Big Eyes

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The most bizarre thing about this incredible story is not that it is true, but that it was toned down to keep it believable. It is also a twisted representation of the domestic, as in marriage, culture of the 50s. For all of the things still off-kilter in Western culture, mirrors like this remind us how far we have come… and how far we have to go in other ways.

Adams (Her) navigates a difficult role with incredible and sympathetic subtlety. She could easily become an object of frustration and derision, but she helps you believe the choices the real Keane made, from beginning to end. Opposite her, Waltz (The Zero Theorem) delivers an onion layer of a man that you recognize immediately, but without any sense of just how off he is; Waltz pulls you along his journey as well, though with a bit less sympathy than Adam’s performance. To be honest, I’m not sure there is any sympathy to be had for the man.

For all the personal aspects of this tale, it is primarily a story about art: what is it, what does it mean, who commits it, who defines it. Director Burton (Frankenweenie) keeps the story entirely personal through this more cerebral backdrop, but he frames it so that you understand the import of the events that you watch transpire. This film is really Burton at his best: intensely personal on a huge canvas, but completely controlled. And visually it is stunning; you’d expect nothing less than beautiful composition in a story about painting and art,  but the richness of the pallet and the framing of the images is really wonderful.

Creating the primary story frame, Huston (The Congress) gives us a sonorous perspective on the whole story, and yet still a personal story of his own. In additional roles, Stamp (Unfinished Song), Ritter (Don’t Trust the B*), and Schwartzman (Saving Mr. Banks) provide additional perspective and catalyst.

A good part of the success of the film is due to the script by long-time team Alexander & Karaszewski (Ed Wood, 1408). They asked all the questions that the original reporters skipped when they went for the sensation. They asked “why” and “how did you feel.” That focus on individuals gave Burton and the actors the meat to work with to create such an effective film.

In a weird sympathetic vibration, the path that Keane took for art is a somewhat timely story to tell. End-running the existing institutions occurred again with the rise of digital music and is now occurring with the democratization of publishing, for all its good and ill. The old institutions are finding the river running around them more than through them, and the tide continues to rise. However you feel about the events and people of this tale, it laid the groundwork for everything that is now the social network of art at a grassroots level.

For both the performances and the tale, this film is worth seeing. It resonates long after the final credit roll.

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