‘Big Eyes’ spotlights the importance of integrity

“Big Eyes” (2014). Cast: Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzman, Danny Huston, Terence Stamp, James Saito, Madeleine Arthur, Delaney Raye, Jon Polito, Guido Furlani. Director: Tim Burton. Screenplay: Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. Web site. Trailer.

We’ve all no doubt been advised that “Honesty is the best policy.” Trite though the expression may be, it often rings true, especially if we try to pull a fast one, because the ramifications can be staggering. Indeed, it’s a lesson that comes home to roost in huge ways in director Tim Burton’s new fact-based comedy, “Big Eyes.”

In 1958, housewife, mother and aspiring artist Margaret Ulbrich (Amy Adams) decides to flee her abusive marriage in search of more tranquil surroundings and a fresh start. With her daughter Jane (Delaney Raye) in tow, Margaret abandons her life in suburban northern California in favor of San Francisco’s bohemian North Beach neighborhood. With the aid of her friend Dee-Ann (Krysten Ritter), the soon-to-be-divorced single mom quickly gets a new job and a new apartment, while spending her weekends promoting her paintings at local art shows.

To call Margaret’s paintings distinctive would be an understatement. She specializes in portraits of mostly sad, often-crying waifs with disproportionately enormous eyes, the so-called windows to the soul. The style is certainly singular, to be sure, albeit a bit kitschy. Yet, despite the portraits’ homespun look, Margaret paints from her heart, and her works slowly catch the eye (fittingly enough) of a growing number of fans.

At the same time, Margaret also catches the eye of a smooth-talking admirer, Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), a silver-tongued real estate broker and would-be artist. He woos the object of his affection, quickly capturing her heart – and her hand in marriage. Before long, Walter and Margaret Keane begin building a new life together.

Walter is quick to spot the popular appeal of Margaret’s work. As a natural salesman, he looks for ways to get exposure for her paintings. He first shops her works to a gallery owner (Jason Schwartzman) who specializes in upscale modern art – and who quickly rejects such low-brow efforts out of hand. So, as an alternative, he then seeks to get the paintings featured in a local jazz club, the hungry i, one of San Francisco’s hippest nightspots. With the assistance of club owner Enrico Banducci (Jon Polito), the high-profile promotion of newspaper gossip columnist Dick Nolan (Danny Huston) and the blessing of patrons like Dino Olivetti (Guido Furlani) of Olivetti Typewriter fame, the Keane name quickly rises to prominence in the commercial art world. There’s just one catch – the Keane claiming credit for the work is Walter, not Margaret.

Needless to say, the artist is dumbfounded when she witnesses her husband gleefully and unapologetically lap up the accolades for her paintings. However, after successfully arguing that people don’t buy “lady art,” in light of the portraits’ enormous success, Walter convinces Margaret that keeping quiet about the real identity of the artist is a small price to pay for their newfound fame and fortune. That burgeoning success comes not so much from sales of original works as it does from reproductions of the paintings sold as prints, posters and postcards, which quickly and ubiquitously find their way into supermarkets and other commercial venues. The Keane brand becomes an overnight retail sensation, forever transforming the commercial art marketplace.

In almost no time, Walter and Margaret are rolling in dough. But, as the years pass, Margaret grows increasingly uneasy with the deal she’s struck with her husband. She’s distraught that her efforts go unrecognized, especially when called upon to produce an ever-growing number of pieces. Even worse, though, she’s troubled that she has to lie about her works to those she cares about, most notably Dee-Ann and her now-teenage daughter (Madeleine Arthur). She itches to confess the truth, an urge that Walter swiftly squelches, citing the tremendous fallout that will result if their fraud is revealed. What’s more, Walter’s especially insistent about keeping up the front he’s so carefully crafted when “he” lands a commission for a mural to be displayed at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, an opportunity he sees as “his” crowning achievement.

As with any house of cards, however, the pretense cannot stand. When “Walter’s” mural is summarily panned by New York Times art critic John Canaday (Terence Stamp), he has a near meltdown, blaming Margaret for his failure. With their lives now in jeopardy, Margaret and Jane flee in fright, relocating to Hawaii. While seeking to put her life back together, Margaret is introduced to the teachings of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. She’s particularly inspired by the Witnesses’ message that one should never allow oneself to be taken advantage of by others. That lesson subsequently proves to be the spark Margaret needs to take her life – and her power – back, prompting her to take steps to set matters right. The big question, of course, is, will she succeed?

One need not be a conscious creation practitioner to see the chief message of this film – the importance of living life with integrity. However, when this principle is viewed through the lens of this philosophy, its relevance becomes ever more apparent. As anyone who ascribes to conscious creation knows, it’s essential that we operate from the standpoint of integrity as it’s crucial to effective implementation of the practice. To do otherwise is to invite calamity, as Walter and Margaret come to discover.

By not operating with integrity, the Keanes need to develop an elaborate program of covering their tracks. This involves everything from lying to others to keeping Margaret’s studio a secret, not even allowing those closest to her to have access to the space where the paintings come to life. In that sense, then, the impact of integrity (or the lack thereof) quickly spirals out of control, having effects on aspects of the couple’s lives that extend far beyond just those associated with fostering and perpetuating their art fraud scheme.

This shouldn’t come as any surprise, however, because, as conscious creators know all too well, when we manifest the reality we experience, we materialize the totality of it. The beliefs, thoughts and intents we employ for this thus stretch out across the expanse of our existences, impacting all aspects of them. And this occurs because, ultimately, all elements of our realities are inherently connected, whether or not we recognize that fact – or like it.

If Walter and Margaret were to follow their truest intents and approach the creation of their realities with unfettered integrity, it’s likely that they would have been able to achieve equal, if not greater, degrees of success, and they almost assuredly would have been happy with themselves and their efforts. In Margaret’s case, for example, this would have involved her painting her portraits and claiming full credit for them without hesitation. She would have been able to take pride and joy in her work, and the perks of success almost certainly would have followed.

As for Walter, he should have abandoned his unrealistic pipe dreams of becoming the artist he never was (nor would be). Instead, he should have whole-heartedly embraced his salesmanship skills, for he was a natural at it, as became evident even when carrying out his ruse. As it was, thanks to his innovative promotional tactics, he revolutionized marketing in the commercial art world, an impressive accomplishment in itself (no matter what one might have thought of Margaret’s paintings). But imagine what he might have been able to achieve if he had been totally up front about matters right from the start; he might not have died a broken and penniless soul, as he eventually did.

Such outside-the-box thinking is one of the chief aims of conscious creation, to surpass previously established limitations and push the envelope of manifestation, regardless of the milieu of materialized expression. In their own ways, Margaret and Walter did just that. But imagine what might have resulted if they had employed integrity as part of the mix. Their results just might have been even more astounding than what they achieved. In that regard, their story should serve as a cautionary tale to us all in terms of how we create our realities. Integrity wins the day in this practice, and we’d be wise to heed the wisdom of this advice.

“Big Eyes” is a fun cinematic romp from start to finish, with witty writing, terrific period piece production values and wonderful performances (especially Waltz in yet another of his superbly played Jekyll and Hyde roles). It’s also gratifying to see director Tim Burton produce a film that’s whimsical without being excessively manic, an approach he successfully used in such earlier works as “Ed Wood” (1994) and “Big Fish” (2003); it’s not essential to always go over the top in creating an enjoyable film, and it’s pleasing to see the director employ this formula once again (something he should do a little more often).

The film has fared well in this year’s awards competitions, earning Adams and Waltz Golden Globe Award nominations, respectively, for best comedy actress and actor. For its writing efforts, the picture’s script has earned an Independent Spirit Award nomination for best original screenplay. And, in the best original song category, the movie’s title cut has received nominations in the Golden Globe and Critics Choice Award contests. Admittedly the film faces stiff competition from a number of other strong contenders, but it’s heartening to see the picture capture the accolades that it has, regardless of whether or not it wins.

When we ponder the notion of integrity, we should bear in mind just how integral it truly is to the success of our manifestation efforts. The experience of Margaret and Walter Keane illustrates this idea with sparkling clarity, too. And, if Margaret’s contention that the eyes indeed are the window to the soul, then there’s no denying that fact when we gaze into the faces of her creations – or those of ourselves.

Copyright © 2014-2015, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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