(SPOILERS AHOY for Birdman and other films.)
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-à-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.