Based on a True Story: Big Eyes and The Theory of Everything

A new production of Don Giovanni opens at the Canadian Opera Company next week, followed shortly by Die Walküre.  Neither one bears the epithet “based on a true story”, as so many current films seem to (thinking for instance of three films I have yet to see: American Sniper, The Imitation Game and Selma).   As an opera fan & lover of all things theatrical, it’s predictable that my favourite film of the past year was Grand Budapest Hotel, a colourful larger than life piece of film-making that moved me as much the third time I saw it as the first.  It’s an adaptation of a novel.  Operas are almost always adaptations rather than true stories.

I suppose some of us have a lower tolerance for reality than others (I’m not about to see American Sniper anytime soon), which might at first glance suggest why I prefer opera.   The phenomenon of realistic storytelling is comparatively recent.  Yes there’s an opera called Louis Riel that the COC will be staging for the Canadian sesquicentennial in 2017.  John Adams wrote an opera about the Achille Lauro incident called The Death of Klinghoffer, as well as Nixon in China and Doctor Atomic (about Oppenheimer).  In the 18th century Don Giovanni may have seemed edgy, considering the behaviour captured in the opera.  And while Wagner in the middle of the 19th century dealt mostly in myth & symbol, his operas offer some of the most profound insights into human psychology at least until Freud & Jung appear on the scene.

I saw two films today that could have that epithet –“based on a true story”—somewhere in the trailer, namely Big Eyes and The Theory of Everything.  I can’t help thinking that nothing is all that different.  We’re still watching someone telling a story that purports to be real even as it clearly wanders into the realm of art.

At first glance Big Eyes seems to be a big departure for director Tim Burton, known for a highly symbolic visual style  in such films as Corpse Bride, Beetlejuice, Sleepy Hollow, and a pair of Batman movies starring Michael Keaton.  Other than his bizarre biography Ed Wood, Burton’s world is one of fantasy & imagination, not harsh realities.

Yet it fits beautifully.  As in Charlie & the Chocolate Factory, Ed Wood, Nightmare before Christmas or Corpse Bride, we’re exploring a kind of misunderstood or even misbegotten creativity.   Big Eyes is every bit as creepy as any of the gothic films.  Artist Margaret Keane is a perfect subject for Burton in her suburban superficiality, her wide-eyed waifs as creepy as something out of Edmund Gorey.  When husband Walter takes credit for her work, locking her away in a kind of artistic sweatshop, she may as well be a living breathing corpse bride.

Without offering any spoilers on the story, I can simply say that Burton seems to be less interested in showing real people and their emotions, than in evoking moments as surreal as zombies or ghosts.  The dichotomy in the film between the creative & commercial sides of art makes it somewhat heavy-handed in its approach to a story.  Perhaps this is progress for Burton as a film-maker, even though nuance is sacrificed.  Maybe he was responding to studio pressure to go with the realistic flow.  But I haven’t connected with a Burton film in awhile –this one included—since at least Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, a decade ago.

I wonder if it makes sense that I experienced Christoff Waltz’s portrayal of Walter Keane as a two-dimensional cartoon rather than a real person, an actor I’ve usually enjoyed in the past.  The part is written that way I suspect, as Waltz is caught in the crossfire of Burton’s critique of an industry that hasn’t always understood or sympathized with his vision, Walter Keane being like the embodiment of everything working against poor Tim Burton.   Amy Adams—nominated for an Oscar—gives a performance that’s very sympathetic alongside Waltz’s.

Unexpectedly I was much happier with James Marsh‘s The Theory of Everything, another film based on a true story. 

This time we’re only peripherally concerned with the newsworthy items –such as Stephen Hawking’s theories—and instead busy with the relationships at the heart of the film.  Eddie Redmayne’s performance persuaded me completely.  Yes we’re in the realm of disability drag, watching an actor portray a broad range of symptomatic behaviours.  This can be very difficult to enact, unbelievable to recreate.  I was very comfortable watching this film even as physics and physicality are cheek by jowl in this film.  Several times we’re pulled away from the objective portrayal into elements that are subjective, inviting us to identify with something impossible to experience.

Felicity Jones as Jane Hawking gradually asserts her place as the most important person in the film, but then again the film is really her story, as it’s her book that’s adapted.  The deeper we get into the story, the subtler the expressions from Redmayne (Stephen Hawking), making him harder to decode.  As a result we’re pushed further towards Jones for reactions, the drama often residing not so much in her husband’s condition as in her wonderful facial expressions in reaction: where the real drama is acted out.  Saintly as he may seem in the film, she’s pushed and provoked by her husband in various ways, leading an impossibly challenging life.  So of course the tale may be a bit self-serving –in its bias towards her—but that drama was unexpected and daring I felt.  All that was accomplished without compromising either, without making anyone a villain, although I’ve seen comments online suggesting that the film is unfair to her.  But then again films always face this kind of flak.  All three of the films I mention above ( American Sniper, The Imitation Game and Selma) have been challenged over their accuracy.

I love the musical subtexts in this film.  I can’t argue with Hawking’s taste in music, if the film is to be believed.  He’s listening in his Cambridge residence room to the opening bars of Die Walküre twice in the film, although never getting far enough for anyone to begin singing.  The third bit of Wagner is highly poetic as symbolism, the physicist having finally made it to a performance of the Ring, but then lapsing into a coma precisely at the most perfect evocation of physics in any opera; when Brunnhilde awakes to greet the sun in the last act of Siegfried, he falls unconscious.  I wonder if it really happened that way, although I know I’ve been to performances of that act when I also became unconscious (that is: asleep).

And the biggest laugh for me came when Jane Hawking’s mom takes her aside to offer her advice: and solemnly tells her to join the church choir.  I guffawed, even if it happens to be brilliant advice whether or not you’re overwhelmed with the demands of family.

I’ll be interested to see how the films are received at Oscar time.  I must search out their books (especially Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and Jane Hawking’s Travelling to Infinity – My Life with Stephen ).

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