Epigraph: (What We Talk About When We Talk About Art)
Birdman, directed by Alejandro G. Inarritu, winner of four Academy Awards including Best Picture of 2014.
by Jan Galligan & Lillian Mulero, Santa Olaya, PR
Lillian and I talk about art most of the time. I don't mean that this is the only subject of conversation, just that art inhabits our life; we look at everything from the point of view of the artist. This is probably true for doctors, lawyers, maybe accountants, certainly true for scientists, musicians, filmmakers, writers, poets, and theater people – the world is a stage, after all.
Alejandro G. Inarritu's latest film, Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), takes this literally, although the world here is confined to mid-town Manhattan and all the air above it. For the most part, it is further confined to the backstage and basement dressing rooms of the St. James Theater located on 44th at Broadway, in the Theater District near Times Square. Some of the action is restricted to the theater's stage, while the rest takes place inside the main character's head. Riggin Thompson, former Hollywood star of the blockbuster action-film series Birdman, has written a play based on What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (original title: Beginners), Raymond Carver's iconoclastic, breakout, short story. Carver had the reputation for writing very terse, short short stories. His writing has been labeled minimalist, and “dirty-realist,” although he rejected both characterizations. Recent literary scholarship has revealed that the version of his story published in an award-winning collection of the same name, had been pared down by Carver's editor, Gordon Lish, so that it represented less than half of the original manuscript. The original story, Beginners, has recently been published in its entirety, through the efforts of Carver's widow.
All seventeen of the stories in that collection were heavily edited by Lish, and most were retitled. On the eve of publication, Carver had a change of heart, a crisis of confidence, and wrote a seven page impassioned letter to Lish begging him to delay publication, or not publish at all, despite having signed a contract with Knopf based on Lish's version of Carver's stories. Carter wrote: Dearest Gordon, I've got to pull out of this one. Please hear me... I look at “What We Talk About...” (Beginners) and I see what you've done, what you've pulled out of it, and I'm awed and astonished, startled even, with your insights. Please help me with this, Gordon. I feel as if this is the most important decision I've ever been faced with, no shit... Please, Gordon, for God's sake help me in this and try to understand. Listen. I'll say it again, if I have any standing for reputation or credibility in the world, I owe it to you. I owe you this more-or-less pretty interesting life I have. But if I go ahead with this as it is, it will not be good for me...
Two days later Carver relented, the stories were published as Lish had edited them, the book garnered rave reviews, cemented Carver's reputation as a minimalist, and sold thousands of copies. Two years, and one more collection of stories later, also edited by Lish, but this time lightly, relations between Carver and Lish were strained to the breaking point. Lish wrote to Carter: … we've agreed that I will try to keep my editing of the stories as slight as I deem possible, that you do not want me to do the extensive work I did on the first two collections. So be it Ray. Two months later Carver wrote to Lish: What's the matter, don't you love me anymore? I never hear from you. Have you forgotten me already?
Writing about Birdman, critics have made much of the fact that Michael Keaton, former star of the blockbuster Batman series, plays Riggin Thompson, former star of the blockbuster Birdman series, who plays Nick, narrator of Carver's story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, who is the main character in Thompson's play of the same name. They also point to the fact that Edward Norton played Bruce Banner in the Incredible Hulk, after playing the lead as the Narrator in David Fincher's breakout film Fight Club. In Birdman, Norton plays famous Broadway method actor, Mike Shiner.
On the eve of opening night, during the final preview performances, Thompson hires Shiner to replace an actor Thompson deposes, because he was not up to the part. Shiner is more than adequate. He has inhabited the play even before arriving for his tryout, primarily because he had been rehearsing the play for months with Lesley, his live-in girl-friend. He lives with her, or as she says in a puzzling aside, “we share a vagina.” Funny, because he is also purported to be impotent, at least off stage. On stage he is a demonic actor, impetuous, impervious, inspired and sexually charged. In his first run through with Thompson, Shiner knows all of his character, Mel, a 45-year old cardiologist's lines and Thompson's Nick character's, as well. Within minutes, Shiner has -- through a series of readings, coaching Thompson on how to deliver his lines, making continual suggestions that Thompson pare down his dialog, cutting it to the bone -- rewritten the action so that Thompson's Nick has Shiner's Mel completely mesmerized. It's at this moment it becomes clear that the film Birdman, is not about a theatrical, and by extension cinematic, adaptation of Carver's story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, but is instead about the tortured relationship between author Raymond Carver and his editor Gordon Lish.
This explains the subsequent conflicts between Thompson, and Shiner who is constantly working to remake the play, find its essence, hone its presentation, and control the public's perception, and ultimate reception of the play. Shiner dramatically cuts short his first preview performance by stepping out of character, breaking down the wall, and talking directly to the audience, to tell them what shit the play is at that point. This nearly leads to fisticuffs between Shiner and Thompson. Next, Shiner manages to get a cover story in the Arts section of the New York Times, an interview with him and a preview of his participation in Thompson's production. He practically takes ownership of the play, and does take ownership of Thompson's origin story of having been inspired by Raymond Carver to become an actor. Thompson is so incensed, that he does end up in a fist-fight with Shiner, nearly giving him a shiner, and finally, they are wrestling on the ground, in a metaphoric sexual embrace. Thompson is embarrassed. Shiner remains impervious, as Thompson beats him over the head with the wadded up newspaper article.
By this point, Thompson has lost face and most of his self respect. The only solution seems to be a dramatic gesture. On opening night, in the emotionally wrought closing scene, Thompson enacts the suicide shot to the head using a real gun, but he misses and shoots off his nose. The curtain falls.
The play is a critical success. Despite his Hollywood action-hero baggage, Thompson is hailed as a new voice in American theater, bringing fresh blood to the stage and, displaying the unexpected virtue of ignorance, inventing a new super-realistic form of dramatic presentation. He has literally “cut off his nose to spite his face,” and with that, he flies out the window.
Looking at Inarritu and his co-writers' script suggests that despite a great deal of the dialog, especially in scenes of the play, coming directly from Carver's short story, the central conflict, and some of the off-stage dialog comes from Carver's tortured letter to Lish, trying to delay or halt the publication of his book of short stories. There seem to be three central themes to Inarritu's Birdman.
One: getting caught with your pants down, everyone's worst nightmare -- running around in public in just your underwear. For Thompson this is a major humiliation. For Shiner, it's just another day at the office.
Two: floating – above the ground, or high in the sky. Everyone's favorite dream, and the essence of self esteem and well being. Here that domain belongs to Thompson alone, and it may be all in his head. This was true for Carver as well. In a letter to Lish, at one of his high points, six months before publication of his story collection, Carver writes: I'm happy, and I'm sober. It's aces right now, Gordon. I know better than anyone a fellow is never out of the woods, but right now it's aces, and I'm enjoying it.
Actor Michael Keaton as Riggin Thompson, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki,
director Alejandro G. Inarritu, and co-writer Nicolás Giacobone, with Birdman 3 poster.
director Alejandro G. Inarritu, and co-writer Nicolás Giacobone, with Birdman 3 poster.
Three: mentioned before, Thompson's act of self-mutilation, self-retaliation. From the start of the film this is hinted at, foretold, in the masks which cover the Birdman movie character's face, the mask of The Phantom of the Opera, still playing across the street from the St. James Theater, at the Majestic Theater on Broadway, and the hospital bandages of an old man in a story Thompson's cardiologist Nick character tells during the play, and then Thompson's own bandages when he wakes up in the hospital after his gun “accident” and a rhinectomy and nose-replacement surgery. His face is not the same and his public image will never be the same. People will no longer recognize him for who he was, let alone who he has become. Exactly the fate that Carver feared so deeply when he wrote to Lish, wishing there was some way to rise above it all: As I say, I'm confused, tired, paranoid, and afraid, yes, of the consequences... So help me, please, yet again. Don't, please, make this too hard for me, for I'm just likely to start coming unraveled... God almighty, Gordon... Please do the necessary things... Please try to forgive me, this breach. Ray.
Epitaph: “A Thing Is Just a Thing, Not What People Say About That Thing.” Card, taped to the mirror in Riggin Thompson's dressing room.