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Laughter and Tears – Birdman and Whiplash

There aren’t many films that are genuinely laugh out loud funny, but I have to say that Birdman, starring Michael Keaton, is one of them, although the humour is pretty dark at times.  The film tells the story of washed up Hollywood “superhero”, Riggan Thomson’s attempt to relaunch his career as a serious stage actor by putting on a play based on Raymond Carver’s short story, What We Talk About, When We Talk About Love.

Michael Keaton squares up to Edward Norton in Birdman

Michael Keaton squares up to Edward Norton in Birdman

Not surprisingly, one disaster strikes after another.   On the night before the previews open, one cast member, admittedly one Riggan is desperate to get rid of, is injured by a falling light.  As a replacement, Riggan’s manager and the show’s producer, hires renowned Broadway method actor, Mike Shiner.  Shiner is played hilariously by Edward Norton as monstrously conceited thesp, so dependent on an audience for self-validation that he can only get it up in front of a packed theatre.  Needless to say, Shiner loses no time in trying to upstage Riggan at every opportunity.  Add to the mix Riggan’s neurotic, much younger girlfriend, his ex-wife, his recovering addict daughter and a diabolically bitchy theatre critic with the power to make or break any theatre production staged in New York and you have the perfect recipe for black comedy.

Yet despite all that, there’s a warm undercurrent to the film.  Throughout Riggan’s trials, his cinematic alter ego, the eponymous Birdman, berates and upbraids him.   But although Riggan seems to have retained a number of Birdman’s supernatural powers including the ability to levitate, move objects using his mind alone and fly unaided above the streets of New York, his chief preoccupations remain deeply parochial.

The film explores the idea that as successful we might appear to be, we remain beset with the same commonplace anxieties – are we loved, what’s our place in the world, have we been successful?    Riggan might have had a stellar career in Hollywood, but he remains deeply insecure.  Years of impersonating Birdman to do nothing to save him from himself.

By contrast, Whiplash, written and directed by Damien Chazelle, is anything but a comedy.  Young drummer, Andrew Neiman – played by Miles Teller – is a student at an elite music school.  Andrew is determined to take his place among the jazz greats alongside Buddy Rich and Charlie Parker, but at what cost?  Neiman finds himself up against Terrence Fletcher, the sadistic leader of the school’s jazz band, who refuses to countenance anything other than total perfection.

Miles Teller and JK Simmons in Whiplash

Miles Teller and JK Simmons in Whiplash

In order to weed out the men from the boys, Fletcher, played by JK Simmons, resorts to cruel mind-games, excoriating verbal abuse and physical violence.  The result is a desperate duel, in which Fletcher pushes Andrew through blood, sweat and tears to the edge of insanity and beyond.   However Andrew is not a quitter and through the conflict, he gradually gains the mastery that will enable him to match and surpass his tormentor and earn his grudging respect.

The film explores a number of interesting ideas around what it is that enables an artist to stand apart from the crowd and become extraordinary and whether those that take that path pay too high a price for their success.    While there are abiding popular myths about those born to be geniuses, the reality is that greatness is almost invariably very hard won indeed.



Filed under Film, Screenwriting

A Proper Job

Congratulations to all the Oscar winners, and in particular, to Spike Jonze, who won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Her, and to John Ridley who won in the Best Adapted Screenplay category for Twelve Years A Slave. In the course of presenting the awards, Robert de Niro commented that, “The mind of a writer can be a truly terrifying thing – isolated, neurotic, caffeine-addled, crippled by procrastination and consumed by feelings of panic, self-loathing and soul-crushing inadequacy. And that’s on a good day.” Anyone who’s attempted to write a screenplay will know exactly what he’s talking about. Some of us are lucky enough to have the support of a loving family. All the same, there’s only so much friends and relatives can do; every dream is different and whether and how we choose to pursue our own particular nirvana is up to us alone.
Earlier in the week, I took our daughter to her singing exam. She has a lovely voice – husky, soulful with a sweet thread of melancholy running through it. In other words, she has a real talent. How wonderful, you might think. For me, however, it poses a problem because she herself is not convinced. As her mother, I want her to shine. I want her to be every bit as good as she could be. I want her to nurture her talent, work as hard as she can, make the very most of it.
That probably makes me sound like some sort of pushy gorgon of a parent. I have to remind myself that my role is to open the door and provide the opportunities for our daughter that will let her develop her talent herself, if that’s what she chooses to do. I can’t force her to practise more and nor can I do it on her behalf. At times, it can be maddening. On the morning of the exam, she insisted that I write in the note excusing her from classes that it was for a dental appointment, rather than a music exam. She refuses even to mention it all but her closest friends and doesn’t want me to tell my friends either. Hard as it is, I have to accept that her voice is her gift, not mine. All I can do is respect her wishes; I have no right to bathe in her reflected glory.
All the same, as she continues with her lessons, she’s becoming more willing to acknowledge what she is capable of. She likes music, she likes singing. And perhaps she deserves credit for recognising that a great talent brings with it a great burden of expectation that can be hard to meet, especially when you’re very young. In addition, she’s never wanted to step ahead of her friends or do anything as vulgar as seek the limelight for herself. Whatever I might feel, that’s the person she is.
I have to confess that I too find it almost impossible to tell people I’m a writer (or trying to be one). Like my daughter, it took me a long time to admit it, even to my own mother. Usually, if I mention it at all, I tell people writing is only a hobby and that I’m still looking for a “proper job” ie one that results in a pay-check at the end of the month. I too am not quite ready to expose myself to the full glare of public opinion.

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Hit or Miss

Okay, I’m going to abandon my career predicting award nominations right here and now. As has been repeatedly remarked upon, 2013 was a particularly rich year for films, but even so, I’m more than a little disappointed that most of my favourites have failed to garner even a mention in respect of the Oscars. Whatever happened to The Place Beyond the Pines, which featured Derek Cianfrance’s lyrical and thought-provoking script and a number of terrific performances, including Dane DeHaan as Jason and Eva Mendes as Romina? Nor was there any mention for Steve Carell or Alison Janney, both superb in The Way, Way Back. Or what about the many other very worthy contenders such as Behind the Candelabra, Breathe In, Side Effects, Mud and Frances Ha, none of which have been recognized in any category whatsoever. Some very decent British films have likewise failed to pick up nominations – for example Sightseers, The Selfish Giant or my personal favourite, Le Weekend. There have been some similarly surprising omissions from the list of foreign language film nominations too, for example Blue is the Warmest Colour, Wajdja and Cate Shortland’s Second World War story, Lore. Again none of them got a single mention.
That isn’t to say that the films that have been nominated aren’t great too. I loved American Hustle, and Bradley Cooper richly deserves his nomination for his performance in that. It would be fantastic to see Steve McQueen carry off the Best Directing award for Twelve Years a Slave. Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine was another stand out for me, though on the night, I predict the statuette will go to Sandra Bullock for her space tears in Gravity. I haven’t yet seen either Nebraska or The Dallas Buyers’ Club but am looking forward to doing so soon.
What this indicates is just how arbitrary the whole business is. Every so often, I’m asked what my favourite film is, and the truth is that I don’t have a favourite film because there are dozens I love for all sorts of reasons. Some remind me of a particular time in my life, some are clever and thought-provoking, some are deeply moving and some just make me laugh out loud time and again. Each of them is wonderful in its own right. How do you go about comparing Some Like it Hot with The Godfather? Or Breakfast at Tiffany with Carlito’s Way or Little Miss Sunshine with The Painted Veil? At the end of the day, success depends on luck as much as anything else. Yes, talent and perseverance and sheer hard work are essential prerequisites, but the fickle finger of fortune plays a very big part too. What about all the great films that have never been made because the writer just didn’t manage to find the right producer, or because the director didn’t manage to pull off that all important pitch that could have secured the necessary funding? When you really think about it, that journey from an idea in the head of a writer typing away at the kitchen table somewhere in an obscure corner of the globe, to the big glittering night when the finished film is celebrated and rewarded by a theatreful of the most famous and glamorous people on the planet seems nothing short of miraculous. Do I really believe in my heart-of-hearts that it could happen to me? I don’t know. Is it worth trying for it? Again I don’t know, but for now I’m still sitting here.

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