grand scale?  Yes. For those of us who lived through that period, is it two hours of torture revisiting all those hideous, sappy Keane paintings of big-eyed tikes who looked like they had spent the better part of their lives in Dachau?  Yes.  Is there a certain sort of perverse glee in watching a biopic staring people whose characters have little to commend them -- weak, dishonest, greedy, foolish -- then chortling when the worst of the lot (Walter) gets his well-deserved comeuppance?  (Exposed as a fraud.  He painted nothing.  The Wife did it all.)  Yes. Then feel a twinge of dissatisfaction that Margaret, the real painter who unleashed this hideous "art"  on the world and who participated (and benefited) from the fraud, comes out smelling like a rose, money in hand, without paying for her Crimes on Good Taste?  Yes.

Certainly the acting all round is wonderful, though casting Christoph Waltz, with his German accent, seemed a bit ff-putting.  After all, Walter Keane was the absolute epitome of the stereotyped American Huckster -- a sort of painterly Music Man spinning his fantasies and taking a whole country along with him for a goofy ride.  (He was Andy Warhol before Warhol was Warhol. Like Kinkade, "The Painter of Light,"  was Keane after Keane was Keane.)  But Waltz is such a fine actor, despite the odd accent, he managed to keep Walter's dangerous edge present in the midst of his toothy bonhomie.

As a cultural observation, "Big Eyes," certainly has a good deal of bite.  And perhaps that uneasy mix of sappy and sick, comedy and low melodrama is the perfect tone for a phenomenon that was The Keane Affair. Come to think of it, perhaps the best response to the whole sordid tale is to be found in the expressions on all of Margaret's tikes: Blank-eyed, dumbfounded depression at what passes for Public Taste?   

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