This highly-entertaining black comedy was the opening gala screening of the ¡Viva! Weekender and on the Saturday the director, Santi Amodeo was present for a Q&A. The gnomic title is explained as the plot unfolds but this is actually a remake of Matando Cabos a popular Mexican comedy from 2004. Amodeo wrote the script for his adaptation, his first mainstream film with a ‘big’ budget. Like the other film on Saturday afternoon, Os fenómenos, Who Killed Bambi? is predicated on the desperation felt by many during the current economic depression in Spain. This is a black farce in which two separate ‘hostages’ are involved in schemes/fiascos. One involves an Italian who faces bankruptcy after his pizzeria fails to attract upmarket customers. The second involves a young man who is dating his boss’s daughter – and finds his position under threat. The Italian wants to kidnap the boss for ransom and the boyfriend finds himself saddled with a comatose boss by accident – inadvertently causing someone else to be the kidnap victim.
The third ‘ingredient’ in the plot is a dubious lawyer with a serious drug habit. In the Q&A Amodeo explained that the lawyer was a Spanish invention – a bit of ‘local colour’ replacing the wrestler in the Mexican version. (Both characters being iconic roles in local cultures.) I won’t spoil who Bambi is – but I will explain that the film’s title refers to the film about the Sex Pistols that was to have been made by Russ Meyer from a script by Roger Ebert in 1978! I should have remembered this! The other bit of high-profile ‘local colour’ is a surprise appearance by Andres Iniesta, the Spain and Barcelona football maestro. (The narrative does include a sequence in a football stadium, but not Camp Nou.) Who Killed Bambi? is the kind of mainstream Spanish comedy we rarely see in the UK (though it reminded me in parts of Ferpect Crime, the Alex de laIglesia comedy I saw at the Leeds Film Festival last November). I enjoyed the film very much. There is a great deal of violence, mostly cartoonish blows to the head to keep the hostages quiet – but at least one action we don’t expect usually expect in a comedy. I don’t see any reason why the film shouldn’t succeed on release in the UK – except that it would need subtitles. It’s sad that UK audiences miss out in this way. Amodeo himself wrote much of the music that appears in the film and this is another appealing aspect of the whole package.
The central character of David, the would-be son-in-law, is played by Quim Gutiérrez who I remember from The Last Days at ¡Viva! 2014. He’s very good, as are the others in the cast. Asked about the Hollywood influences on the film, the director pointed out that they were present in the Mexican original and, yes, they did include Tarantino and the Coen Brothers. Even so, this struck me as very much a Spanish film. Santi Amodeo is scheduled to make an English language film in a co-production. It promises to be interesting.
This was one of the first films on my booking list. Roy Andersson won the Golden Lion at Venice in 2014 for this, only his fifth feature in a career that began in 1970. I enjoyed his previous film You, the Living (2007) very much and hoped for something similar but also different. ‘Pigeon’ is referred to as the third in a loose trilogy so it is indeed similar and at first I was a little disappointed because the overall idea and the approach – several short comic scenes knitted together by a handful of characters – are identical to the earlier film (and I suspect to the first in the series, Songs From the Second Floor (2000) which I haven’t seen).
It wasn’t until a few days later when I studied Andersson’s excellent website for the film, watched the trailer and flicked through the stills that I began to remember more of the sketches and to understand more of what he was getting at. The strange title refers to the painting by Pieter Bruegel, ‘Hunters in the Snow’ (1565), and the three birds sat on branches in the tree in the foreground. This famous painting has been referenced by other filmmakers, including Andrei Tarkovsky. Andersson suggests that the birds take a panoramic view of human activities and the human condition – and that they are astonished that humans cannot see the coming apocalypse. Andersson shares their view and intends that we should be aware that we could change our behaviour and avert the tragedy for ourselves and the planet.
In order to present the pigeon’s view, Andersson selects a distinct aesthetic, moving away from realism and naturalism and drawing on ‘Neue Sachlichkeit’ – the ‘New Objectivity’ art movement of Weimar Germany in the 1920s. He’s referring to both fine art and photography and in his notes he refers to a particular photograph by August Sander, entitled ‘The Pastry Chef’ (1928) in which the subject looks “trapped, aggressive and dangerous”. So, in his vignettes looking at the lives of ‘ordinary people’ in Sweden, Andersson sets out to tell little stories, some tragic, some sad, some pathetic. His chosen approach involves using painted sets with reduced colour palettes and using his company of ‘ordinary-looking’ actors with pale make-up. His camera usually remains static and keeps its distance from the actors so the vignettes play out in tableaux – often with a great deal going on in the background.
Some of the vignettes are historical such as the one represented in the image above which refers to (I think) the young king Charles II in the Great Northern War of the early 18th century in which the Swedish Empire took on the Russians – please correct me if I’ve got this wrong. The bar is a popular location for Andersson since people go there to drown their sorrows and to seek solace with strangers.
The main linking device between the vignettes id the sad progress of the two travelling salesmen. If you look carefully you’ll see them in the image of the bar above – one of them is wearing the ‘Uncle One-Tooth Mask’, one of their ‘bestsellers’.
I remember some very darkly comic moments in Andersson’s previous film. One included a man eating from a large box of popcorn as he watched an execution in a prison. This new film has two very disturbing scenes featuring animal cruelty and the hideousness of (British) colonial barbarism. I confess to being puzzled as to exactly what Andersson intended these to say – but perhaps I’m expecting too much in terms of clarity.
Overall this is a wonderful film because of its use of film language as well as offering both comic relief and piercing commentary. Oh, and I mustn’t forget the music. I loved ‘Limping Lotte’s Bar’ in 1943.
The trailer from the Roy Andersson website:
I don’t know if I’ve seen Colleen Moore in a movie before, but I’m certainly going to look out for her now. Why Be Good? directed by William A. Seiter is a recently restored First National picture in which a surviving Italian print has been ‘married’ to a Vitaphone disc recording. The restoration looked very good to me but I would need Keith to tell me if the speed was correct. In some of the dancing scenes the swift movements seemed just too quick to me. The soundtrack of music and ‘effects’ works well with a standout when two drunks sing and it is represented by muted brass instruments.
The story is very familiar, especially for the late 1920s early 1930s before the Hays Code came into force and the possibility of representing sexuality directly disappeared. Colleen Moore plays the shopgirl by day who is a ‘hot dancer’ by night and unwittingly becomes involved with the son of the department store’s owner. The young man’s father disapproves and fears she is a gold-digger – but she will prove him wrong. ‘Pert’ Kelly is a decent Irish girl from the Bronx. I looked up the unusual first name and discovered a reference to a Celtic name given to a baby boy – perhaps naming was different in 1900? The important element in the story is that Pert is a ‘good girl’ who has to pretend to be sexually aware to be accepted. She loves to dance (and the music and dance sequences are excellent) but recognises that her dancing in skimpy dresses with flashing legs is construed as a come-on. This portrayal works because Colleen Moore is such a lively actress with real personality. She was already 29 but could be younger the way she plays the role. The character is the genuine ‘modern’ young woman of the jazz age – smart and intelligent but also sensible.
I realise that my lack of knowledge about the stars of this period is a handicap. I think I read that the bob worn by Colleen Moore was copied by Louise Brooks whereas I had assumed that Brooks was the originator. Can any scholar confirm either way? What’s important is that while both women had the same hairstyle, Brooks became a femme fatale but Moore, in this picture at least, is the fun-loving ‘jazz baby’.
A second restoration of another Moore picture from 1929, Synthetic Sin, also directed by Seiter has also been seen in the US so I’lll look out for it appearing over here. Unfortunately some of her other successful films seem still to be lost.
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.