Friday, December 19, 2014
Talking to Tim Burton
If style is substance, Tim Burton is a very substantial director indeed. From his first feature, Pee Wee's Big Adventure, Burton visually inventive style has done much of the work of gothacizing his humanist narratives, often through comically exaggerated costumes and sets, matter-of-fact dollops of surrealism, and wide-eyed, well-meaning misfit protagonists. Burton's latest, Big Eyes, is about another alienated innocent marooned in a middle America that's nowhere near as calm and comfortable as it's pretending to be. But in many other ways, the film feels strangely un-Burtonesque. Margaret Keane, its main character, painted the lookalike portraits of sad children with enormous eyes that spread like kudzu throughout the U.S. in the 1950s and '60s. But the more popular her work became, the more isolated she felt, forced as she was to keep a secret that had been cooked up by her husband, who wanted the world to think he was the artist behind her "big eyes" paintings. I spoke with Burton last week about what Keane's story has to say about the suburban American dream of the Cold War era and why he opted for a more subdued visual approach in telling her story.
I guess you must like Margaret Keane's paintings, since you own a couple of them.
Well, yeah. But "like" is a funny word. I grew up with them.
They were very present in the culture. I was more fascinated by them. Being a pop-culture enthusiast, I found them actually quite disturbing. These children, there was something kind of creepy about them. I remember, as a child, thinking, "Why do you have a picture of a crying child in your living room?"
So you liked them the way you liked horror movies?
Yeah. And also, growing up in that era in the late '50s, early '60s, the nuclear family was my family: two parents, some kids, everything's perfect. And there's a subconscious power in the sense that here's these two people, completely dysfunctional relationship, creating these sort of weird mutant children. It's kind of symbolic of where that weird American dream was really at. Or going.
What did you commission from Margaret Keane?
I had one done with Helena [Bonham Carter] and our son. It was so great. And then she did my kids' eyes. She did my eye too—a charcoal thing of my eye. Given the slightly not-realistic style that she has, it was incredible how she captured each of the kids' and my eye, and how accurate it was. I knew there was some power to her work, but to see that specific thing made it like...wow! She's good, you know? She knows how to capture somebody in a not completely realistic but emotionally realistic way.
I'm not really surprised you're drawn to her work, because Johnny Depp in Edward Scissorhands and Winona Ryder in Beetlejuice were kind of goth Keane kids, don't you think?
I've always been attracted to actors who open their eyes. People like Johnny or Winona or Eva Green, people who don't have to say anything, like a silent-movie actor. I love that. Because film, obviously, is a visual medium. It's great to see actors, like Michael Keaton in Beetlejuice, doing all kinds of stuff, but also at the same time, Michael Keaton doing Batman is just eyes. All he has to do is just look at you, not say anything. I find that very, very powerful, and that's why I've always been attracted to actors that have that capability, or persona.
Read the rest on Slant Magazine