This was the weakest of the films I saw on my first day, but it was the one that got the most audience applause. I’ve never properly watched The Daily Show which made the name of début writer/director John Stewart, so I was primarily attracted to the appearance of Gael García Marquez and Kim Bodnia (from The Bridge) as the two main characters.
There is nothing wrong with the film as such and it is clearly a project with its heart in the right place. Bernal plays the Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari, whose book of his experiences covering the 2009 election in Iran, rigged by the authorities, was the original property adapted by Stewart. He is arrested and imprisoned and Bodnia is the ‘specialist’ assigned to extract a confession that will be broadcast as part of the regime’s propaganda. All of this is well done, shot in Jordan as far as I can make out. Apart from a spoof interview that could be part of a comedy show, Stewart plays it all straight – although I did like the appearance of the journalist’s dead father in his cell offering advice on how to survive based on his own incarceration under previous regimes. Bahari’s dead sister also appears.
The only real problem is that we’ve seen this before and Iranian stories told from the US, even when they use a couple of strong Iranian actors (the mother and sister here), find it difficult to compete with the real thing. Films by Jafar Panahi and Mohsen Makhmalbaf cover similar territory in much more oblique and powerful ways. Stewart’s film is primarily delivered in English so it will reach a wider public and that is good if it heightens awareness. It’s also good that a film about the real bravery of journalists worldwide should find an audience. Perhaps it can act as an introduction to the complexities and, despite the horrors, the ‘pleasures’ of the terrific Iranian cinema of the last twenty years, which is able to use subtle forms of humour to undermine the regime?
Debra Granik didn’t perhaps get the praise she deserved for Winter’s Bone, one of the best (and most genuine) of recent American ‘independents’. I was keen to see her first documentary feature.
Ronnie ‘Stray Dog’ Hall is a Vietnam veteran who forty years later seems to have come to terms with his experiences and found a way to live a fulfilling life in rural Missouri where he’s the effective leader (and landlord) of a community based in a trailer park. Ronnie’s life revolves around family and friends and, most importantly, the various Veterans’ Associations and memorial events – which with ongoing service in Afghanistan are increasing all the time. Ronnie is also a biker and his trip to Washington DC with his local chapter is an important early narrative strand in the documentary – but it doesn’t dominate the film as much as the publicity suggests.
This is a classic (and therefore conventional) observational documentary. Granik and her crew are invisible and Ronnie as a strong character leads us through his story without much need of intertitles and no commentary as such. We simply follow him around and occasionally glimpse his friends and relatives without him. There is no discernible ‘political’ or ‘social’ message in the film, but the documentary performs a political role here simply by what it doesn’t do. It doesn’t seek out the glib signifiers of a typical view of the American heartland and it doesn’t attempt to select or emphasise specific aspects of Ronnie’s life to make a ‘statement’. Ronnie is clearly a nice guy who is loved and respected. He wears the US flag with pride but he has no time for politicians. He supports the Veterans’ causes and he has accepted counselling. He knows he’ll never come to terms with what happened in Vietnam. He’s been married twice to first a Korean and then to a Mexican and he welcomes his second wife’s 19 year-old sons to America just as he cares about his own granddaughter’s future.
I liked Ronnie and I like the documentary. The music, as in Winter’s Bone, is very good and Ronnie likes his dogs. I hope this gets a UK release. It’s the best kind of ‘feelgood’ film.
The film centres on the relationship between music student Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) and conductor/teacher Terence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons). Andrew is a would-be drummer studying at the prodigious Shaffer Conservatory. He is recruited to the star Studio Band run by Fletcher. We follow their stormy relationship through a series of student competitions and concluding at a New York jazz festival.
The Studio Band play big band jazz: Duke Ellington’s ‘Caravan’ features in the repertoire. And in attempting to fuel Andrew’s drumming drive Fletcher twice recounts a story, supposedly about an early performance by Charlie Parker. Andrew himself is driven by the example of Buddy Rich, whose music is clearly an influence on the soundtrack. However, this is not a jazz film – it is a variation on the long running Svengali tale. The S&S review included a comment on performance – “that (in keeping with the jazz theme) risks sounding one-note”. Clearly the reviewer has never listened to Charlie Parker or Duke Ellington. Ironically, whilst Fletcher talks about Charlie Parker, the control that he exercises over the Studio Band would inhibit even a talent equivalent to that of Parker’s. And Andrew’s ambitions are about being the ‘best’: his drumming style a far cry from the master of percussion, (who also gets a mention) Philly Jo Jones.
The Svengali myth appears to be a story of masculine control: frequently but not always about controlling women. I could not think of a variation where a woman controls a male tyro: the closest might be The Graduate (1969). Andrew does have a relationship with a young woman, Nicole (Melissa Benoist), but she appears mainly as a device in the plot and a reflector for Andrew. There are also a couple of female players in the Studio Band, but the focus is resolutely masculine.
The competitive drive at the centre of the film is [only to a degree] inflected by class. There is a dinner party at home with friends of Andrew’s father. It is full of self-promotion and ‘putting down’. One can see where Andrews’s unhealthy preoccupations come from.
I found the film entertaining but implausible. It is also often funny, not always deliberately. The acting is strong and holds the attention. The production values are excellent. The director Damien Chazelle and his cinematographer Sharone Meir do an excellent job in depicting the musical performances, especially the drumming. This relies on fairly fast editing and large close-up, which adds to the sometime frenetic feel of the film. The script, also by Damien Chazelle, is less developed: S&S suggested that the writer would have benefitted from a Fletcher-type mentor peering over the shoulder.
Note, my friend and fellow film buff Jake has pointed out that we also have an absent mother! Another factor in Andrew’s flawed upbringing.
We often write through frames – such as national cinema, authorship or institutional context. With Birdman, Mexican auteur, Alejandro González Iñárritu, has made that beautifully awkward. Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) has been successful in a superhero franchise several years before but is now looking to relaunch and reinvent himself in the theatre. He has adapted Raymond Carver’s short story, What do we talk about, when we talk about love into a play in which he will direct and star. Mike (Edward Norton), a last minute replacement but a seasoned theatre actor states the obvious when he says: “that’s ambitious.” The clash between theatre and film as different art mediums is centre stage and it’s given a voice through Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan exuding her own verbal dry ice), the highbrow, New York critic who can destroy someone’s play and who announces to Riggan that’s exactly what she is going to do to this work of the theatrical ingénue. What follows is Riggan’s slow unravelling in the face of opening night. Whether there is an ultimate triumph will not be written here – not only for ‘no spoiler’ purposes but because it may also depend on how you read it.
That the film has several layers and is self-reflexive in being all about the film industry and film as a medium is visible early on. Riggan’s dressing room mirror has the gnomic statement ‘A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing’ (apparently Susan Sontag’s) stuck to it in the motivational corner and it could be a statement about so many parts of the film itself. This includes Riggan’s relationships, the play and his performance in it as well as the film itself. Theatre and film critics are harshly treated in this story of artistic revival and courage; as in many films before this, they are unpleasant algae feeding of real matter. Many reviews have certainly referred back to such creatures as Addison de Witt (George Sanders in All About Eve (1950)) and J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster in Sweet Smell of Success (1957)).
So, take ‘things’ for what they are, including this film, it suggests, frames and criticisms of all kinds are simply distractions. Not least, it tells you to stop thinking about Iñárritu’s authorship. This film has simply baffled all attempts to place it in his oeuvre. Taken for what it is, it’s a very uncharacteristic and entertaining story of a rollercoaster ride towards opening night on Broadway for a once big Hollywood star, his cast and his family. It’s a rollercoaster ride you are made part of because of the technical brilliance of the device of an apparent uninterrupted take for its entire length and the digital effects which take us flying with Riggan, sharing his moments of fantasy (perhaps?), over the New York cityscape. Just like Riggan’s airborne escapes, critics such as Paul Julian Smith in Sight and Sound have embraced Iñárritu’s liberation from his previous body of work. Smith refers to the “po-faced” Biutiful (2010). If The Big Lebowski was the so-called ‘fart in the face’ of the Academy after the Oscar-winning Fargo (by the Coen brothers) then there feels a far greater release of artistic tension – and seriousness – by Iñárritu, this time in the face of his own work.
However, it is not just focused on this one ‘thing’, but is a film deliberately functioning on several levels and on all the information we bring into the cinema with some witty, satirical points to make about the media context these artists function in. If Iñárritu is expressing liberation he is also identifying the constraints of the media actors, directors and producers (Riggan is, after all, embodying all three) face in the modern digital film world and its context of social media.
Actually, the film feels satisfyingly old school in other ways. This is absolutely the messy, shambling backstage world where Bette Davis’ Margot Channing drags off her wig and moans at Thelma Ritter’s Birdie. Lindsay Duncan’s tense performance as the critic, Tabitha, recalls deWitt’s compulsive need for power (and actual power) as the key theatre critic of the day. In a newspaper article, writer Anthony Quinn traces the problems of the critic in general in film fiction. Although in order to focus ultimately on his own book on English theatre, it covers some interesting territory. He refers to the fact that ‘Tabitha’ is a witch’s name (very different to the suggestion of ‘Addison deWitt’ with all its English, eighteenth-century, Alexander Pope ambience) as if a woman who would destroy the work of men can only be ‘witch-like.’ In fact, Duncan delivers – eloquently and more strongly than that suggests – exactly a DeWittian high culture disgust for all that popular culture represents and a cold, intellectual anger that ‘Birdman’ would intrude on their territory.
For a film that is about the theatre, the form of it is crucial. And in a film that is about the clash of film and theatre so directly, there is a brilliant simplicity in deciding to use a stylistic device – most famously rendered in Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) – to portray the developing tension between Riggan and his situation, his struggling daughter, his fellow actors, their relationships to each other, the problems of the producer, the interaction between ‘Birdman’ and his fans and, not forgetting, the increasing breakdown between the reality of Riggan and Birdman inside one or other of their heads. It is this device, alongside the tense drum score by Antonio Sanchez, which ensures we are inside the thing itself (a score not eligible for awards due to the presence of other, non-original music).
The film is founded on digital effects – just as much as any superhero film – but they are done in order to bring forward a very actor-centred and talkative script. High tech is employed for low tech purposes for much of the time. Riggan is searching for authenticity in returning to the stage – everything about this film suggests a real delight in artifice.
Iñárritu paints a clash of old and new – Riggan dismisses new media but finds himself ‘trending’ when caught outside in his underpants. Returning to theatre does not mean escape from the modern world, but something essential that’s present in the best of that old-style Hollywood filmmaking whilst utilising very modern techniques of digital cinematography to accomplish it. The use of the close-up on Keaton, the praise he has earned for exposing his (ageing) face, is one of the ways we experience his collapsing inner world. It’s the most powerful device still in cinema. Roland Barthes wrote about Greta Garbo, that her face on the screen “belongs to that moment in cinema when capturing the human face still plunged audiences into the deepest ecstasy, when one literally lost oneself in a human image as one would in a philtre.” (‘The Face of Garbo’, Roland Barthes, Mythologies). Keaton’s face in this is certainly the antidote to the old-style Hollywood close-up, but it still allowed for getting lost – this time in a face written over with its life and experience. I’ll mention I went back to Sunset Boulevard (1950) after seeing Birdman, and I think there’s something of the Norma Desmond as well as the Margot Channing about Riggan. And just as with the surprising effect (on an audience) of Norma’s or Margot’s warped egotism, it’s Riggan’s flaws and failures and insecurity that, for all its cleverness and artifice, means this film could be intensely moving and, not least, because we see him close-up as he abandons ego and faces up to himself. Emma Stone’s brilliantly delivered speech as his daughter is crucial here – that nothing and no-one finally matters. Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche New York (2008) does resonate at several points (not least in the break down of fiction and reality) but that film takes the dark, novelistic rather than the lighter, comic and cinematic path that Birdman chooses. Iñárritu and Emmanuel Lubezki (cinematographer)’s ‘seamless’ take allows cinema to provide another kind of literal ‘losing of oneself’ in this film. For all the digital effects and flights of the superhero film (neatly satirised here) it’s still human story at the centre – and a crucial part of why it’s laugh out loud funny. This old lady sat amongst the students at Tyneside Cinema and we both laughed, often together. Not always, of course, since they lack the comic advantage of a midlife crisis.
And finally about framing the discussion. Gravity (2013) showed the triumph of cinematography and individual performance (Sandra Bullock) over a weak plot and script and its ability author a story mainly through the visceral experience of the inky-black 3D. Perhaps it’s time to shift authorship further (something Kaufman managed as a writer) and refuse the cinematographers cry that their art should always only be in the service of the film. Perhaps I’m going to start making an appointment with Emmanuel Lubezki’s immersive cinematographic authorship.