Birdman and Raymond Carver

Birdman and Raymond Carver


Howard Adelman

Birdman has been nominated for five Golden Globe Awards. On Thursday, Birdman tied with The Grand Budapest Hotel for the most Oscar nominations with nine, including best picture. After watching the film, or about 75% the first time, I told my family that I did not intend to review it. After watching it again Saturday night, in full this second time, I changed my mind.

I saw it the second time to justify my reaction to my wife and two youngest sons who thought Birdman was one of the best films they had seen in a long time. But that is not the real explanation. For, quite honestly, I usually do what I feel like without feeling any need to justify myself to anyone. Perhaps it was because I could not identify with the emotional life crisis that Michael Keaton experiences in playing Riggan Thomson. It is not as if I could not identify with having a crisis of the soul – I myself had a tremendous one when I was about Riggan’s age in the film. But my crisis was about relationships, not about my identity or career or reputation as an academic, or, as in the movie, an artist. Or so I thought.

After the first viewing or partial viewing, I was not entranced by the film, though I did not leave the film because it upset me or bored me. It just had not grabbed me. And I felt very tired. On my second viewing I saw that, although I had followed the events of the film the first time, I had missed the layers of meaning. The failure to grasp the film had been my fault. I was much more intrigued and interested in the film the second time. But it still did not grab me by the balls or play on my heart strings. The film still remained heartless. So a strong spoiler alert. Do not read this review until you have seen the movie because I have to go into great detail to explain my response.

Like I was thirty-five years ago, Riggan, in the movie, also is in trouble with his relationships – with his daughter Sam (played brilliantly by Emma Stone – more on that later), with his current mistress, Laura (Andrea Riseborough) who is pregnant and then not pregnant, with his ex-wife, Sylvia (Amy Ryan) and even somewhat with his female co-star, Lesley (Naomi Watts), though not very much since she is even more insecure than Riggan is. But the relationship that is most troublesome is the one with his male co-star and his competitor for acting talent, Edward Norton as Mike Shiner.

But all of these troubled relationships initially seem peripheral to the central crisis – his inner one. Is he washed up as an actor, forever stereotyped as a comic book superhero that he played over twenty-years-ago in a series of three blockbuster movies (as Michael Keaton actually did playing Batman), or does he have the talent to revive his career, to prove himself on Broadway rather than in Hollywood, by writing, directing and starring in his own adaptation of Raymond Carver’s 1981 short story from his collection by the same title, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love?

Is this a movie of a play within that reflects on the theme and characters in the movie? I had read one of Carver’s stories about ten years ago in its original version in The New Yorker, and it seemed like a version of the one in the movie, but I cannot be sure and do not have the Carver collection of short stories. But from the snippets dramatizing the short story in the movie, from the front notes and the various references and mirroring of the original story, the movie is a series of carnival mirrors both reflecting and distorting the original story.

This initially seems odd, because this movie is about a has-been actor trying to adapt the short story as a play, directing and starring in it. But the original story as retold in the film is about two couples sitting around a table drinking gin and talking about what true love is. There are two complementary and opposite stories within that discourse just as the doctor’s wife and his male friend adopt two opposite views of love. In one, an older couple who have been in a car accident with a young drunk driver who was killed, end up in body casts. The doctor mends their bodies, and then reports to the older man in his body cast to tell him he will live. He learns that his patient is still in despair. What for? Because he was unable to turn his head to see his wife through the eye sockets in his cast.

If I remember correctly, it was this story within the story of the play that I read, and not the story of the two couples drinking and arguing about love and whether, in the other story told around that table, one woman’s former very abusive husband really loved her. Did he kill himself to protect his love from his uncontrollable rages?

So it helps to understand Raymond Carver to interpret the movie. I saw the quote from Carver the first time I saw the movie, but despaired when I forgot what it said though I committed it to memory. I am just getting old. Or I might just have been too tired. On second viewing I scribbled it down. Scribbled is the correct way to describe what I did in the dark so do not expect word for word accuracy.

“Did you get what you wanted from this life?

I did.

And what did you get?

To call myself beloved to find myself beloved on the earth.”

Raymond Carver

So the movie was to be about achieving your goals in life. And somehow that achievement was to be measured in terms of love. There must be a dialectical tension between ambition and love. However, in watching the movie both times, the issue of love seemed to be an epiphenomenon to the core dynamic about a has-been actor trying to redeem himself who confuses love and admiration. Perhaps it was because the movie, unlike Carver’s prose, did not proceed in a straightforward lineal step-by-step development, even though it gave all appearances of being a continuous tale since there were no cutaways, but rather the very interesting artifice of a continuing shoot achieved evidently by matching frames. But the movie was anything but continuous. Rather, it was like the graphic in which the initial quote was revealed on the screen. The letters appeared in random fashion and one could only read the full message once all the letters were in place. Was the movie to be understood only when it was over?

Does that explain the repeated references to Carver even though the style was in many ways so different? But the stories are so apposite. All of Carver’s stories, as far as I know, were about lower-middle-class individuals, not Hollywood and Broadway stars with egos the size of the moon only matched by insecurities the size of the sun. Carver’s story, like the one I referred to above that is referenced in the play within the movie script, though it did not have “love” in the title, was about love, not about talking about love, but about what real love was held out to be. For the depressed and alcoholic Raymond Carver, there is a clear message – love is the deep attachment of one human for another. Though the old man and woman were unable to communicate or even to see one another, their deep love could not be hidden even behind a body cast. But the first level of the play within a play is about mistaken love, about either love as possession by an abuser or someone who claims love to be absolute. This latter romantic love is but the inverse of possessive and abusive love, except in romantic love one kills oneself for it, whereas in an abusive possessive love, one kills the other. So what does it mean when the abuser kills himself?

Carver’s stories, though told very directly and simply, also reverberated with quite profound philosophical issues. Birdman seemed to be the opposite, a story not told straightforwardly, but as narrow and bent and twisted as the corridors and cross aisles in the back of the theatre where most of the movie takes place. The movie is not about the lives of ordinary people crushed by outside forces, but about competing inflated egos who seem totally hollow on the inside. One could not detect the least trace of love in the whole movie, even at the end when the daughter brings her father flowers and he strokes her arm. One only gets the sense of longing for what they both missed.

In both substance and style, the two forms of art of the Carver stories and the movie do not seem to have much if anything in common. Carver belonged to the school of Kmart or dirty realism school of writing to which Cormac McCarthy and Carson McCullers belonged. The stories are very easy reads, but very different from the Chicago school of potboiler realists I read as a kid that romanticized gangsters and crime. The themes in Chicago realism were constant, however variable the plots and characters – the tension between the effort at maturing and discovering who you are as you grew up and tried not to get crushed in an urban world of greed dominated by organized crime and corrupt politicians.

Carver’s stories were about ordinary people facing ordinary challenges – lack of a job or a shortage of money – in very mundane situations set in motels and small New York or other suburban homes, or even on their lawns. The setting in Birdman is anything but ordinary, for the movie takes place almost entirely in one place, as with Carver’s stories, but in the St. James Theatre off Times Square with an illustrious history of great dramas and performances. The characters in Birdman, however, may use the short, staccato sentences of Carver and its brutal frankness, but are radically different. They are at once pompous and self-centred and totally insecure at one and the same time. It is hard to feel compassion for any of them – except for Jake (Zack Galifianikis), Riggan’s partner and co-producer, the only sane and stable lead character in the movie who, with great forbearance, tries to hold the whole mad mess together.

Further, the style of the movie, in contrast, is rooted in magic rather than dirty realism. After all, the movie begins with Riggan in his underwear levitating about three feet off the ground in a yoga- like pose. Riggan can also move objects around at a distance, with his confession to Jake that he is responsible for the sandbag (or counterweight or light?) falling from the fly loft onto the first actor he had cast for one of the main characters in the play when that actor playing Ralph (Jeremy Shamos) turned out to be a dud. (Ralph returns at the end of the movie in a wheelchair to pile more troubles onto Riggan as he threatens a suit, in spite of Jake’s claim that he has silenced Ralph with a threat to reveal his obsession with nuns in diapers to the public.) However, these absurdities, these unreal and unbelievable events, always remain rooted in the real world – until the end. But the movie reverses the prime mode of magic realism by not beginning with realism and allowing interventions at odd moments in the plot to take the narrative in an unusual direction. The movie begins and ends with the unbelievable so that the viewer does not know whether this is a deliberate illusion or a projection of Riggan’s imagination, since the movie is otherwise so strongly rooted in the real.

But magical realism and dirty realism do have certain common elements that help us understand the movie. First, in reading Kmart realist stories, and in watching Birdman, there is a cold detachment that makes it very difficult to empathize with the characters. The detachment is also ironic so that, although we rarely laugh out loud or ever guffaw, except perhaps when Riggan gets locked outside the backstage door when he goes out for a smoke and his bathrobe gets stuck in the door so that he has to run through Times Square in his underwear to go around to the front of the theatre to regain his entrance and then re-enter the play from the aisle of the auditorium. This is but one of many of the zany and absurd predicaments in which the characters find themselves and at which we smile with an inner grin. And although dirty realist stories start with the mundane and the banal versus the movie that begins with star-studded characters from the magical worlds of movies and Broadway, they end up in the same place, in the midst of black comedy with the characters stripped down to their savage essence – especially when they are naked or in their underwear.

But the two modes of telling a story are so at odds, that one is more puzzled than enlightened by the selection of the short story that is to be adapted for the stage. Perhaps they are linked by language. In Carver’s stories, the language is always simple and completely unadorned. In the movie, the language is course and raw, but also always hysterical and out of bounds, except for Jake when he either tells it as it is or tells outright lies about the audience and a famous attendees to stroke the egos of his actors. When Lesley asks him whether it is true that Scorsese will be in the audience, Jake replies sarcastically, “Yeah and the new pope too.” In contrast, Sam, who sees through everyone and is, therefore, cynical and not upbeat like Jake, offers a deeper honesty. She chooses and offers dares, for truths are too easy to pronounce.

To Be Continued – Tomorrow: Scenes from Birdman


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