Friday, December 05, 2014

Birdman (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, 2014), Fort Apache (John Ford, 1948), I Love Melvin (Don Weis, 1953)

Up up and away

(WARNING: story and plot twists discussed in explicit detail here--in short, watch the film first!)

For  ninety percent of its running time Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Birdman (2014) is great fun, an immersive experience of the craziness that is the Broadway stage production that you appreciate especially if you know something about the theater stage or if you know something about filmmaking, preferably both. 

Much of the picture (written by Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., and Armando Bo) dwells on the nitty-gritty of stagebound life as it swarms through the warren of narrow corridors and sudden corners and claustrophobic rooms backstage. Inarritu gets a lot right, from financing (forever wobbly) to accident-prone rehearsals (opening scene features a spotlight dropped on an actor's head) to the revolving-door sex lives of cast and crew to the power struggles between cast and crew--in particular the struggles of actor-producer-director Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton as the former star of three hit Birdman movies) to control his production (a stage adaptation of the Raymond Carver story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love") and its one mercurial star, stage actor Mike Shiner (Ed Norton at his abrasive best).  

Keaton of course was the star of Tim Burton's Batman and Batman Returns, and this is supposed to add a meta-dimension to his ex-Birdman character (personally I prefer the Burtons, the latter being in my book a great comic-book film). More interesting than the casting (Keaton's always been a nervy, unpredictable performer) is the decision to have the superhero's voice speak to Riggan in his head--a device borrowed I'm guessing from Frank Miller's seminal Batman comic-book mini-series, The Dark Knight Returns, where an aging Bruce Wayne is haunted by his cowled persona (the avenger's voice growls from inside the caverns of his subconscious, goading him into acts of aggression or insanity; Riggan responds or resists according to his mood at the moment, his changing circumstances). 

Inarritu's style helps, the long takes that wend their way up front and back stage, sometimes wandering into the streets outside--way I see it, these shots (known in the Philippine film industry as tuhog (skewered) shots) help the actors' performances breath, allow them the chance to control pacing and influence the mis-en-scene. Inarritu in using these shots evokes the continuity of a stage performance, the theater stage being what it's all about; interestingly it gives the segueways into fantasy a more unnerving feel, suggesting Riggan is having trouble distinguishing from what is real and what is not--it's all the same to him.

The film starts to become problematic about a hundred and ten minutes in: after The New York Times' theater critic Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsey Duncan, in a particularly uncharitable and unjust portrait) informs Riggan she's going to destroy him he goes into a tailspin; reality and fantasy flip positions at an accelerated pace, and suicide is attempted--not just once but three times. I know it's in the cards--portraits of artists in artistic deadlock usually have them seeking the ultimate exit door (see: 8 1/2, All That Jazz) but the repetition here hits a point of diminishing returns; it feels silly, as if Inarritu didn't know how to end his film and was trying on all kinds (symbolic, poetic, transcendent), to see which fits.

Oh, one can complain about half a dozen other things--the digital effects are second-rate, the Birdman costume especially cheesy (at least Keaton in Burton's Batman movies sported a cool black-armor look), the actors aren't really allowed any inward moments (they have to be intensely on all the time, a complaint I can level at the acting in practically all of Inarritu's pictures), the word 'understated' and 'restraint' don't really come to mind--but for once Inarritu's jagged over-the-top intensity has found an appropriate place to roost, or as appropriate as can be imagined. One can see him spreading his wings wide as he can (because the theater stage is meant to accommodate all kinds of outsized egos, because onstage all of us no matter how megalomanic are birds of a feather). One can see him crowing to the heavens, daring the gods to pull him downone (despite the flaws, despite reservations of all kinds) can be forgiven for being impressed

Suicide is painless

(Again--watch the film first!)
Easy to cite Fort Apache as exhibit #3 in any thorough reply to Quentin Tarantino's head-scratching rant against John Ford,  (#1 and #2 being Sergeant Rutledge and The Searchers respectively) but watching the film again on TCM (which came back to Dish Network just when I was about ready to abandon my barely tolerable cable provider) it occurred to me that I had little idea why I'd cite this as proof of Ford's racism, relative lack of. 

Oh, there are obvious reasons--it's basically a retelling of the Custer legend, with Lt. Col. Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda) standing in for the famed general,  locations in Monument Valley for Little Big Horn. It's one of the earliest sympathetic portraits of Native Americans, with Cochise (the magnificently weathered visage of Miguel Inclan) speaking fluent Spanish (as opposed to Hollywood Indian) and outlining grave grievances against the U.S. government, promising defiance not out of sheer malevolence, but as the only sane reaction to continuous and systemic abuse. But if the film features Ford's ever-developing view of other races, it also shows Ford's ever developing view of racists--in particular, Fonda's Col. Thursday.  

Most folks remember Fonda as the soft-spoken idealist in The Grapes of Wrath, or the thoughtful, gangly lawyer in Young Mr. Lincoln. The forbidding, officious Thursday is probably far less well known, the same time it's probably closer to Fonda's true-life persona; here for perhaps the first time Ford gives that persona free rein on the big screen. Thursday is not a pleasant man: he's cold; by-the-book; at best a dictatorial father to his daughter, ironically named Philadelphia (Shirley Temple). Privately he's frustrated with his backwoods appointment and hungers for military glory; even more privately he feels nothing but contempt and mistrust for the Native Americans he has to deal with. 

It's a withering portrait of a racist and if that was all it was--amply aided by Fonda's oddly authentic performance--the film would certainly be memorable, perhaps great. What makes it greater, helps complicate the film's already invovled emotional texture is the way Fonda sneaks under the radar to win our sympathy anyway, despite Thursday's racism. Where another officer frustrated in his dealings with the Native Americans might react in frustration, even fury, Fonda's Thursday reacts with a shellshocked bewilderment; it's as if he realized these were not the natives he was expecting to fight, nor was this the victory he expected to win. 

He grows if anything stiffer, even more officious, as if clinging in desperation to the tatters of his notion of military honor. Not because he's intellectually stupid--he can see what's going on, he knows he's badly beaten--but because he can't think of any other way to accept the inevitable. He backs himself into a version of honor--not the kind he had in mind but more honest, the kind one ends up with when faced with one's end. 

And John Wayne's Captain York can't help but respond: like Thursday York's all about the military; like Thursday York can be arrogant, insistent on his own way. Unlike Thursday York can back up his position with hard experience, at least in the west (you wonder how things might have panned out if it was York who had to fight in the Civil War). Given a choice--expose Thursday for the fool he was or forever keep his peace--York (Wayne, laying rest to the notion that he was at best a limited actor) gives us what may be the bitterest expression in all of cinema. 

Why? Not quite sure--possibly York felt more empathy for Thursday than he expected ("there but for the grace of God--"); possibly York realized that Thursday was pushed as much as chose his ultimate circumstances--that he was as blinkered as anyone facing a new foe in a new land, and--like York--all he had to fall back on when he stumbled was Army protocol. Silly and in the end suicidal...not to mention fully and recognizably human. 

I love Donald

Don Weis' I Love Melvin made a year after Singin in the Rain was obviously an effort to cash in the success of the former but in many ways I prefer this lesser-known nonclassic--for one thing they dumped the blandly good-looking lead star (Gene Kelly, who in this film does honor us with his visage in a cut-out mask) and went with the athletic comic relief (the glorious Donald O'Connor, who delivered the in my book greatest single dance number in Singin'), and while the lead love interest (Debbie Reynolds) remains numbingly pert and cheerful (can you imagine O'Connor having to deal with the inimitable Jean Hagen?), she partly makes up for this by donning a pointy helmet, curling up into a football, and having herself booted high into the air every night (it's a dance number). 

And y'know what? It worked. Can't make the case that Melvin's songs are better than Singin's--they aren't--but I'd put up the former's dance numbers side-by-side against anything in the latter, with perhaps my personal favorite being O'Connor on roller skates in a gazebo (think how difficult it must have been to choreograph and shoot; beats Kelly splashing potholes in his tailor-made set, in my opinion). 

The ending (watch the film!) is gloriously loony, the plot being all about the value of appearances--Frank Schneider (Allyn Joslyn) wants a respectable husband for his daughter Judy (Reynolds); Judy a.k.a. Judy LeRoy (already with the screen name!) wants a Hollywood career; Melvin (O'Conner) wants Judy on the cover of Look Magazine, even if he has to fake the cover. 

Nice little reversal then when Melvin wakes up from a session of self-pity in the middle of Central Park and realizes Judy is on the cover of Look Magazine! Wish fulfillment at its most surreal, not to mention most charming (it's all a ruse in the name of love, and of course it's the girl who delivers). The lovers are reunited in the end, but that's not too big a reveal nor is it the point of the picture--and if I have to explain that, then you're overthinking all this. Which I would imagine is the real point of the picture.

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