Birdman

Quiet Please

birdmanBirdman walks a narrow line between utter cynicism and hope – in this case, the hope that art means something, and by extension, that our efforts to create, regardless of who’s going to consume the end result, are not in vain.  The film goes beyond a statement such as “If it’s important to you, it’s important” and explores what any of that even means.  When Sam (Emma Stone) delivers a histrionic tirade to her father, protagonist Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), which ends with her assertion that Riggan himself is completely irrelevant as an artist, a celebrity, a father, and a human being in general, we get the sense that somewhere inside, whether or not she knows it yet, Sam’s impetus is something gentler and benevolent.  Or maybe that’s the “hope” part.

Riggan was once a movie star who led popcorn superhero films that grossed billions of dollars and rendered Riggan a household name.  He left the franchise after three films, and twenty years later, he tries to redefine his career by directing and starring in a heavy-handed Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” (a Plato-esque story about couples discussing suicide, death, and spousal abuse).  Birdman‘s narrative covers a few days leading up to opening night, including several climactic preview performances.

If it weren’t such an unabashed black comedy and show-business satire, Birdman would be a pretty unique character study (and in some ways, it still is).  Besides trying to prove to the critics that he’s a real artist who isn’t wasting stage space, Riggan has almost no relationship with Sam due to his inattentive parenting and the fact that she’s been in rehab for drugs, something he has no clue how to address other than to yell at her when he smells weed in the room.  On top of that, he is often haunted by the voice of his old superhero character, the titular Birdman, who expresses disdain at this new artistic venture and insists that Riggan’s only real chance at a “comeback” is to do another superhero film.  When alone, Riggan levitates and uses telekinetic powers.  This is all played straight, but as the film goes on, one begins to wonder whether or not these things are actually happening (a scene in which Riggan flies over the city to reach the theatre, only to be immediately accosted by a cab driver who says Riggan owes him money, is particularly telling).  Riggan resists, however, and has some serious ideas about what it means to be an artist in spite of the Hollywood garbage that got him off the ground.  When the Birdman uses the billions of dollars Riggan once made as an incentive to do another movie, Riggan responds, “Billions of flies eat shit, too.  Does that make it good?”

Thankfully, Riggan isn’t the only character in the film with experience or an opinion (in fact, quite the opposite).  His foil for much of the film, at least as far as the artistic approach to adapting Carver’s story, is an aptly-named prima donna method actor called Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), who butts in about redundant writing and unimaginative blocking, and insists upon drinking real gin during the show.  Norton finally inhabits another character that he’s best with: a cool antihero whose abrasive personality and aggressive dogmatizing lend themselves so well to Norton’s ability to motormouth that many of his scenes with Keaton might as well be part of an ultra-stylized documentary.  Other vital characters include aforementioned Sam, who works as Riggan’s assistant; Lesley (Naomi Watts), an actress who stars opposite Mike; Laura (Andrea Riseborough), Riggan’s current girlfriend and also an actress; Jake (Zach Galifianakis), Riggan’s attorney; and Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan), a sharkish theatre critic who promises to “kill” Riggan’s play for the sole reason that she considers him a celebrity, not an artist.  Is Riggan’s sanctimonious smackdown speech (highlighting the cowardice of critics who lambast but do not create) a hallucination?  The film begs comparisons to Tom Stoppard, Charlie Kaufman, Armando Ianucci, but also warns against the ease of “comparing” in place of examining the thing in front of you.

Alejandro González Iñárritu directs the film as a handful of very long shots (whether manipulated in editing or not), which allows the viewer to experience the entirety of the story, hardly ever cutting to the next day, sticking closely to the experiences of every character (especially Riggan) during these important days.  Onscreen stress becomes real stress.  Conversations have to proceed and end naturally, not cut away when it’s convenient.  The theatre and the camera become characters themselves, one attempting to hold in (and occasionally expel) all of this chaos and emotion, the other deciding on a dime whom to follow, which people and moments are worth its attention.

On that note, every character is worth spending time with, but much like other films by male directors that center around an up-and-coming (or washed-up-and-trying-to-come-back) male character, Birdman tends to define its female characters by the men in the story (Lesley is Mike’s girlfriend, Sylvia is Riggan’s ex, Emma is Riggan’s daughter, Laura is Riggan’s girlfriend, etc.), and most of them, with the exception of Sam (one of the film’s strongest characters), the women mostly talk about pregnancy, heartbreak, and sex, and their conflicts are pure reactions to what the men do – for example, Lesley and Laura share an emotional scene together, which could have been more meaningful if 1) it hadn’t ended with a laugh, and 2) Iñárritu had put any stake into decisions that the female characters make, only after Mike nearly rapes Lesley onstage (unbeknownst to everyone else) as part of his attempt to find “truth” when acting.  The teary conversation between Lesley and Laura ends in an impulsive kiss, which is well-acted and convincing (and moreover not played for laughs), but which perpetuates an uncomfortable stereotype: that women turn to each other because they are abused and ignored by men.

The film’s cinematography and style seamlessly weave its themes into its character drama.  It’s not just a story about a funny midlife crisis or a spoof of self-important celebrity culture (although it has those things too); the careening up and down the hallways of the St. James Theatre constitutes the film’s own search for “truth,” mimicking (and perhaps sympathizing with) its characters.  Its world is so contained and defined that it doesn’t matter whether Riggan’s superpowers are real or a hint at his deteriorating mind; thematically, they represent, maybe, the thing that no one else is allowed to see, the things we all have but can’t “prove” to anyone (for Riggan, it’s a combination of fear of embracing the truth of his relationships with the fear of selling out).  It’s both Kafka-esque in its concern for the present, and Carver-esque in what its protagonist is drawn to do (and it uses foreshadowing like nothing else this year).  Its depth of intensity stems from Iñárritu’s (and the actors’) ability to convince you that a film about people searching for something profound already possesses something profound.  Its final scene is so good because it isn’t inevitable, and it resists the temptation to deliver the cheap “stinger” ending that many filmmakers would have used.  And what we’re left with, besides the lingering image of Emma Stone’s brilliant mug, is the question of whether Antonio Sánchez’s jazz drums are in our minds, or if there’s actually a drummer banging away in the halls of the St. James.

Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014); written by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., and Armando Bo; directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu; starring Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, and Edward Norton.

Anna Karenina

Divorce is one thing – dinner is quite another

KeiraKnightleyAnnaKarenina2

Tom Stoppard and Joe Wright’s film adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is what I would call different.  It’s different enough to provide a fresh, exhilarating film experience, but it only works one-hundred percent if you’re not much of a reader.

The story, set in 19th century tsarist Russia, follows Anna (Keira Knightley in yet another period piece) as she explores the question of her own happiness, a question whose answer seems to ever evade her grasp.  Her husband, Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), is practical, steadfastly religious, soft-spoken, and highly respected in society.  They have a son together and seem to get on just fine, until Anna lays eyes on Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and begins an affair with him during a trip to Moscow.  Karenin is relatively unmoved, as such concepts as “love” and “happiness” don’t hold much stock in his world, but he soon discovers that Anna is pregnant with Vronsky’s child, which is not only (according to Karenin) a “crime against God,” but also a threat to the family’s social and political standing.  The irony here is that the story begins with her coming to terms with her brother’s (Matthew Macfayden) womanizing, which threatens to break up the family.  Her own adultery is met with far less tolerance, and even when Vronsky brings her to St. Petersburg, the couple are unable to make friends, and as Vronsky develops his own social life, Anna becomes paranoid and possessive.

The parallel story involves Konstantin Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), a country landowner who loves Kitty (Alicia Vikander), sister to Anna’s sister-in-law, Dolly (Kelly Macdonald).  In the original story, his part is much larger, and his marriage to Kitty is anything but easy, whereas the film focuses more on Levin’s difficulty in courting Kitty – sure, this is important, but a novel of this size can’t be compressed, with all of its ins, outs, what-have-yous, character developments, emotions, and structures, into two hours. Additionally, some of the most important parts of the book involve epiphanies on the part of several characters, most of all Levin, who eventually decides, after doubting Kitty’s love for him and fearing a difficult relationship with his son, that he must live righteously in order to justify living at all.  Vronsky, amazed and embarrassed at Karenin’s strength of mind and heart when the latter forgives him for stealing his wife, unsuccessfully attempts suicide.  These pivotal scenes are omitted from the film.

In fact, the film does a bang-up job of sweeping any and all deep characterization under the proverbial rug.  Anna is depressive and indecisive, Karenin is righteous, Levin tries hard, Vronksy is foppish and irritable, Oblonksy is a funnyman, Dolly is understanding.  We never get much deeper than these traits, and the narrative focuses more on Anna’s manic dithering than any real growth on the part of the cast.

Where the film succeeds is its visual style: much of the story, particularly in the beginning, takes place on an enormous stage.  Single shots encompass multiple scenes, with the actors walking behind curtains and changing costumes in seconds.  Sometimes, they’re dressed by stage-hands right in front of us.  Many of the film’s discoveries take place in the theatre’s rafters, where the characters creep, ponder, and of course, in the end, leap.  This style is at the expense of never being unaware that you’re watching a scripted production, but for this piece, it inexplicably works.  The performances are mostly golden, with Jude Law radiating a reserved intelligence, Gleeson possibly finding a breakthrough as a hero, Macfayden managing to provide comedy within a tragedy, and Kelly Macdonald looking as though she’s about to cry in nearly every scene.  The only one I’m on the fence about is Keira Knightley.  Can she act?  Of course.  Was she cast in this film because she’s the best possible candidate to play Anna, or because her popularity following the Pirates of the Caribbean movies was the only ticket to getting a nationwide release?  I don’t know.  I would have been way more “with” Anna in the film version if Kelly Macdonald had taken up that role instead of Dolly, who is relegated mostly to the background.

I’m more concerned with the decision to leave out character details and depth, rendering many of the characters straw figures in fabulous clothing.  I cannot help but think this was a studio thing, or a knowing flourish on the part of the director – as classic and canonized as Tolstoy’s work may be (hell, I just had a student present on the author and this novel last week), as much as everyone should be looking at this material as an example of good art, there’s a dwindling interest (and we’re talking about the general public here, not writers and readers and thinkers) in anything that doesn’t involve fast cars, laconic dialogue, mushroom clouds, and traded gunfire.  Why does the work of Tolkien, work that’s been adapted to death, get a three-movie deal for a 317-page novel?  Anna Karenina, 864 pages, gets crammed into 2 hours of reel, and someone’s going to complain that it feels incomplete?  I’m sure Stoppard, who wrote and adapted his own play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, to film, had every intention of doing a faithful adaptation here.  But when it came down to it, there had to be a sacrifice.  Throwing character development in front of the train is an insane decision, but as we all know, there ain’t no sanity clause.

Anna Karenina (2012); written by Tom Stoppard; adapted from the novel by Leo Tolstoy; directed by Joe Wright; starring Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Kelly Macdonald, Domhnall Gleeson, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson.  

  • Calendar

    • October 2019
      M T W T F S S
      « Mar    
       123456
      78910111213
      14151617181920
      21222324252627
      28293031  
  • Search