The holiday movie extravaganza continues. I really wanted to see this because it’s Tim Burton not being Tim Burton, if you know what I mean. It’s a historical piece, like his Ed Wood, and an almost painfully human story, like Big Fish, and while it’s not as good as either of those I’m still glad I saw it. It’s the story of Margaret Keane, whose husband Walter built a pop culture empire based on her paintings of children with really big eyes, while taking credit for her work.
Burton has a really good eye for 1950’s and 60’s Americana, and this ended up being very much about that time. As much as it’s about the Big Eye art, it’s about a culture in which a priest can tell a woman that if her husband is pressuring her to lie to her daughter he must have a good reason for it and she should just go along with it. If a lot of us seem terrified at current conservative politics, it’s because there are more than a few people out there who would love for us to go back to that world, in which a woman can be asked in a job interview if her husband approves of her working.
This movie is also something of a mirror universe Ratatouille, in which the artist is completely unable to be true to herself, and the Anton Ego-ish art critic, a marvelous Terrance Stamp, is exactly right. Ratatouille filled me joy. This film filled me with existential sadness.
It made me sad, not just because of Margaret’s situation, but because there are Walter Keanes in publishing. There are people more in love with the idea of being writers than they are with the thought of writing. They take advantage of people, they promote themselves with only a house of cards as a foundation, and yes, they steal. There are entire scams built up around taking money from people who want to be writers. (The Writer Beware blog does the great work of tracking and exposing these scams.) There are people who genuinely can’t see the difference between their own dreck of a novel they churned out in a week and the bestsellers of someone like J.K. Rowling, and therefore they believe there must be some conspiracy or insider knowledge holding them back. There are fiction factories, in which writers produce work for a house name and are paid a pittance. None of these examples is as spectacular as what Walter Keane pulled off. But spend much time in this business, and you’ll see little examples of art and commerce colliding in terrible ways.