Starting around this time each year I try to catch up with the American narrative films that I anticipate my colleagues in New York Film Critics Online will be considering for awards at our yearly meeting in early December. Unlike those who get paid to review junk like “Horrible Bosses 2”, I write about films that my colleagues tend to ignore. As one fellow pointed out a couple of years ago, he never reviews documentaries because his readers do not go to see them.
For the most part, the films that I put on my list are those that are likely to make the final cut at the NYFCO meeting. These tend to be those that the New Yorker Magazine and other arbiters of middlebrow taste deem “intelligent” and “daring”. Inured as I am to such judgments, I see watching them more as a chore than anything else. All in all, it reminds me of the cramming I did in for high school geometry finals.
This week I made time in my busy schedule for “Birdman” and “Listen Up, Paul”, films that have main characters involved with making art. In “Birdman”, Michael Keaton plays the former star of the Birdman movies now in his sixties who is directing a Broadway play based on Raymond Carver’s short story collection “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. The eponymous antihero of “Listen Up, Paul” is a young novelist who develops a friendship with an older novelist clearly based on Philip Roth. With allusions to Raymond Carver and Phillip Roth, what could go wrong? Clearly we are miles ahead of “The Transformers” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” but when you start a thousand miles behind the marker set by a Stanley Kubrick or an Alfred Hitchcock, the prospects are guarded at best.
Garnering a 94 percent “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, “Birdman” was lauded by Mahnola Dargis of the New York Times as “A funny, frenetic, buoyant and rambunctiously showboating entertainment in which Mr. Iñárritu himself rises high and then higher still.”
I might go along with her characterization of it as “showboating entertainment” but that’s about it. The film pits Keaton’s character, Riggan Thomson, against a much younger actor named Mike Shiner, played by Edward Norton, an alpha male determined to impose his own acting methodology on the production. This means above all striving for a realism that owes more to director Alejandro Iñárritu’s imagination than Stanislavski. During rehearsals, Shiner insists on drinking vodka rather than water and even goes so far as to try to force himself sexually on the leading actress when they are under the covers on stage. I found this scene even more surreal than when Thomson reverts back to his Birdman character and flies over the streets in Times Square. Does Iñárritu have any idea what would happen to a male actor who tried to stick his cock in an actress against her will? Not only would he face being booted from the cast, as Thomson tries to do until his producer persuades him that Shiner’s bankability is the only thing that can save the show, he would likely end up in prison.
In flashbacks from the “Birdman” movies, we would get the impression that they were Michael Bay type garbage that Thomson did for the money. Now in his sixties, he is staking his reputation on art rather than vulgar entertainment. This did not sit well with me, since it was obviously a reference to Keaton’s own performance as Batman in 1989 and then again in 1992. Those films were a lot smarter than Iñárritu’s, Tim Burton worked with scripts that were filled with delicious irony and far surpassed the more recent leaden-footed Christopher Nolan films that plausibly might have been the kind referred to in “Birdman”. I doubt that Iñárritu thought through any of this and was simply exploiting Keaton’s somewhat enigmatic disappearance from pubic view.
If any Raymond Carver fan had been considering “Birdman”, they should not waste their money. The author’s work plays about as much or a role in the film as does the underwear that Keaton wears when he walks through Times Square to get back into the theater after being accidentally locked out. Was it Haines? Was it Calvin Klein? Who cares?
What critics undoubtedly ate up were the scenes in which Keaton and Norton squared off, with the younger and more aggressive character seeking a symbolic castration of the older one. If you are one for listening to Edward Norton verbally abuse Michael Keaton, don’ t let me stand in the way.
The film plays with notions of art versus commerce but only in the most superficial way. I suppose if you’ve never seen Preston Sturges’s “Sullivan’s Travels” or Jean-Luc Godard’s “Contempt”, “Birdman” might pass muster. My misfortune is to be old enough to have seen such films in my youth and being spoiled by the experience.
I suppose I should have not expected more from Alejandro Iñárritu, a Mexican director who relocated to Hollywood after cashing in on “Amores Perros”, a pretty good if utterly nihilistic black comedy.
I decided that he was not the great genius and savior of Hollywood after seeing “Babel” in 2006, about which I wrote:
Iñárritu is trying to say something about communication–hence the title of the film. The Japanese girl degrades herself because she can’t speak. The Mexicans are harassed at the border because they don’t speak English. Brad Pitt is driven to distraction because the Moroccans, who speak no English, can’t respond to his remonstrations about the need to properly care for his wife.
Unfortunately, the tower of Babel is a better metaphor for this film’s inability to say anything meaningful to the audience. The Moroccan boys are grotesques, driven as much by sexual impulse as they are by the impulse to shoot complete strangers. Up in the mountains, they take turns masturbating and firing the rifle aimlessly. Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett are absolute ciphers. Their characters remain total mysteries to the audience, a function no doubt of the scriptwriter’s inability to put together meaningful dialogue. Pitt’s lines consist almost exclusively of him cursing at Moroccans for not moving fast enough to help his wounded wife. One only regrets that the two boys had not reserved a bullet for him as well.
Going from the frying pan into the fire, “Listen Up, Paul” is the latest in “edgy” new comedies that featuring an insufferably obnoxious main character. Think of the most repulsive male character in Lena Dunham’s “Girls”, make him ten times worse and you end up with Paul Friedman, a thirty-something novelist played by Jason Schwartzman who always shows up in those “quality” films that are on the inside track for year-end awards, including “Grand Budapest Hotel”.
After publishing his second novel, Friedman makes a date with his ex-girlfriend and then with a college buddy to rub it in their noses. He was too good for them. Now that he has finally “made it” (in terms of Norman Podhoretz’s toxic memoir), they should understand what losers they are. After the college buddy is revealed to be in a wheelchair, you get a sense of writer-director Alex Ross Perry’s sense of humor.
Sitting through “Listen Up, Philip” was the longest 108 minutes I have spent since watching “Interstellar”. In almost every scene, Friedman verbally abuses girl friends, writers workshop students, and complete strangers. If I had been sitting in a theater press screening and Ross had climaxed the film with one of the abused stabbing him in the throat with a pair of scissors, I would have jumped out of my chair applauding wildly.
Not quite in the stratosphere as “Birdman”, the film earned an 84 percent Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Michael Sullivan of the Washington Post wrote: “Perry’s acerbic sense of the literary/academic lifestyle – which, oddly enough, involves less actual writing and teaching than drinking and ‘thinking’ – is both exceptionally funny and deeply sad.”
Like “Birdman”, the two main characters—both highly regarded novelists—never discuss writing once. The dialog is even more bereft of any serious discussion of art than “Birdman”. Their primary interest is in griping about how shitty the rest of the world is. Not even Shakespeare could make such dialogue interesting.
If any of my readers in film school is trying to come up with the idea for a term paper, I’d recommend taking a look at the growing tendency of narrative films to feature hateful creeps like Philip Friedman. If your natural tendency would be to avoid someone like Friedman in real life, why would you spend 108 minutes in his company, especially when the writing is so pedestrian as Alex Ross Perry’s? Dostoevsky had the talent to make a Raskolnikov compelling but even I could not finish “Crime and Punishment”.
From the very early ages of silent film to the mid-1960s, a major character had to be likeable. Charlie Chaplin was beloved by people everywhere. The Little Tramp was someone everybody could identify with, especially if you’ve been hassled by a cop or fired from a job. In the 1930s, we loved Bogie because he fought the good fight either as Rick in Casablanca or as Frank McCloud in Key Largo. Even as the tastes of scriptwriters and directors turned misanthropic, there were still films like “Cool Hand Luke” or “Lonely are the Brave”.
Maybe the rise of Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola had something to do with it. Their focus on flawed heroes such as Jake LaMotta and Michael Corleone must have convinced young directors and screenwriters to emphasize the anti-hero. That tendency eventually became the new orthodoxy, deepened no doubt by an underlying belief that American society is irreparably tainted. Although I still hold out hope for a new Little Tramp, I am afraid that social conditions to not favor that possibility.
Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.