Tuesday, November 11, 2014

DAYS OF FUTURE PASSED: Christopher Nolan, INTERSTELLAR, and Life's Waking Dream



(SPOILERS throughout)

Can awe exist in the modern era?  I’m not talking about what might be passed off as awe, the ubiquitous exchange of “awesome” in the modern vernacular as catch-all signifier of everything from great to okay.  And you can throw out the breathless sense of poptimism (as Saul Austerlitz discussed in the Times) that dominates the cultural conversation, the bastard child of corporate brand cheerleading that deems anything presented as good to be life-changing.  No, what we’re getting at here is awe in the truest sense of the word, that feeling of total reverence, of standing before something far greater than you, of witnessing (to borrow an old biblical turn of phrase.)  I think back to the breathtaking passage from the final page of The Great Gatsby, in which a deflated and disillusioned Nick Carraway, reflecting on Gatsby’s lost dream, opines that  “for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an √¶sthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”

In a celebrated 2011 essay for the Daily Beast, Bret Easton Ellis argues that we’re living in a post-empire age, one in which a combination of factors (the internet, the increasingly fractured streams of media, the natural evolution of society) has brushed away the old rules for how we treat stars and celebrities (and, by extension, any authority figure.)  He uses Charlie Sheen’s epic meltdown as the impetus for his theory, that in past decades Sheen might have been blackballed from the industry, but that our new expectations for someone like him require far less reverence than that which might have consigned him to the cultural dustbin years ago.  Ellis has also discussed how Madonna and Miley Cyrus epitomize the pre- and post-empire dichotomy.  Ms. Ciccone ruled the cultural conversation for several decades, in part by cultivating an imperial imperial air of regal dominance, whereas Miley offers a much rawer, erratic sense of pop royalty.  To Ellis, a codified sense of tawdry, airless elegance was part and parcel of the sexuality that Madonna sold.  Miley’s bizarre, awkward stabs at selling sex to a mass audience completely abandoned that icy veneer, thrusting her sexuality into consumers’ faces (sometimes literally.)

Now whether you buy into Ellis’s theory or not, you have to admit that his main point has some validity.  As I discussed in last week’s essays on Birdman and Nightcrawler, Hollywood has slowly been abandoning the classic star system for the past few decades.  In part, this has been a side effect of the 24-hour news cycle, the mirage of transparency that social media bestows upon public figures, and the increased post-Nixon cynicism with which we view institutions of all stripes.  But deconstructing how stars are made also offers great financial benefits for movie studios which are now subsidiaries of multi-national corporate conglomerates.  Despite the occasional flare-up over the casting of, say, Ben Affleck as the new Batman, most modern blockbusters are no longer selling the star, but the concept.  Did everyone flock to see Captain America: The Winter Soldier because they’re in love with the mystique of Chris Evans?  Did it really matter to the bottom line of the latest Transformers film that Mark Wahlberg played the lead?  Not really.

Sure, there are still exceptions to the rule (Robert Downey assimilating Tony Stark into his own persona), and getting non-superhero films bankrolled still requires name recognition.  But the move toward a tentpole-centric film world has greatly reduced the need for the eccentric, oft-tempermental, brilliant star hierarchy of Nicholson, Cruise, Beatty, Streep, et al.  Toss in a press that is more splintered and far less reverential than in the ‘40s and ‘50s and you can see why there aren’t any Gary Coopers, Humphrey Bogarts, Lauren Bacalls, or Clark Gables before which we can stand in awe. 

And so, we exist in a modern movie landscape which paradoxically strives for awe at every turn, yet undermines much of that which established the mythology of awe for most of its existence.  The bulk of the industry is now defined by a feast or famine ethos, in which blockbusters (most designed to appeal to a worldwide audience, especially China, because that’s where the real money is these days) dominate the production slate, while anything smaller that gets pushed through the studio machine usually features a miniscule budget.  And because of that fractured media landscape, we have much fewer cultural commonalities, making it that much more difficult for any film, album, etc. to hold onto the mass conversation for a sustained period of time.

Which makes what Christopher Nolan has done in the since 2001 all the more impressive and intriguing.  In an environment where the ways of old media (as some might call it) are disappearing, Nolan has managed to tap into the zeitgeist like few other modern filmmakers with almost all of his cinematic creations.  Granted, a good deal of this has been due to his shepherding of the wildly successful Batman franchise reboot; redefining a character who despite his very non-superpowered status (but also very much because of it) has deeply resonated in the culture for 75 years now isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel.  But what Nolan has accomplished hasn’t just involved coasting along on Bruce Wayne’s billionaire back.  He’s consistently tapped into who we are and who we’ve become.  And why.  And much of that why dates back to the turn of the century and a scene from a blockbuster come to all too horrific life.

Before its release in 1997, I remember a local film critic, in casual conversation, describing the Nicolas Cage action vehicle Con Air as “Jerry Bruckheimer crashes a plane into the Las Vegas strip.”  In retrospect, that phrase sums up a lot of what the blockbuster mentality had evolved into: a signature setpiece or effect, surrounded by the journey to get there.  The fevered anticipation of how the dinosaurs would look in Jurassic Park, the masochistic romanticism of seeing the boat sink in real time in Titanic, the transgressive thrill of seeing aliens blow up the White House in Independence Day: all of them held the promise of the mind-blowing main event.  I’m also reminded of a Ringling Brothers circus tour stop I attended in the late ‘80s, one which promised, if you could sit through the already amazing feats of physical prestidigitation, the appearance of a real live unicorn!

Now when the real mind-blowing trompe le monde effect showed up on September 11, 2001 in the form of two jets obliterating the World Trade Center, even with all of our filmic training, we didn’t quite know how to react.  From a cultural standpoint, 9/11 arrived at the crux of the great transition to a post-empire world, and it provided one of the last great moments of awe that we’ve experienced in a mass sense.  As jaded by empire culture as we could be at that point, the sight of actual super-sized devastation and carnage couldn’t be easily processed or quantified.  Just talk to anyone connected with that day, especially those who were in Manhattan; they still struggle to express what happened in words.  As a pre-9/11 culture, we were chasing after the rapidly receding ability to experience true awe, and on that day, we got exactly what we wished for.  Nothing since then has been able to replicate its obscene spectacle.  Ironically, the proclamations of Bush administration officials that another mass attack was not a matter of if but when now seem to mirror the desires of the culture at large for communal transcendence, like the junkie’s desire to return to the magic of that first hit.  It was the eternal symbiosis of Eros and Thanatos come to life once again, the destructive tragedy of that September day intertwined with the fleeting unity that a country headed for even further fracturing in the new technological age felt.

MINDS ARE SUBJECT TO WHAT SHOULD BE DONE.  PROBLEMS SOLVED, TIME CANNOT BE WON.
Ironically, Nolan prefigured the coming catastrophe and its aftermath earlier in 2001 when his second film Memento debuted in theaters.  In Leonard Shelby, a man haunted by his wife’s death (and by the possibility that he inadvertently caused it), he prefigured the profound sense of guilt that the culture would feel during that epic 9/11-centric struggle between Eros and Thanatos.  Leonard’s Sisyphean mission to find his wife’s supposed killer gives him meaning and purpose in a seemingly random and nihilistic world.  His quest mirrors the Fairbairnian level of splitting that consumed the American psyche after the World Trade Center attacks, and the pursuit of that grandest of all boogeymen, Osama bin Laden.  Before his death at the hands of Navy SEALS, bin Laden gave the country something long absent from the national conversation: a supervillain, one easily defined (or stereotyped) in the midst of a morally complex universe.  But like Leonard’s denial of his possible role in his wife’s death, we also failed to incorporate the long history of American imperialism and its bloody consequences into our understanding of where we now stood.  And like Leonard, we were all too apt to see an enemy around every corner, to fill our Most Wanted dance card with whomever might fill the description on that day.  As tortured as Leonard may be, his inability to form new long term memories also serves as the ultimate security blanket, complete and utter validation for his actions.  How we too found the same validation in our unwillingness to consider the darkness of our past; we seem to do this with every new disaster of the last few decades, mourning how we’ve “lost our innocence” again and again, becoming de facto born again virgins only to be violated again and again.

Memento was only the beginning of Nolan as the chronicler of our psychic condition.  Indeed, with Batman Begins, he firmly established himself as the premiere guilt artist of the 21st century’s cinematic landscape, possibly the artistic landscape.  For what is Bruce Wayne/Batman but a man who has defined his life by the death of his parents, the original sin that forever scarred a young boy with the notion that life cared not for any sense of order or justice.  Wayne’s philanthropy is one attempt to grant grace and order to the universe, but it’s only through assuming the mantle of Batman that he feels he can truly impose that order by force, even though (as the final scene of Begins implies) that escalation of justice only leads to an escalation of the criminal element.  The emphasis on gritty realism in its tone also marked Batman Begins as a reminder of post-9/11 sobriety, a rejoinder to the late ‘90s tech-boom decadence of Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin, and a parallel to the newfound worship of the supposed real heroes (the armed forces, the police) who did battle against the dreaded “other”, this time in the form of those foreign agents of malice.   

NIGHT HAS NOW BECOME DAY FOR EVERYONE
It was all prologue to the chaotic machinations of The Dark Knight, which confirmed Batman’s status as both agent of change and bringer of destruction.  The Joker serves as the very embodiment of our fantasies about bin Laden and his ilk, operatic antagonists wholly defined by nihilism, by their desire to, as Alfred puts it, “watch the world burn.”  There’s such terror in that blank moral notion, but also such a sense of reassurance.  Obliteration of that central villainous entity, distant as it may be, can only lead to ultimate redemption, right?  Cut off the head of the snake, etc. etc.  But as we were reminded when bin Laden retreated and the main sect of Al Qaeda crumbled, the legend remains longer than the man.  Al Qaeda was less Brotherhood of Evil Mutants (to mix my comic book metaphors), more prime franchise opportunity for the lost and disgruntled.  Nolan captures this conflicted mindset in the Joker/Batman dynamic, the Dark Knight pushing harder and harder to reestablish order, while his archenemy continually annihilates the rules.  Fans of the film know the mantra of legend that the film bestows on Batman, a mantra that was repeated until The Dark Knight Rises showed it to be the main thrust of the series.  But it’s easy to forget the final shot of Heath Ledger as the Joker.  As he hangs upside down from the framework of a skyscraper, it’s the camera that tilts upside down to accommodate his fleeting glee and laughter.  For even though he’s headed for the confines of Arkham Asylum (and, in lieu of Ledger’s real life death, an extended moratorium as a screen character), The Joker has permanently changed the conversation.  There’s no going back from the moral and ethical boundaries that Batman has transgressed in order to achieve what could lightly be termed as a win, and there’s no resurrecting Rachel Dawes or the other casualties from his crusade.  We’re all now in a world turned upside down.  It’s a point that many missed in their rush to define the film as a justification of the Bush-era torture program.  Batman may survive, The Joker may be temporarily harnessed, but the damage is done.  And the guilt that so motivated Batman has only been exponentially increased by the collateral damage of a righteous mission.

Though it serves as the triumphant climax to the Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises is even more a chronicle of guilt and lost dreams than its predecessors.  Time has not provided Bruce Wayne with healing, only the confirmation of his physical and mental deterioration.  Alfred laments his failed promise to Bruce’s parents to always take care of him, the righteous quest to which his charge has devoted so much of his life a no-win endgame.  Bruce’s would-be noble sacrifice at the conclusion of Dark Knight has only led to an escalation of the morally compromised version of law enforcement that he inspired.  And who finally steps in to replace him but the real champion that the people of Gotham need in Bane, the pied piper who leads the proletariat in their uprising against the city’s 1%.  An explicit reference to the Occupy movement, it still doesn't provide any kind of easy comfort to the real life social cause, as trading Batman for Bane only makes the protestors more susceptible to deception and manipulation.   So much is made of the possibility for reform in Nolan’s first two Batman films, the chance that the inherently corrupt Gotham can be saved from itself.  But despite small victories throughout, the future that Batman envisions can never truly be.  The most he can hope for is a respite from insanity, salvation from the city’s original sin coming in a diverted nuclear blast and the passing of his mantle to a younger crusader.  Even though the viewer is left on a high note at the film’s conclusion, it’s really a direct line (and partial tribute) to the dystopian Dark Knight of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, a broken man in a society ruled by anarchy (and the supposed inspiration for Affleck’s Batman in Batman v. Superman.)

BEAUTY I’D ALWAYS MISSED WITH THESE EYES BEFORE.  JUST WHAT THE TRUTH IS, I CAN’T SAY ANYMORE.
But sandwiched in between the final two Batman films is Nolan’s deepest meditation on guilt, and what is likely to become the defining film of the early 21st century zeitgeist.  With Inception, he strains Vertigo through James Bond to illustrate the wrenching necessity of letting go of crippling guilt, no matter what heights it seems to lift you toward. (Even the usually unflappable Bond had his turn in the guilt cycle with Quantum of Solace.)  Stuck in that Hitchcockian spiral of shame, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Dom Cobb may be the master thief of master thieves, but his dead wife is literally the ghost that haunts his soul.  In the post-financial crisis atmosphere of 2009 in which Inception was released, it’s appropriate that Cobb’s crew has, as their central mission, the rewiring of another guilt-stricken man in order to prevent a monopoly that could destabilize much of the world economy.  Like Cobb, the nation had to come to some sort of peace with post-9/11 guilt in order to face the practical fiduciary disaster at hand. 

And yet, the film is still infused with an overwhelming sense of melancholia, the clinical status of vertigo (the concurrent repulsion and attraction to uncontrollable falling) figuratively exemplified in the doomed romanticism of Cobb’s obsession, literally so in a climactic sequence in which the center truly cannot hold, as the conjoined inner turmoils of Cobb and Robert Fischer send the physical space of the dream world into collapse.  Eros and Thanatos are allowed concrete manifestation in the subconscious, a safe psychic playground for the troubled.  But as the film’s conclusion leaves ambiguous, is it possible to come back from the whirlpool of existential dread, even when harmony is seemingly achieved?  If Nolan’s Batman films argue that there’s no return from some journeys, might Inception also posit that while necessary, our settling of the post-9/11 debt doesn’t necessarily equate a return to our old selves, let alone an achievement of the salvation that we seek?

So many lost dreams for these characters.  So many lost dreams for all of us.  The end of the 20th century brought with it the aspiration for what Francis Fukuyama famously dubbed “the end of history.”  No more cold wars.  No more communist threat.  The real possibility of global semi-harmony, or at least a workable hegemony by the major nations.  But beneath those dreams and aspirations lurked the monster at the end of the century, a two-headed beast of terrorism and financial collapse that we didn’t want to quite own up to, but that would eventually hold sway over all nonetheless.

The grand trick that Christopher Nolan has managed to pull off (gad, we haven’t even discussed The Prestige) is to engage the culture at large in a mass catharsis for the post-9/11 nightmare, while simultaneously chasing after the aforementioned lost sense of awe.  Taking the dual nature of intimate character study and action film that was the heart of Blade Runner as inspiration, he’s crafted blockbuster films that push for a certain cultural transcendence (apologies to Wally Pfister) while still telling intensely human stories.  As his career has progressed, he’s upped the ante with each film, the Batman series beginning as down and dirty creation story before reaching operatic proportions with its finale.  Inception seeks to reclaim the mantle of action blockbuster from the Bruckheimer school of empty spectacle by reversing course and going for the interior, an epic cinematic world of wonder that takes place entirely inside one man’s head.  It gives him full license to bend the laws of physics, to invoke the jaw-dropping awe that audiences might have once felt so long ago.  And he’s quested after this lost awe in a remarkably earnest fashion; his decidedly mass market films are free of the cynical manipulation that’s all too common in a hyper-focus grouped era.  They’re the work of a romantic, a dreamer seeking to resurrect the collective dream state that we all strive for when we gaze through the cinematic window for a few all too brief hours.

YESTERDAY'S DREAMS ARE TOMORROW'S SIGHS
Which brings us to Interstellar, his latest salvo and most explicit attempt yet to summon forth an unbridled sense of awe.  It’s a film awash in dying dreams, lost dreamers and the possibility (once again) that we can reclaim those dreams, those forgotten futures in some way.  If Inception advocated for coming to terms with the ghosts of 9/11, Interstellar presents the world that we’re left with after that resolution.  As in real life, that once great symbol of transcendent human progress, NASA, has long since been gutted by budget cuts, partly so that the shrinking world can focus on the global food shortage that is slowly choking humanity.  In his most explicit nod to pastoral realism, Nolan presents a nightmare world where dreams of the future and dreams of the past are both verboten.  Long gone are the dreams of a science fiction future of streamlined spaceships, fashionable flight suits, and ray gun battles. Even the fully realized visions of the past are obliterated; officially sanctioned schoolbooks certify the moon landings as a total sham.  All that matters is the hustle of the moment, the need to figure out some way of prolonging our existence for at least a few more years.

In the tradition of guilt-ridden Nolan protagonists, Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper laments his failures as a pilot, while yearning for the days when dreams were still possible, still sanctioned.  And as the story progresses, he’s driven by the guilt of abandoning his family in the name of chasing after those dreams of the past.  But the biggest difference between Cooper and Bruce Wayne or Leonard Shelby or Dom Cobb is in McConaughey himself.  Bale, DiCaprio, and Pearce all share matinee idol looks, but they’ve also made careers out of playing tortured protagonists.  With his effortless cool and quasi-zen nonchalance, McConaughey is the polar opposite of his Nolanverse contemporaries.  Even in heavier recent fare like Killer Joe and Dallas Buyer’s Club, his charm and confidence carry the day.  He’s the perfect leading man for a film that strives to follow 2001: A Space Odyssey in going beyond the infinite.

Kubrick’s film is a key text in placing Interstellar on the cinematic and philosophical continuum.  In describing his admiration for 2001, Nolan once told Empire magazine that “It just has that sensory stimulation of pure cinema that speaks to people of all ages”.  He’s clearly aiming for the same experience with this film, as once the crew of scientific saviors leaves earth, we’re bombarded with extended scenes of the wonders of weightlessness, and of the fascination of traversing the outer limits of space.  Nolan has been open about not using green screen technology for the space scenes, an attempt to recapture awe not only for the audience but for his actors as well.  He even tries to trump Kubrick’s vision by introducing a wormhole in the second act, then raising the stakes with a trip through Gigantor (!) the black hole at the film’s climax.  In the end, Cooper’s realization that our future, more evolved selves have been sending messages back to prompt us to raise ourselves up from disaster is a nod to Dave Bowman’s stargate voyage and subsequent attainment of the new flesh.  And like Bowman, Cooper’s consciousness-shredding black hole voyage begins with a macro vision of mind-blowing awe, before ultimately settling on the micro personal experience as final stop before the grand revelation.

But whereas Kubrick’s interest was in exploring the outer regions of the imagination with characters who remain ciphers throughout, Nolan’s aim once again is in telling a small scale story against the grand backdrop of epic adventure.  And that story, of fathers guilt-ridden over the betrayal of their offspring, closely mirrors the quandary of modern existence, where we must all gaze at the next generation, and the generation after, and tell them that we’ve strip-mined their future for our temporary gains. 

That’s not to say that the small scale story dominates the cinematic experience of Interstellar.  Nolan, ever the cinema purist, has once again shot and edited a feature on film, and heavily promoted its 70mm and 35mm advanced screenings.  His aspirations for the large format experience are on full display in a soundtrack (and, depending on the format, the sound mix) that is often overwhelming.  Some might call it harsh, but it jibes with Nolan’s artistic philosophy of requesting an equal effort from the audience, a desire to both engage with the film and to give themselves over to the pure cinema aspects of the production.  That’s a dangerous method in today’s instant fulfillment culture, but for the willing the experience can be deeply moving.

SOME TRY TO TELL ME THOUGHTS THEY CANNOT DEFEND. JUST WHAT YOU WANT TO BE, YOU WILL BE IN THE END.
And it’s in this grandest of all his cinematic statements that Nolan finally comes out the other end of the wormhole with a message of explicit hope.  The flawed victories of the Batman films and Inception have become iconic, and their ambiguity leaves the films settled as some of the truly gigantic mass market thought pieces of this early century.  As Cooper jets off for a reunion with Brand (Anne Hathaway), Interstellar plants the seed of some of that previous ambiguity (or maybe just the seeds of a sequel), but the human race has still been undeniably saved from its own annihilation.  It’s only through connecting with who we may become some day, while also looping back through our dreams of old, that humanity in the film can aspire to progress, transcendence, a return to awe.  It’s the reclamation of dreaming as integral part of existence.  It’s a moral statement that the visions of the future that we once had aren’t completely lost to time.  It’s also proof positive that Matthew McConaughey just can’t lose.  But that’s another story for another day…and another space flight.     

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Did You Hear About the Midnight Rambler?: NIGHTCRAWLER's Heart of Darkness





(Nightcrawler SPOILERS ahead)

It’s High Irony Week here at JASON STAEBLER IS DEAD.  Or at least it’s turned out to be so.  In the midst of my recent essay on the merits of Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu’s Birdman, I failed to mention one of the great unintentional (?) moments of synchronicity at the screening I attended at a local AMC branch.  Before their films, the theater plays the now-standard batch of commercials and pseudo-promos for all sorts of upcoming films, tv shows, cell phones, erectile dysfunction lollipops, etc. followed by the official-type trailers.  And so, in retrospect, it was entirely fitting that one of the final ads before Birdman (a film about a Hollywood actor’s quest for authenticity and redemption on the New York stage, and the concurrent loathing by the local stage and journalism veterans for said tactic) was for a Fathom Events one night only videocast of James Franco’s much-reviled turn in the recent Broadway run of Of Mice and Men.  Insert joke about Franco’s particular brand of meta-meta-humor and its far-reaching power over the ads placed before the year’s most prominent meta-narrative film. 

But brother, it wasn’t until yesterday afternoon that I realized the extent of this pre-show promo reel’s wicked power.  And all it took was Jake Gyllenhaal to help me make the connection.

In the tradition of other notable Lonely Guy Broodingly Drives the Streets of Los Angeles flicks like The Driver, Drive, and Collateral, Nightcrawler can, at first blush, come off like more of the same.  There’s the enigmatic cypher of a leading man in Louis Bloom (Gyllenhaal), the would-be audience surrogate/voice of conscience in Louis’s intern turned accomplice Rick (Riz Ahmed), the L.A. cops hot on the trail of the encroaching corruption (including former Wire matron Michael Hyatt…and you KNOW that if Brianna Barksdale is after you, you’re in trouble).  And, of course, there’s the gritty neon jungle of the city at night, a character in its own right (see Thom Anderson’s Los Angeles Plays Itself for a comprehensive chronicle of this rich on-screen tradition).  But there’s more going on here than a simple rehash of the past.

After penning a string of films (including his brother Tony’s Bourne Legacy), Dan Gilroy embarks on his maiden directorial voyage having dealt with his share of damaged male egos.  But his work on Tarsem Singh’s The Fall might be the most instructive in charting his aim in Nightcrawler, as those aforementioned well-worn Los Angeles tropes are distorted through a nightmare filter that dissipates the calculated cool of bravado of Cruise, Foxx, and Gosling.  As detailed in Tad Friend’s recent New Yorker article, Gilroy drew much of his initial inspiration from the exploits of tabloid legend Weegee, so collaborating with longtime Paul Thomas Anderson DP Robert Elswit allows him to plum similar depths of lurid, transgressive glamor. 

In outings like There Will Be Blood, 8MM, Syriana and Michael Clayton (another Tony Gilroy production)  Elswit displayed a master’s aptitude for manipulating deep blacks, heavily borrowing from the prime 70’s aesthetics of the original Prince of Darkness, the late Gordon Willis.  But in films like Magnolia and The Town, he also employs a gliding dynamism that counterpoints the enveloping darkness.  The full range of his visual palate is on display in Nightcrawler.  Louis’s nocturnal stalking (Gilroy has compared him to a coyote coming down from the hills to hunt his prey) feels utterly menacing, greatly abetted by the deadened ash lighting reflecting off of Gyllenhaal’s emaciated face (he lost 30 pounds to play the role.)  But just as the noir atmosphere threatens to swallow the characters, the camera circles Louis’s car as he plots his next move, and then we’re off on one of many car chases on the way to the next crime scene.  And one of the standout sequences of the film (both from a visual and story standpoint) comes in what might be its most sustained brightly lit scenes, as the camera glides along with Louis as he himself glides through the posh mansion where a triple homicide has taken place.  The whole thing is a visual tour de force; much like Weegee’s oeuvre, you’re alternately seduced and repelled by what you see.



But Nightcrawler’s dark beating heart is Gyllenhaal, channeling a bit of Norman Bates and a whole lotta Rupert Pupkin as the ultimate opportunistic husk that is Lou Bloom.  Like Pupkin, almost no background info is provided for Louis; he simply appears in the first scene, lifting copper pipe and chain link fences from a construction site, assaulting a private security guard and stealing his watch, and hustling his ill-gotten wares to another construction site.  And like Pupkin, his sponge-like nature defines him more than any other trait.  It’s appropriate that the first shot of Nightcrawler is an empty billboard at night, for Louis is that same blank canvas, waiting for something, anything to fill him out.  Throughout the film, he spouts almost nothing but business school bromides and motivational speaker greatest hits.  As he tells Rene Russo (who plays Nina, the aging program director at the lowest rated of the local network affiliates), he spends all day on his computer, absorbing information, soaking up whatever will fill the hollow center where his soul should be.

In my aforementioned Birdman essay, I examined the career crossroads at which Edward Norton arrived, when Hollywood culture began to alter its strategy for starmaking.  Jake Gyllenhaal is a prime example of the new star system, fraught as it is with tone-deaf corporate philosophy.  After his breakout role in Donnie Darko, Gyllenhaal bumped around in smaller films for a few years before being thrust into the blockbuster game with The Day After Tomorrow.  Eventually, Hollywood made a big bet on him as the pumped up lead in Prince of Persia, but that logic displayed a fundamental misunderstanding of his eccentric base appeal.  He’s played hunky alpha-male in several films since, but his best work has taken full advantage of his Karloffian brow, his slightly off-kilter voice, and his penetrating eyes.  David Fincher recognized this when he cast Gyllenhaal as intrepid boy detective Robert Graysmith in Zodiac.  Ostensibly the hero of the piece, Graysmith is mostly a frustrated cartoonist, opportunistic at every step, obsessive to the point of destroying his family life.  And as Robert Downey’s Paul Avery notes several times, he’s more of a creepy kid who keeps looming over him, and just not that likeable of a person. 

But it took his collaborations with Denis Villeneuve to draw out some of Gyllenhaal’s most fascinating work.  In Prisoners, he appears to return to beefcake roles as the brooding, taciturn Detective Loki.  But in his pursuit of two missing girls, it’s revealed that the muscular exterior is just a disguise for a damaged, obsessive man within.  Enemy pushes things further, with Gyllenhaal’s Adam a somewhat pedestrian community college instructor who thinks that he’s discovered his doppleganger.  I won’t give away much about the plot, but the dark night of the soul that Gyllenhaal enters to play thee two characters is both enthralling and horrifying, and totally lacking in movie star gloss.

If Enemy is the dark night of one man’s soul, Nightcrawler presents an endless night in the absence of a soul.  That 30 pound loss hollows out Gyllenhaal’s face so that his already probing eyes become eerie and monstrous.  And he accentuates this creepiness by playing Lou as a wide-eyed believer in his own bullshit.  There’s an edgy, erratic edge to his performance (“feral” as Gilroy put it) as he repeatedly shows himself incapable of anything resembling a human conversation.  When Rick and Nina try to engage him on a purely personal level, he rebuffs them with his savant-level rat a tat tat patter, reminding them that everything in his life is a move toward another level of success.

And this is where we finally come back to that AMC pre-show promo reel.  Because it took me a second trip in a week to appreciate the full impact of another ad in that reel, one which points toward what Nightcrawler is really getting at.  The ad itself is a finalist for Sprite’s 2014 student film competition.  Dubbed What We Need (you can view it here), it presents a mini-manifesto for the 21st century, as its hip young characters speak of people telling them that things aren’t like they used to be (the implication is job security and stability), but how that’s great because it’s their time, their chance to make their own opportunity.

On the surface, Nightcrawler plays as a grandson of Network in its harsh indictment of the media.  Nina is Diana Chistensen once she’s aged into Max Shumacher, desperate to remain relevant even as she retains her cutthroat tabloid edge.  It’s her impending sweeps period job insecurity that allows Lou’s most heinous crime scene exploitations to take place, and which bankroll him into pseudo-celebrity status.  (Credit, too, to Kevin Rahm as beleaguered news director Frank Kruse.  Between this and his role as Teddy Chaugh-guh-guh on Mad Men, he’s cornering the market on being exasperated at the machinations of cutthroat ciphers.)  And much as The King of Comedy commented on the modern toxicity of fame by ironically celebrating Rupert Pupkin’s achievements, Nightcrawler plays Lou at his worst in thrilling fashion.  Two of his most morally egregious episodes are backed by soaring, fist-pumping music, and the climactic car chase is so expertly cut that you’re momentarily fooled into morphing Lou into Frank Bullitt.

And all of this is part and parcel of the film’s message.  But after the show, I kept coming back to that Sprite ad (viewable here.)  Because at heart, Louis Bloom is the ideal, the avatar of the modern corporate, Silicon Valley, bullshit quasi-Libertarian imperative.  It’s no knock on Merlin Camozzi, the ad’s director, but in this unstable economy, he’s inadvertently advancing the hype that Zuckerberg, Brin, Page, and other Palo Alto bigwigs have been pushing for years.  In their worlds, we’re all  freelancers, hustling 24/7, willing to constantly take the initiative at all costs.  In this technocratic dream, we must always be innovating, disrupting, and whatever other buzzwords they use to sell a life where the social contract has been abolished in the name of PROGRESS.

Early in the film, Bill Paxton’s rival crime scene videographer warns the neophyte Lou that the job is the bottom end of existence.  But Lou is thrives on the job because he has nothing else.  He delights in filling every moment of his existence with chasing after the next lead.  And as he shows throughout the film (especially in the climax), everything for him is a business transaction, the embodiment of the old business axiom that “if you’re not growing, you’re dying.”  Like many in our current society, he has been educated to believe that salvation will only take place in commitment to one’s job, that true fulfillment is only possible in becoming a cutthroat disrupter (sorry, that word again.)  And that manic obsession pays off at each step.  As he gains in stature at the station, his wardrobe becomes more refined, he slicks his mop of hair back, and becomes fluent in the parlance of the trade.  He steadily outmaneuvers the station veterans, and all through being self-taught online.  MOOC advocates would drool at the success story that is Louis Bloom.  But even as reaches his grandest moment of success at the film’s conclusion (three interns and two vans!), there’s nothing at his core.  He merely remains the vessel for the message, a bag of flesh and bones broadcasting corporate catch phrases and talking points in place of anything resembling real interaction.  Nightcrawler shows us how darkly thrilling that message can be, but it’s also a cautionary broadside against the hyper-driven, decidedly non-human-centric thrum of progress that threatens to crash over us like the next wave.

Monday, November 03, 2014

IF I COULD STICK A KNIFE IN MY HEART, SUICIDE RIGHT ON STAGE



(SPOILERS AHOY for Birdman and other films.)

PRELUDE/SUPERHERO STORIES
October 1993.  I’m on the Bishop Ready High School stage during a practice for our imminent production of Captain Fantastic…which is not a theatrical adaptation of the Elton John album.  Rather, Tim Kelly’s play is, as the Samuel French script notes, “a wild farce about comic books.”  In retrospect, it’s a slightly absurd superhero fantasia often performed at the high school level, but pitched more toward a middle school mindset (which isn’t to say that performing in it wasn’t a blast, an opportunity to ham it up in the hammiest of genre milieus.)  Its story concerns a nerdy comic book aficionado and editor of his high school newspaper who is plagued by enemies both adolescent and adult (the kid’s a preternaturally ace muckraker), all while pining after the affections of his virtuous and slightly ditzy co-editor.  Much hilarity ensues in Act I, climaxing in a fight between our hero and his archenemy Ratso Finkle, a punk kid who was tossed from the school due to a scathing newspaper expose (yours truly played the heavy.)  Except the fight, as it were, involves a few wild swings, followed by our hero knocking himself out….at which time he drifts into his dream world in which he is now the titular Captain, and all the supporting players are replaced by superheroic or villainous versions of themselves.  Thus, Act II takes place in this alternate comic book world.

But wait, to be accurate, I’m backstage, preparing for my imminent entrance for the beginning of Act II of our practice for our imminent production…..well, you get the point.  For Act II of the play begins with a visit to the Rate Hole Club, the secret hideout of Ratman (the dream version of Ratso) and general assemblage location for all of the supervillains.  This second act is preceded by a bit of purple prose catching the audience up on all the comic world developments they’ve missed, a cheeky bit of narration which a good friend of mine would bombastically narrate over the house speakers each night.  At the end of his uber-dramatic reading, he would hit that magical phrase “..and who is….or WHAT is….THE INK BLOT?” which cued the curtains to open on the Rat Hole Club set, a magnificent bit of multi-level construction that perfectly captured the grimy sewer-bound setting.  As those curtains parted, our sound crew cued up “The Pink Room”, Angelo Badalamenti’s sleazy grime riff of a song from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (check it out here), which had been programmed by another good friend and fellow Lynch fanatic.  Add in the requisite fog machine and you had quite the visual.

So I’m backstage, preparing for my entrance, decked out in the all black mask and cape ensemble that is hallmark of my supervillain persona.  It’s dress rehearsal night, the first time that all of the scene’s technical aspects are ready in full.  I hear the bombastic narration, the curtains part as “The Pink Room” lurches to life, the denizens of the Rat Hole Club party it up.  And then it’s time for my grand entrance, through the oversized sewer line at the height of the set upstage.  I slink through the portal, roaring my sinister villain’s laugh…and at that moment, with the music pounding, the entire cast in costume, and the artificial fog enshrouding the stage so that the house seats are completely obscured….it all becomes real.  For a few seconds, I was that villain in that club, not a 16-year old fooling around on stage.

Twenty-one years later, I look back and see that I’ve been chasing after that moment ever since.  Brief as it may have been, it was still like tapping into an alternate universe, getting a glimpse into a world that most people never get to see.  I would go on to act in many more productions, in high school and beyond, and there were many moments in those subsequent performances when I’d feel a hint of the magic of total engagement in the part.  But I never again reached the point that I did for several magical seconds in that goofy comic book play.

That feeling of total engagement, of completely inhabiting a character, is the Holy Grail for many an actor.  Some would accurately call it a heightened and slightly acceptable form of masochism or disassociation.  Some would also point out that the whole thing is a complete post-Brando, post-De Niro, post-Day-Lewis bastardization of the Strasberg-derived Method with a capital M, a vainglorious state in which the only path to Truth is becoming.

It’s a feeling and a philosophy that Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu explores to its fullest in the delirious funhouse mirror maze that is Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).  Ostensibly the story of a washed up star of a superhero franchise seeking to jump start his long-dormant career on the New York stage (to madcap comedic effect), the arc of the story is a trenchant examination of the search for that elusive Truth in all its permutations. 

From the opening shot of Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) levitating in his dressing room, reality (and the attendant Truth) are presented as highly subjective and flexible.  Throughout the film, Riggan displays his seemingly telekinetic powers, but only in private moments (more on that later.)  We’re constantly privy to his intimate moments of doubt, anger, resolution, but how many of these moments actually happen and how many are the product of his fractured psyche is never quite clear…until it is…and then isn’t again.

Thomson sees the New York theater world as his last hope for redemption, a venue in which he can finally show the acting chops he feels that he sold out long ago for the pulp world of the superhero blockbuster.  In that opening scene, he sneers at a news report of Robert Downey Jr. as the Avengers premiere, opining to himself that Downey doesn’t have half of his talent.  It calls into question many of the assumptions and debates that cineastes engage in, vis-√†-vis the supposed legitimacy of certain roles and films.  How often do such fans pine for the days when Downey, or Johnny Depp, took on “real” roles, ones that thrust them into more challenging fare.  But what is a “real” role anyway?  Is what Downey pulled off with the first Iron Man (essentially carrying a thinly plotted film on the strength of his hyper-articulate narcissist’s charm, a Herculean task in its own way) less legitimate because his character flies around in armor for a third of the running time?  How many gradations of Truth in acting can there be when it’s all essentially a giant game of make-believe, intended to move and inspire the audience?

But I’m getting away from things a bit.  Thomson’s quest for authenticity (another loaded word…see Marvin Lin’s excellent 33 1/3 volume on Radiohead’s Kid A for a fascinating exploration of this topic) in his life leads him to adapt Raymond Carver’s signature short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” as an extended production/vehicle to prove his multi-hyphenate status as star, director and producer.  And by extension, his prototypical quest narrative presents the macro, meta-narrative search for redemption in the eyes of his rehab alum daughter Sam (Emma Stone) and ex-girlfriend/life partner Sylvia (Amy Ryan.)  It’s all very stock in its dramatic arc, but that seems to be the point that Innaritu and his three co-screenwriters are trying to make. 

For at each step, every feint and jab at the quest for the truth is met with a reversal or denial.  And they’re all wrapped up in the characters of the three main stars of the film, a trio running loose in that house of mirrors that the film constructs.

THE TALENTED MR. NORTON

"I'm incapable of engaging as an actor on something without engaging as a dramatist. And when you work with great people, they not only accept it, they welcome it. But when you work with insecure people, it's a problem."  -Edward Norton/GQ interview/March 2001

Consider the star-crossed career of Edward Norton.  Or rather, consider that career in the prescient content of this 2001 GQ interview, which could almost serve as the definitive primer for Norton’s life as an actor and artist.  In the late 90’s, he exploded onto the Hollywood scene with two roles that remain defining works on his CV: the damaged victim/master thespian Aaron Stamper in Primal Fear and the nameless protagonist (often referred to as Jack) in Fight Club.  The former is a wry twist on the psychopathic archetype, one which transcends what is otherwise a potboiler of a narrative.  The latter is a master class in deadpan humor who continues to embody turn of the millennium male angst (which, in many ways, has morphed into 21st Century male angst).  And like Riggan Thomson, Aaron and Jack are characters whose split diopter nature drives their dramatic intrigue.

Following those roles (and several other notable turns), Norton seemed primed to assume Sean Penn’s mantle as major serious actor extraordinaire; in the GQ profile, John Brodie even calls him “the actor's actor of his generation”.  But as Brodie also notes, in a quote from one of the actor’s colleagues, “"There's the part of Edward that taught himself Japanese at 16. But there's the part of Edward that tells you he taught himself Japanese at 16".  Already, after just a few years in the spotlight, Norton was gaining the much-dreaded of tag of “being difficult”.  The much-publicized meltdown of Tony Kaye’s American History X (in which New Line enlisted Norton in a re-edit of the film after Kaye’s months-long stint in post) didn’t help.  At the time of the GQ piece, he had the freedom to dictate where his career went, still able to navigate his way between larger budgets and personal projects.

In many ways, Norton’s career marked a key turning point in modern Hollywood starmaking.  At its beginning, there was still a fairly defined process to becoming a star in the traditional sense: an actor received good notices in smaller roles, broke big in several key roles that garnered rave reviews, and then became a name that could sell tickets but also engage in critically acclaimed fare.  It was still the era when Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty and Meryl Streep represented the ideal of box office appeal.  It was also the era when the mid-range drama was still a viable sector of the release slate.  That all changed with the rise of multi-national corporations owning the studios and the concurrent advent of the superhero blockbuster, which has come to define the modern cinematic landscape more than anything else.  Those two factors essentially killed off the old school star system, as corporate bean counters realized that there was much more to be made in selling franchises (which often featured unknown or interchangeable actors) than investing in individual stars.

And so, as he rose in prominence and reputation (for better and for worse), Edward Norton ran smack dab into history.  After impressive turns in American History X and 25th Hour, he dropped out of the spotlight.  His most notable public imprint for a few years after Spike Lee’s film was another kerfluffle with a Studio, this time in his refusal to promote the contractually-mandated remake of The Italian Job.  Then, he resurfaced in full when Marvel cast his as the tortured Bruce Banner (another split diopter of a man) in their sequel/reboot of The Incredible Hulk.  In retrospect, this was Norton’s chance at a golden ticket; even though this version of the Hulk fared not much better financially than Ang Lee’s 2003 interpretation, it established a key part of the emerging Marvel cinematic universe, one which would come to full fruition with The Avengers.  But once again, Norton clashed with the studio.  He pushed hard to include more character development in the film’s final cut, and when no compromise could be reached, he again refused to promote this film. 

In the Hollywood of recent yore, Norton might have survived as a somewhat cranky, eccentric genius.  But the new corporate prototype for a star dictated no deviation from the pre-approved, PR-finessed, press release hype.  And it certainly didn’t allow for an actor who deemed himself incapable of working on a project unless he could also engage as a dramatist. 

And as past is ultimately preamble, all of this is the backdrop for Norton’s brilliant skewering of his public persona in Birdman.  Following a freak injury to original co-male lead Ralph (Jeremy Shamos), Riggan recruits Norton’s mercurial, brilliant Mike Shiner to take over the role.  It doesn’t hurt that he already knows the script cold after helping girlfriend (and co-female lead) Lesley (Naomi Watts) get off book.  And his initial appearance at rehearsal dazzles the director.  But Mike’s hair shirt quest for the truth soon takes over the production.  Norton plays the part with a complete lack of self-preservation, arrogantly preening nude in front of the dressing room mirror, derailing a preview show (after Riggan replaces his liquor with iced tea) by accosting the star mid-monologue and then drunkenly berating the audience for viewing life through their phones, stealing Riggan’s story about an encounter with Raymond Carver inspiring his acting career for a New York Times profile, and generally acting like the brilliant prick that a lot of the viewing audience thinks that Edward Norton: Star is.  It’s the best work he’s done in years, as he brilliantly walks the thin line between pathos and parody.  But he’s not the only one of the leads to strike this balance.



MS. WATTS GOES TO HOLLYWOOD 
Around the same time that Norton was reaching the height of his notoriety, Naomi Watts was breaking big after years of struggling for acceptance in Hollywood.  The film was David Lynch’s late masterpiece Mulholland Drive, another excoriating take on filmdom’s poison dream machine.  Like her Birdman co-star, her newly found prominence came via a character split in two, one who can only deal with her personal downward spiral by imagining an alternate life in which she’s the Grace Kelly-esque victim of a conspiracy.  Watt’s performance was stunning, as what appears to be a collection of Lynchian tropes slowly evolves into a fully-realized portrait of a damaged woman who can no longer differentiate between reality and fiction.  And like Norton, her period of critical acclaim was eventually followed by a journey into blockbuster land (with Peter Jackson’s mildly disappointing King Kong), after which she retreated a bit into smaller films and motherhood.

Birdman doesn’t give Watts (or her female counterpart Laura, played by Andrea Riseborough) as much hefty material as her male co-stars, but much of Lesley ends up playing as a sly wink at her career, her role in Mulholland Drive, and the quandary of most actresses.  Plagued by insecurity, she constantly seems on the verge of a breakdown, repeatedly emoting about how much becoming a BROADWAY ACRTRESS means to her, and needing Riggan’s reassurance to get by after a disastrous onstage encounter with Mike.  But immediately after this stereotypically redemptive moment, she and Laura mock Riggan’s words, and then lock up in a lesbian clinch (shades of her time in Lynchland.)  It’s all too brief a role, but Watts makes the most of it…sometimes in ways that might not be readily apparent…..but more on that later.

Of course, at the heart of Birdman is Michael Keaton, whose public role in the promotion of the film has taken on the same redemptive arc that Riggan pursues (despite the fact that Keaton willingly walked away from the fame factory and has expressed little regret for his retreat.)  Despite his beloved days as a livewire comedic talent, Keaton has struggled to escape the shadow of his turn as Bruce Wayne/Batman (like Norton and Watts, he also reached a career high playing a character played by insecurities who escapes in an idealized version of themselves.)  So taking on the role of Riggan Thomson was a natural fit, and it’s a delight to see Keaton’s manic energy on full display once again. 

But to what extent?  For even though Birdman plays as an absurdist comedy/redemption story on the surface, it steadfastly refuses to give easy answers about that prominent search for the Truth that propels its narrative engine.  The much-discussed single-shot camerawork seems to imply an unimpeachable veracity; indeed, by this point in film history, handheld camerawork alone is the de facto standard for gritty realism.  But the visual framework isn’t a single shot, just multiple long takes slyly edited together.  And the supposed intimacy that hand-held gives to the proceedings is constantly called into question.  The first rehearsal scene sees Riggan frustrated with Ralph’s overly broad performance, but once Mike enters the play most of the preview performance acting feels like overly broad emoting.  But it’s tough to tell if that’s the reality (and a biting critique of acting with a capital A) or an accurate, yet too close of a view of the projecting that’s needed to reach the further reaches of a theater’s house. 

And when the hand-held camera locks in on several of the characters for their “real life” dramatic monologues, the audience is still left wondering what to make of these seemingly overly broad and theatrical moments.  Have these characters started to lose their ability to differentiate between performance and “performance”?  It might be a sly jab at the life of theater people, the most extreme of which is embodied in Norton’s Mike (who can only be sexually aroused when he and Lesley are in bed onstage).  It might also be a sly dig at the expectations that we as the audience have been trained to have as modern moviegoers.  Indeed, almost every dramatic pontification in the film is immediately undercut.  When Sam (in full close-up) rips into Riggan for his poor parenting and self-delusion, her dad follows her harrumphing exit by taking a toke off of her used joint.  Mike gets his big moment of confession during a semi-romantic rooftop encounter with Sam, yet she immediately blows him off by exposing the arch and artificial theatricality of his words.  Even Riggan’s barroom diatribe at Times theater critic Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan) seems filled with righteous anger at the critical establishment (referenced earlier in the Sontag quote on his dressing room desk: "A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing."), yet ultimately ends up the paranoid, insecure ravings of deeply flawed and drunken man.  When the only way he’s able to satisfy Tabitha is by literally trying to kill himself onstage, the send up of what we regard as dramatic sincerity is complete.   It’s appropriate that Birdman is being released at the beginning of Oscar season, for as we enter a period in which we’ll be inundated with films offering overblown monologues, hackneyed redemption stories, and uplifting narratives, this film seems to offer a subtle parody of all that is to come, and how that artificial sense of drama and catharsis can bleed over into real life.

WELCOME TO CARVER COUNTRY
But before we close, we come back to the “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”.  And we come back to Raymond Carver.  In the end, Riggan’s choice of Carver as vehicle for his redemption is obvious for his character and entirely fitting for the story that Innaritu and company are telling.  For decades, Carver has been the high priest of minimalism for scads of academics, his stories of people living at “that wilting technological edge you see beyond sound barriers on freeways”(as Tobias Wolff once said) a hallmark of simplicity, of purity.  For Riggan to see that purity as part and parcel of his redemption story makes sense.  And at heart, the story is all about how none of us can concretely define love, just as no one in the film can concretely define truth.  But his aim is undercut by his expansion of the short story for the stage, with scenes that are only referred to in Carver’s writing growing into their own standalone episodes, and a ludicrous interlude with Laura and some deer people grasping for profound symbolism.

And, of course, there’s the meta-narrative matter of Carver’s minimalist purity.  As a 2007 New Yorker article so extensively detailed, the signature pared back style that turned Carver into a celebrity writer was almost entirely the construct of his longtime editor Gordon Lisch.  Over the years, some Carver associates have gone so far as to accuse Lisch of taking advantage of the recovering alcoholic Carver’s insecurity and desperation to create a Frankenstein’s monster of a prodigy.  As his fame increase, Ray broke away from Lisch and his later stories and poems are far more expansive in their phrasings and vocabulary.  But tales like “What We Talk About…” still define much of Carver’s public perception, so the quandary at the middle of his life lends added complexity to the story’s central placement in Birdman.

The two endings of this story also seem to serve as parallel inspirations for Birdman’s resolution.  The edited, and most widely known, version of the story (under the “What We Talk About…”  title) reaches an uncomfortable denouement, as following their long discussions about love, the characters are left in the lurch, Nick (the narrator, and Riggan’s main role in the play) intoning “I could hear my heart beating.  I could hear everyone’s heart.  I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.”  So too does the apparent end of Birdman come, Riggan (fulfilling that particular American notion of the artistic greatness only coming through great suffering, ala Carver, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, etc.) seemingly blowing himself away right before the blackout. 

But the original ending of the story (under the title of “Beginners”) holds some connection to Birdman’s ultimate ending.  The characters in Carver’s story are still damaged and unsure of where to go from here, but Nick has a small moment of insight.  As Carver writes:

The shower stopped running. In a minute, I heard whistling as Herb opened the bathroom door. I kept looking at the women at the table. Terri was still crying and Laura was stroking her hair. I turned back to the window. The blue layer of sky had given way now and was turning dark like the rest. But stars had appeared. I recognized Venus and, farther off and to the side, not as bright but unmistakably there on the horizon, Mars. The wind had picked up. I looked at what it was doing to the empty fields. I thought unreasonably that it was too bad the McGinnises no longer kept horses. I wanted to imagine horses rushing through those fields in the near-dark, or even just standing quietly with their heads in opposite directions near the fence. I stood at the window and waited. I knew I had to keep still a while longer, keep my eyes out there, outside the house, as long as there was something left to see.

At the conclusion of Birdman, Riggan stands at his hospital window, staring at a flock of birds in the sky.  He opens the window, and…..what?  Sam reenters the room, rushes to the open window, scans the sidewalk for her father, then looks to the sky in wonder at….what?  The scene is a callback to Riggan’s fantasy of flight from earlier in the film, but it also begs the question of whether the story is treading into magical realism, or whether the post-shooting scene is a fantasy, possibly perched between life and death.  It’s a final bit of elusive truth in a film that’s not afraid to withhold answers in a discomfiting, albeit entertaining, manner.