Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance*, (or, There's Something About Actors)

"We Do Not Rent To Theatricals"**
- Old Rooming House Sign

(SPOILER ALERT - While discussing  the film Birdman, I will try not to give away too much of the plot, and definitely not the ending. That said, it's hard to write this post without discussing what happens in the movie, and that can certainly sometimes harm the experience. If you haven't seen the movie and would like to - you have been warned.)

Do not fear. I have no intention of deviating from the course of this blog, which is the insanity of a career on the production side of low-budget independent film, to indie film criticism. Many folks do it just fine right now, and, on the other end of the spectrum, many more people already do it badly, and I have no intention of competing with either crowd.

This is similar to my early forays in the world of the arts, which was as a writer and actor, a profession that had a similar spectrum. That side of my career when I came to a not-so-different decision that the world did not need one more mediocre actor, which I imagined was the extent of my talent.

My viewing of a matinee of Birdman  came on the heels of  finally finishing my series on Town Diary. Thank you, holiday time in New York, for providing an elder production person with ample free time to go to matinees.

It was only two short posts ago that I mentioned that my original plan for that script was not unlike this one, about the insanity of the backstage life in the theater. Of course, this is a path with deep tread marks in film, going back to the very early days, from the "I've got a barn. You've got the costumes. Let's put on a show" musicals to backstage back-stabbing in movies like All About Eve, to neurosis of the characters in Tootsie, which, while it covers soap operas, is filled with earnest, honest, true ac-tors from the theater world. Both Birdman and Tootsie are filled with characters determined to stay true to their pure art and eschew the crass and commercial (soap operas in the case of Tootsie, and the deluge of comic-book movies in Birdman.)

In fact, many of the characters in Birdman have sympatico companions in Tootsie. Ed Norton's insistence on the truth, and nothing but the truth, has echoes of Bill Murray's playwright ("I don't want my plays done at the Uris Theater. I only want my plays done in a little theater in the Village where the only people who see them are people who come in out of the rain")*** and of course, Hoffman's vain actor ("Nobody does vegetables like me!"). Teri Garr's neurotic actress would be right at home with this group. Where Garr's character famously tells Hoffman of the role he eventually takes, "I can't play her - she's, she's - she's a woman", one actress in Birdman comforts another in this scene.

Lesley: "I wish I had more self-respect?"
Laura: "You're an actress."

Indeed, Birdman is the movie that every film person who comes out of the theater world wants to write and/or direct. When done right - and this film is, for the most part - it offers a world where people are at the same time funny caricatures and real people who demand that you care about them. I got the same belly-laughs out of this that I got out of films like Tootsie and Noises Off and, on the film side, Tropic Thunder, The Player, and, of course, the inspiration of this blog's title, Living in Oblivion.

We are, after all, like family. We will defend our frailties, eccentricities and foibles to the death to the outside world, but among ourselves, we love nothing more than to pick at those same oddities. Undeniably, there is also the shadenfreude of watching others suffer as we have suffered.

Birdman does a very good job with the genre. Still, as I pondered it on the way home (yes, having all this free time leaves me time to not only see matinees, but ponder about them), the question that always troubles me about these films comes back. Sure, we love them but do "civilians" love them as much as we do?

To some degree, this can be said of any profession. If I search the internet, I'm sure there is a blog post of airplane pilots wondering this about Airplane. As with Tootsie, if they are broad enough, of course any audience will enjoy them just as much.

That is a problem with an "indie" film like Birdman. It spends so much time dismissing the crass commercialism of blockbusters that it would be an abject failure if it was broad enough for that audience, where as a film like Tropic Thunder can wear over-the-top blockbuster like a badge of honor.

Here, I started to think that Jack was right; that if we had done, this, it would have had limited appeal. We both loved Waiting for Guffman, but if we were going to be an even more obscure version of that film, there wasn't much chance of success. OK, so in the end we did not have any commercial success with Town Diary, and only limited critical success (Jack and I shared a screenwriting award from a very small L.A. festival).

I have a hunch that a lot of the critical acclaim and love for this film in the indie world comes exactly from this familiarity, and for many festival voters and indie film critics rooting exactly for this type of film and a character like Michael Keaton's Riggan Thomson. Keaton is an easy guy to root for and the parallels to his actual career (walking away from a third Batman the way his character, Thomson, walked away from "Birdman 4") make this a natural for him. The cinematography helps as well, accentuating every line and crease of his face, his receding hair line, the bags under his eyes, his sagging physique (though I would take it - he doesn't look that out of shape).We feel his pain.

Don't get me wrong. I really enjoyed this movie, and I'm fine if he and this movie gets awards. It entertained me. What more can I ask? If this was a review, it would get both of my thumbs pumped high in the air like celebratory fists***.

The more I thought about it, it was better than the outline I wrote for that comedy, so maybe, on this point, Jack was right. Maybe the world didn't need another one of these films either. In the end, though the fruit was sweet, it was of the low-hanging variety.

NB - Keaton won a Golden Globe, as did the screenplay

*This is the subtitle for the Birdman, in case you didn't know. Does a movie title really need a subtitle?

** I used to have one of these signs, and I remember them being popular in the homes of my theater buddies. I have never done the historical research necessary to say whether they were authentic or just another self-depricating reference. If anyone out there knows for sure, please leave a comment below.

***Some of the Tootsie quotes are from memory - I love those lines, but some were not on IMDB quotes and I don't have the script. If they are off by a word or two, don't shoot me.

****If you are too young to remember, this is a reference to the old Siskel and Ebert review show, which became a template for so many of those shows to follow. As you might imagine, this show, which began on PBS, had much more insightful criticism than most TV review shows today, yet it was incredibly entertaining. Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were reviewers for competing Chicago newspapers, at a time when newspapers still mattered. Neither was very TV savvy in the beginning, and the resulting spontaneity was much more fun than the more scripted shows today. We lost both of them too soon.

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