Wednesday, January 21, 2015

"Big Eyes" and "Cutie and the Boxer": Or, Celestia Yells at Movies about Married Artist Couples and Demands that the Females Grow a Pair of Lady Balls

Well, I'm not usually the sort to blog movie reviews, but in the past week I've seen two films that center on married artist couples. I'm a female artist married to another artist. So each of these movies struck me  as something I wanted to write a little about. Marrying another artist has its pitfalls (and its benefits). It can go afoul if the balance if not quite right. Power plays can happen if one of you is more profitable than the other, or more "artistic," or more anything--and that's going to happen, no two artists (or people) are perfectly matched. Navigating those inequalities can be interesting, or disastrous. Or just depressing. These movies struck me as cautionary tales, if nothing else, on how not to be a married artist team!

Spoilers below, so if you're about to see the movie, go do that first. Or read on, whatever, it's not like there are huge revealing plotlines in either film.

The first, a Tim Burton production (complete with music by Danny Elfman, of course), stars Amy Adams as Margaret Keane and the dynamic Christopher Waltz as her husband, Walter Keane. Those who already know the real-life drama on which the movie is based are aware of Keane's work: paintings of big-eyed waifs that rose to prominence (and were ridiculed by critics) in the 1950s and 1960s. I was vaguely aware of the historical fact that Walter took credit for these paintings and Margaret eventually sued him over it in 1986, winning the case after she painted a big-eyed waif in 53 minutes when the judge asked both parties to do so (Walter claimed a sore shoulder prevented him from displaying his talent to the jury). Everything I discuss below, however, is based on the movie, not the real life events. So please, I hope Ms. Keane and her estate take no offense if they ever come across this and read it.
One of the big-eyed Keane waifs.

The movie was entertaining, the music was peppy, and there are enough fun moments that it makes for a really enjoyable comedy/drama on the whole. My nitpicks below are born out from my being a female artist married to male artist, running a business and (so far) successfully navigating the pitfalls of clashing artistic egos and business decisions.

From the get-go, Amy Adams did not make the character of Margaret likable, at least not for me. She chokes back every one of her lines, using a stilted voice that sounds like she's trying to only use half of her vocal chords. And of course, she has trouble selling her art or even explaining why she creates art. In a scene many caricature artists will identify with, she offers her big-eyed portraits at an outdoor fair, only to have a customer compliment her work and then smugly offer her half the asking price for a drawing. (In a continuity gaffe, I noticed she was working with a half-size French easel, like the one I own, during the shots in the park, and then later she was carrying a full-size French easel out of the park--just a little easter egg for those of you who know your portable easel types).

Amy Adams, as Margaret Keane, finds little success drawing at art fairs.
Enter the spry, energetic, and very charming Walter Keane. He sweeps her off her feet, compliments her work, tells her she is devaluing herself by accepting lower prices, and proposes marriage to her fairly quickly in an effort to help her retain custody of her daughter. Soon he confesses to her that he's actually not a painter, just really admires the craft and wants to be a painter--but his actual job is commercial real estate and he's pretty successful at it. While Amy Adams' Margaret is taken aback and hurt by this revelation, I sat there thinking "What? He has a steady income from commercial real estate? That's friggin' awesome! Marry that dude!" So far so good, right? Waltz is a very likable actor--whether playing a Nazi or an old west dentist/bounty hunter, the guy really is a huge heaping pile of charm. I'm quite sure I was rooting for him in Big Eyes far longer than the average movie patron.

The movie paints the situation as quite a natural fit, at first. Margaret is utterly useless when it comes to selling work, but Walter has the touch. He sees marketing opportunities everywhere and makes inroads with local personalities that can help his and his wife's art careers. Through what is portrayed as a misunderstanding, he takes credit for one of her paintings and ends up selling it that night--and that gets the ball rolling. Soon he is pretending that all her big-eyed waif paintings are actually his work, and the patrons are snapping them up. Margaret is hurt at first, but eventually just seems to go along with it even though it means keeping a big secret from her daughter. She wants credit for her paintings, deep down, but of course she is weak and frightened and ignorant of the ways of the world and can barely utter a full sentence much less pimp her paintings to the critics and the masses.
Walter secures wall space for the two of them, but it's in
a bad location where people just walk by and ask where
the bathroom is. KNOW THAT FEELING, anybody?

Here's where I kind of diverged from the intended movie structure. And call me a lousy feminist if you want. In the world that the movie sets up, and with the personalities the movie portrays, it was really hard for me to see Walter as a full-on villain for most of the film. Margaret was so ineffectual, and so terrible at being in the limelight, that it became clear that without Walter, the big-eyed waifs would have remained obscure, and she would have remained impoverished, trying to get a dollar a piece for caricature-ish portraits at outdoor fairs. The guy really did have some ground-breaking ideas. He opened a gallery, he gifted celebrities and local politicians with new paintings, and he became a media darling. He was good at being the face of the business. Observing how many gallery posters were stolen or snatched up by people who could not afford the paintings themselves, he pioneered the idea of making low-cost prints and selling them. I sat back and thought "Wow, this guy is actually bringing a lot to the table--and all Margaret has to do is paint the things!" (I think many people who run an art business might have had the same thought during the movie--we realize that making the art isn't necessarily the most labor-intensive part of the process!)

Sure, he was getting credit for the work. But the movie also points out that, during that era, female artists had a lot of trouble securing gallery showings or getting any respect for their work. She could have used Walter as a puppet, a commercial front for her own work, for decades, and reaped the benefits of fame and fortune without the annoying downsides of being recognizably famous. The actual "being famous" part was something Walter obviously enjoyed--and, given the temperament that Amy Adams played her with, Margaret might not have been able to handle fame at all had it been thrust upon her! She could have been an active partner in plotting their big-eyed empire and, given time, even planned some future grand revelation about who was really behind the paintings. In some perfect teamwork situation I imagined Walter being on board with that, making some statement that their grand switcheroo was a demonstration and indictment of chauvinism in the art world--these paintings did not sell when they were painted by a female, but look at how valuable they became under his name! I could see Andy Warhol digging that publicity stunt.

But no. And it didn't go that way in real life, so I cannot expect a movie about the Keanes to go that way. It would not have any sort of conflict necessary to make a movie if it did! So naturally, as the movie drives toward its climax, Walter becomes an ogre and his ego turns him into a slave-driver rather than a helpful partner. And of course, you hate him for it and feel bad for poor Margaret. Some of the scenes showing Margaret as a trapped, downtrodden soul went a little overboard in terms of believability, though. In one climactic scene she is terrified of a stumbling, falling-down drunk Walter as he menaces her and her teenaged daughter. He starts lighting matches and tossing them at her, and the terror Amy Adams brings forth is over the top. They are matches, tossed by a drunk. You know what you do when a falling-down drunk is coming for you? You step aside and watch them fall down, drunk. It's not difficult, I've done it myself (thankfully, not in a situation of threatened domestic violence, but I have been in the presence of extremely drunk men before, and I have had to dodge them). When someone like that tosses matches, you pinch out the match flame so that nothing catches fire. All I could figure was that maybe both Margaret and her daughter were soaked head-to-toe in hair spray and thus were highly flammable, perhaps? It was the 60s. That would account for the extremely terrified reaction of both of them when a few matches were tossed their way.
Waltz's Walter Keane before he goes from Prince Charming
to Prince Alarming.

Ah, I'm failing to get myself into the mindset of an emotionally abused woman. That must be it. Forgive me. It's difficult, especially in the span of a 106-minute movie. I am a large woman with a very strong sense of self, and brothers that taught me to fight, and enough contact sports under my belt that I tend to see movie scenes like that in a different way. A tactical way. Drunk guy coming for you? Well, hey, look how easy it would be to trip him. Or look at that heavy object nearby, use it on his skull, you nitwit! Oh no, wait, you're going to scream and cower and behave in the typical cinematic damsel style. Sigh. It makes it very hard to root for you, lady.

They do portray Margaret as very weak-spirited and unable to do much without help. There are obvious parallels between her and the victim-like waif children she paints. She first needs Walter's help, then she dives into numerology and seems to get some strength from that. Then, finally, she is visited by Jehovah's Witnesses and embraces that mindset as a way to find strength that she, as an individual, always seemed to lack. Her reason for taking Walter to court finally turned on whether or not the fraudulent way her paintings were marketed constituted "lying," which was a sin in Jehovah's eyes. She had separated from Walter by now and clearly, deep down, she had always wanted credit for her work. But that desire wasn't enough, she needed some other crutch to help get her willing and ready to fight for it.

It was, of course, very satisfying seeing Margaret finally wrest credit from her (by now) delusional, self-aggrandizing, control-freak parasite of an ex-husband. The courtroom scenes provide quite a few laughs, and the judge's no-nonsense approach to settling the matter is simple and to the point. He asks them both to paint, and only Margaret can. She walks out of the courtroom holding the finished big-eyed waif painting in one hand and her daughter's hand in the other. The transformation from weak to strong is supposed to resonate here, and it does. It almost makes me forgive the filmmakers for how she is portrayed for the first 98 minutes of the movie. Almost.

The second movie I saw this week about a married pair of artists was the somewhat depressing 2013 documentary Cutie and the Boxer, which follows the 40-year marriage of "boxing painter" Ushio Shinohara and his wife Noriko Shinohara. It was recommended by a friend and had a 96% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, so I was ready for a great flick. It was readily available on Netflix and so we were in luck.

It was not really a feel-good movie. It did not make one feel inspired or proud to be an artist, nor did it give the impression that artists marrying artists was a good idea. About fifteen minutes into the film my husband Robert said "I really do not like this guy."

The guy in question was 80-year-old Ushio, who we see in several ways: in the present day, as the somewhat doddering old man who has developed an allergy to alcohol but still puts on his paint-soaked boxing gloves and whacks at canvas in his cluttered Soho warehouse; then, in archive footage as a smiling younger rebel of an artist that whacks at canvas wearing boxing gloves and also hangs out with Andy Warhol; and, finally, in Noriko's painterly cartoons of him as a "true artist" who drunkenly carouses with friends, borrows money from her, and plunges her into an impoverished life where she has trouble raising their child.

Ushio's work is large and bold and bizarre, great big cardboard sculptures of spiked motorcycles and huge swaths of canvas filled with vivid streaks and splotches. He says at the film's start that Noriko is "just an assistant" and her job is to support the true genius. I wondered if he was just tongue-in-cheek kidding about that, the way old couples taunt each other. Rob thought he was dead serious.

"Please tell me I was never like that to you," he asked me as we watched. "Please tell me I was never like that to you!" I said back to him.
Ushio SMASH!

Noriko is shown as the ever-present wife, who bears many burdens but gets no credit for her accomplishments. She states outright that he has her only because he cannot afford to hire anyone to do all the things she does for him. The filmmakers animate her biographical cartoon drawings of "Cutie and Bullie," little representations of herself and her husband that tell the story of their courtship and difficulties according to her. Cutie is always naked in the drawings, she says, because she is so poor.

There is clearly resentment, and money trouble, and a question of whether Noriko has wasted her life on this man, this artistic soul she met when she was a 19-year-old student. The filmmakers do not try to simplify the complex relationship, nor do they candy-coat it. Every marriage is complex, but one would hope the good bits outweigh the bad. In this movie, I did not come away feeling that. They discuss their adult son's alcoholism, they live in a hoarder-like environment, and they are perpetually short on the rent. Through all this, Noriko seems to have a sense of grace and tired elegance. She is downtrodden but ladylike. Ushio smacks his food, quibbles with her, and cooks "celery hamburgers" for the family much like a child might. He does not drink anymore, but Noriko explains it was because he developed a medical intolerance for it. One wonders what the documentary would feature if he were still able to imbibe. Though Ushio is more than twenty years her senior, Noriko too has grey-white hair and the eyes of an octogenarian. "Living with that man has aged her before her time," Rob judged.
Noriko and Ushio in the gallery room featuring her larger painted versions of Cutie and Bullie. 

In the end, the film tries to frame Noriko as a victor of sorts. She gets to share a gallery show with her husband, where she displays large painted versions of her "Cutie and Bullie" cartoons. When going through the drawings with a friend, she states ominously that they cannot have a happy ending because that would not be the truth. At the show, though, she rationalizes that she would marry him all over again because she needed the suffering, for her art. And, as some kind of "happy ending" after all, the drawings she reproduces on the wall show Cutie triumphing over Bullie, getting a pair of red shoes to wear, and sitting on him as she wrests control.

And the end sequence is a kind of adorable slow-motion boxing match between the two, with Noriko landing every punch and coating her husband in bright paint.

I'm not sure Cutie did triumph over Bullie. I think she just waited him out. He grew old, he could no longer drink, and he became manageable. If this is a victory, I would say it's a victory won by the infinite capacity of woman to bear suffering gladly.

Some women. Me, personally, I would never have had the patience.

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