Monday, January 5, 2015

The Birdman's Comeback, or (I Don't Need To See That)

In an early scene in Alejandro G. Iñárritu's new film, Birdman, the main character, an old ex- movie star looking to make a name for himself in a new play on Broadway, speaks to a group of assembled journalists in his dressing-room. Among them are an excitable Japanese fellow who wants to know if Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) will make a follow-up film in his old 'Birdman' franchise, and a pretentious journalist who drawls at length about the act of creation. That journalist is played by Damian Young, whom viewers of the TV show The Comeback will recognise as Mark, husband to Lisa Kudrow's Valerie Cherish, an old ex- TV star looking to make a name for herself in a new TV show on HBO. To say that the comparison does not flatter Birdman may be more to do with The Comeback's strengths, particularly in the way it critiques the world it is set in.

The two works are defined by their method. The central conceit of  Birdman is that the entire film has been craftily edited to appear like one continuous shot, meaning that we follow the film's action over the course of several days in what looks like one dizzying take. This means that there is a great deal of Steadicam work involved in following Michael Keaton along corridors, and a fair amount of aerial match cuts designed to give the illusion of continuity. This stylistic straitjacket means that a lot of the film comes across as an extension of Riggan's mind: indeed, the film does some great work of positing the theatre as a metaphor for the actor's psyche, travelling with him into dark recesses and along tortuous corridors backstage, where Riggan frets about his life and work, and back out onto the vast and overlit stage itself, on which he hopes to present himself to the world.

The Comeback also hews closely to its central character, as the show affects to be a reality TV documentary following Valerie Cherish in her private and professional life. The format also allows us to explore the difference between reality and performance, making the audience work to discern what part of Valerie's presentation to camera is affected and what is genuine. The difference with Birdman is that the docu-drama conceit gives us the chance to experience the world around her in hyper-reality, and we are able to see what a helpless pawn she is, how tiny and futile Valerie's struggle is. Birdman's perspective is masculine, and masculinist: it perceives the world, and other people, as ramifications of Riggan's mind, and when he steps into the world outside his theatre (in one of the film's best scenes, when the actor unwittingly locks himself out of backstage in only his underwear) he may be vulnerable but he is walking in his world. The Comeback's perspective is feminine, and feminist, going so far as to criticise the world that Birdman adopts unquestioningly as its own: Valerie is essentially powerless in her own existence, relying on men and their clout for work and validation. The world she works in is not hers: it is just another place for her to fall over in, and she can be trod on by men or rescued by men, but her chances of making something for herself, as a woman, are slim to non-existent.

We see this in fantasy sequences in both works. In Birdman, Riggan imagines his own character from his film franchise, a winged superhero, giving him confidence and spurring him on, in a bravura sequence in which he takes flight above New York while voices tell him he can rise above everyone else. He also imagines himself to have the power to displace objects with his mind, which he does in his dressing-room when alone, smashing vases against walls. Riggan's imagined powers are violent and magical, enabling him to escape his situation, granting him uniqueness. He is special by dint of - well, in Birdman, a weakness of the film is that we are made to take Riggan's exceptionalism as granted and will him on for no other reason than that he is the central man. In The Comeback Series 2, Valerie Cherish plays a character based on herself, in a TV show called 'Seeing Red', scripted by her old foe from Series 1, Paulie G, who detests Valerie and has always made a point of demeaning her. The show within a show on Series 2 is Paulie G's revenge on Valerie, writing her into his show as a shrewish monomaniac who pushed him to depression in the past, and exacting humiliations on her both as a character and an actor. In fantasy sequences, Valerie is made to fellate Paulie, dress as a cartoon monster, and be tied, bound and gagged in a car trunk full of snakes in a sweltering desert. This is The Comeback's brutal takedown of male navel-gazing: the sense that the world is his to play around in, to build in his own image, is Paulie G's birthright. Valerie knows that she must go along with him or be perceived as joyless, stupid, a harpy - but the programme is clear that his fantasies are extensions of his self-aggrandising masculinity.

This theme continues with gender politics and the approach taken in both works to sexual relations between men and women. In the 'blowjob' episode of The Comeback (one of the most coruscating pieces of work you could ever see about women in the TV industry), Valerie Cherish is made to fellate Paulie G, the man who hates her. In Seeing Red, his re-imagining of their old conflicts, Paulie G is played by Seth Rogen, who early in the episode confuses Valerie by riffing during a scene they have together. She is a woman so she must stick to her lines; he is allowed to play around, to put his imprint on the work. It's not her world. She must compromise. Later, when they have to play the blowjob scene together, Rogen is directed to beckon Cherish's character over. He says: "Walk over here." At this point, Valerie, who has gone practically mad with worry about how to play this scene, and who is not only feeling the pressure of performing well in her first HBO show but struggling with the demeaning nature of the episode, elects to riff the following line, which naturally falls flat: "Walk? It's been a long day - why don't you just rape me?" The line is actually pretty good, but Rogen is horrified, and the director shouts cut. Valerie was clearly speaking out of exasperation, obviously venting her frustration, her impotence. The scene is reshot, eventually, with Valerie's head resting by Seth Rogen's crotch while he embarks on a stream of sexual comments, and the camera stays on her, showing how agonising her situation is to her.

Birdman, by contrast, is so ruled by the masculinity of its perspective that it finds three different ways to laugh at and minimise an attempted rape. In a performance of Riggan's play, the volatile and quirky actor played by Edward Norton attempts to have sex with the actor played by Naomi Watts, on stage and against her volition. When interrupted by another character in the play mid-scene, he stands up with a full-on erection, which the audience laughs at. The offence is minimised by the film as the characters are also partners within the film. Later, Naomi Watts complains about the attempted rape (not in those words) to a fellow actor, played by Andrea Riseborough, who reacts as follows: "That's hot!" Cue audience laughter. Whoa, thanks for the support, sister! Birdman was written by three men.

These are the derelictions of tone that make it difficult to view Riggan as an ambiguous character. Is his solipsism, his puffed up sense of himself, being critiqued in the film? His daughter, played by Emma Stone, tells him how small his life is, how little he matters, and the special effects sequences occasionally seem to paint him as a delusional pseud - but the film's tone seems to be saying something else with its insistent, rattling score, with its swirling and swooping camera, with its feverish close-ups and its metaphors. It makes too big a fuss of him for us to ignore him. Riggan does matter, it seems to say. Look at him - his struggle counts, it is your struggle, it is our struggle! A struggle to be noticed! By contrast, The Comeback is frighteningly, caustically aware of how little is at stake in Valerie's quest for fame, and of how much has been sacrificed for this folly. We see her lose her dignity, struggle with her loved ones, and all for what? To be recognised. Not in the sense of being celebrated, but in the sense of people being aware of her existence, at all. The Comeback has more heart than Birdman, so finally it gives us something to care about: it shows us Valerie's talent. In the end, her sacrifices have been so great, she has tried so hard, and she has an ability that she had never been able to tap before. The second series of The Comeback finds us rooting for her like never before, while remaining fully aware of the paucity of her dreams. Riggan is seemingly not talented, and no-one in Birdman has bothered to ask us to care about him: we have no backstory, few meaningful relationships, nothing to hang our emotions onto apart from the cast-iron interiority of this main man.

In a key scene in Birdman and a key episode in The Comeback Series 2, the star meets a journalist from the New York Times, who is set to write a make-or-break review of their forthcoming work. In Birdman, Riggan furiously confronts a theatre critic played by Lindsay Duncan who tells him for reasons not made especially clear that she will pan his play before she has even seen it. He rails at her, telling her to stick her review inside her 'tight ass'. The scene is too jarring to be read on one dimension: Duncan's character stands for all reviewers, all critics, all those intefering, who have no idea about the guts required to create, to put your art on the line. Of course she is female and of course she is old, and the fact that she reviews plays sight unseen is another low blow by Iñárritu, who makes clear his contempt for reviewery, for anything that might interfere with the nobility of his purpose. Valerie on the contrary learns from her reviewer - having worried about a negative review, she is surprised to hear, learn and then to believe that she has talent. The New York Times reviewer correctly identifies a rawness in Valerie's performance that she perceives as 'brave': when The Comeback satirises journalists it does so gently, showing that the term 'brave' only applies to female actors when they have surrendered the qualities that are meant to make them female; the whole reviewing industry does not have to be vilified in so doing.

At the end of Birdman an ambiguous sequence, a final flight of fancy closes the film. Riggan appears to have literally taken flight, and the last shot finds his daughter marvelling at his freedom, at the audacity of his escape. Valerie, in The Comeback, has to stay aground.

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