31 January 2015

Birdman review: Mutually assured destruction

I saw Birdman two weeks ago and have just about recovered from it enough to write about it.

Briefly, I think it was brilliant and original, technically stunning, and makes you gasp and squirm and really invest in it emotionally. If you've read any reviews then you'll know it looks like it's all one continuous shot. Worth going just for that. It's about people doing a play, (on one level) - but it's a film that looks like a play and talks about theatre and art and truth. It also portrays madness and delusion. At one point it forces the audience to recognise their own minds' responses to violent action in a rude shock. 

Some reviews have talked about the character's "fractured pysche" (Empire) the multiple "collapsing walls - between character and actor, onstage and off, representation and reality" (NY Times) and the amazing performances and "thrill ride" of the film (RogerEbert.com). They all nod to the fact that the real life actors Keaton and Norton are reflecting aspects of their real careers and public reputations in these performances.

I want to talk about the outright, hard-assed verballing that goes on in this film. I saw it on a Saturday, the day after once again facing my own tendency of unwitting criticism towards the person I would most like to be close to, at a moment when I feel unloved.  I've been working on breaking this habit for ages, practicing identifying what's going on underneath before unleashing the barbs, and thought I was getting better. Sadly this time, something went quite wrong, and probably marked the end of the relationship. I still don't quite know why. So, grieving and Birdman on a hot Sunday arvo.

But enough about me. Onto this screenplay. 

I'm only a beginner in understanding story arc, pacing, structure, but a keen student. This film felt like it had a series of grenades in it -a set of one-to-one dialogues that were like bass beats, that broke up the movie into its main Acts. 

The exchanges most seared into my mind are:
  • The main lead character, Riggan Thompson (a 60 year old former action movie star) and the actor, Mike Shiner (a famous stage actor brought in to save the play).
  •  Riggan and his daughter, Sam who is recently out of rehab.
  • Riggan and the voice of Birdman (essentially his own inner monologue).  
  • Riggan and the NYT Film critic.

Folks, these characters are mean.  They say things that - if it were real life - would smash and shatter any bond you had with the human on the receiving end. Forever. I guess that's part of the thrill of working with a script. Holy moley, the pointed and destructive power of those words! I wonder how the screenwriter/s feel when they are getting that stuff down. Gleeful, cathartic, powerful,  shocked at the power of their own poison pen? Are they excited perhaps, or laughing at how close to the bone they can get, or do they feel a little disgusted that this stuff resides inside them.

To me, the thing that all these exchanges had in common was that they nailed the exact, worst fears the person under attack would have about themselves. If between real people, they would have taken still-healing emotional wounds and metaphorically reamed a butchers knife into them and opened them up bleeding and raw.

Perhaps it's just me and I'm too much of an empath. Perhaps other people just laughed and enjoyed that visceral pleasure of a real telling off (or truth telling in some people's eyes). Or maybe the writer is just characterising New Yorkers/ actors as the ultimate in hard-talking, pin pointed insulters, who can take kryponite verbal bullets, catch them in their teeth, spit them out and keep walking.

For studies sake, I've downloaded the screenplay to find a quote from each of these exchanges, and pinpoint what I reckon they are doing to their scene 'partner'. Spoilers from here on.

Screenwriter credit: Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., Armando Bo.
 Downloaded from here.

Between actors - I know your weak spot.
RIGGAN I have a lot riding on this play.
MIKE Is that right?
RIGGAN People know who I am, and--
MIKE Bullshit.
MIKE Bullshit. People don’t know you. They know the guy in the bird suit. They know the guy who tells those quaint, slightly vomitous stories on Letterman.
MIKE .. This doesn't work out for you, you get to go home to your studio pals and jump right back into that cultural genocide you guys are perpetrating. “There’s a douchbag born every minute”. That was P.T. Barnum’s premise when he got rich inventing the circus. And you and your pals know nothing’s changed, and whatever toxic shit you make people are still gonna pay to see it.

So by this stage, we've learnt Mike is an A-grade asshole from a previous scene. But he managed to pinpoint Riggan's worst fear- that he's not really an artist. In 76 words.

Father Daughter - mutually assured destruction
RIGGAN  It's important to me! Alright? Maybe not to you, or your cynical playmates whose sole ambition is to end up going viral and who, by the way, will only be remembered as the generation that finally stopped talking to one another. But to me... To me... This is-- God. This is my career, this is my chance to do some work that actually means something.

SAM Means something to who? You had a career before the third comic book movie, before people began to forget who was inside the bird costume. You're doing a play based on a book that was written 60 years ago, for a thousand rich, old white people whose only real concern is gonna be where they go to have their cake and coffee when it's over. Nobody gives a shit but you. And let's face it, Dad, it's not for the sake of art. It's because you just want to feel relevant again. Well, there's a whole world out there where people fight to be relevant every day. And you act like it doesn't even exist! Things are happening in a place that you willfully ignore, a place that has already forgotten you. I mean who are you? You hate bloggers. You make fun of twitter. You don't even have a Facebook page. You're the one who doesn't exist. You're doing this because you're scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don't matter. And you know what? You're right. You don't. It's not important. You're not important. Get used to it.

Triple whammy. This scene starts off as a potential reconciliation and acceptance (of the father's absence and the daughter's mistakes). But it changes up in an instance - to father voicing daughter's inner fear - of smallness, irrelevance - and daughter coming back with a bigger, more powerful arsenal, of total meaninglessness, after he's lived most of his life and can't start again - while hers is just beginning. 

A voice in your head -
BIRDMAN (V.O.) You were a movie star, remember? Pretentious, but happy...
[Riggan opens his eyes, slowly. A sad expression on his face.]
RIGGAN I was not happy.
BIRDMAN...Ignorant but charming. Now you are a tiny bitter cocksucker.
RIGGAN Shut up! Stop whining! I was miserable!
BIRDMAN (V.O.)Yeah. But fake miserable. Hollywood miserable.
[Riggan points his fingers at a lamp and sends it flying.]
BIRDMAN (V.O.)What are you trying to prove? Huh? That you’re an artist? You’re not.

This one was tough - Birdman is essentially Riggan's self-doubt speaking out loud. And it's the bluntest of all critics.  His self-esteem is trying to keep the upper hand and failing. It intensifies from this, go see it.

And here's one from the theatre critic, professional destroyer 
... why? Because I hate you. And everyone you represent. Entitled. Spoiled. Selfish. Children. Blissfully untrained, unversed and unprepared to even attempt real art. Handing each other awards for cartoons and  pornography. Measuring your worth in weekends. Well, this is the theater, and you don't get to come in here and pretend you can write, direct and act in your own propaganda piece without going through me first. So, break a leg.

Just prior to this she declared "I am going to destroy your play". Riggan does fire back with a similarly scathing responses about her self worth, I don't want to transcribe all the most intense parts. Holy smoking character assassination, batman.

So in summary, these exchanges to me are the the throbbing, bleeding heart of this film. Each time one happens, the pressure ratchets up a notch, towards the denouement. I don't know what that means for us, and for the fact that it won awards. In some comedies these kind of brutal attacks get the audience weeping with laughter - in a catharsis to our own frustrations and anger towards some comic 'enemy' or barrier to getting fulfillment. Birdman is painfully funny in parts, but these monologues aren't played for laughs.

I'm torn between thinking it is a commentary on how not to live your life (for anyone, not just performers and creative people); essentially a forensic case study in the destructiveness of unchecked criticism and "truth telling". Or perhaps some kind of kinky celebration of harsh truths, tough love, and perversely shining a bright light on all your failures and self doubt in order to excoriate them, and push on through to the other side. Did you see it? What do you think?

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