Theology + Movies

Ad hoc reflections on cinematic depth

Month: December, 2014

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2014)

Much of the buzz surrounding Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman has to do with the director’s technical prowess. The film is largely set in the St. James Theatre in Manhattan, and Iñárritu revels in its labyrinthine structure — his handheld camera following the actors as they dart hither and thither around the place, bounding up narrow stairwells, slipping (or tumbling!) into dressing rooms and break rooms, almost unfailingly accompanied by the chaotic percussionist score of Antonio Sánchez. Moreover, as numerous critics have noted, Iñárritu edits the film as if it were done in a single continuous take, even though it is set over a few days. As the plot barrels toward its denouement, this technique serves to heighten the urgency. We don’t so much observe the anxiety of leading-man Riggan Thompson (an Oscar-worthy Michael Keaton) as experience it ourselves. The medium, to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, assumes the message. Indeed, Birdman is the kind of film that epitomizes the very nature of cinematic art: its combination of camerawork, soundtrack, special effects, voiceover, and editing “re-present” life in a way that only film can.

And yet, is there more? Does Birdman have a message beyond Iñárritu’s considerable ability? After all, one reviewer has accused Iñárritu of essentially showing off, foregrounding technical wizardry at the expense of story. It is an interesting criticism, but is it a fair one? On the surface, at least, the plot of Birdman is not hard to comprehend. Riggan is an aging moving star, famed for his portrayal of the superhero “Birdman” but dismissed by critics as a hack. Now, with his career in decline, he has decided to return to his thespian roots, adapting Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” for the stage. It is a bold but desperate move. Riggan’s personal life is in shambles, and his cast — led by the difficult “method actor,” Mike Shiner (Edward Norton, brilliant as usual) — is comically helter-skelter. Can Riggan overcome these obstacles? Can he, after years of CGI-enhanced popcorn flicks, deliver the performance of a lifetime and, in turn, silence his critics?

So far, so good. But Iñárritu is not content with such a straightforward narrative. Thus he imbues Riggan with real (or, at least, ostensibly real) superpowers: Riggan does not just play the Birdman but, in fact, seems to be the Birdman. We see him telekinetically smash objects, and he is capable of flight. This conceit could be a grand metaphor, or, as noted, it could be mere silliness on Iñárritu’s part. What is clear is that Iñárritu has no interest in sorting out this question for the viewer — an intention that becomes unmistakable in the film’s final scene.

What, then, are we left with? Part satire, part melodrama, part fantasy, Birdman never claims an identity. It’s a postmodern film for postmodern people, whose cynicism is too flinty for either comedy or tragedy. While another film might depict Riggan’s redemption or his comeuppance, Iñárritu is content to give us neither. But, perhaps, that is the message. In the real world, Iñárritu suggests, things are rarely as they seem: superheroes may be madmen and vice versa. Moreover, there are no objective grounds for deciding between the two. One sees suicide where another sees salvation.

In Iñárritu’s capable hands, Birdman offers a punto de vista worth pondering. Yet, with Christmas fast approaching, it’s also a reminder of an older story — alas, one bearing so much redemptive pathos that Dante, with an earnestness alien to the world of Birdman, called it a “divine comedy.”

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Philomena (dir. Stephen Frears, 2013)

The ninth “deliberation” in Søren Kierkegaard’s Works of Love (1847) is called “The Work of Love in Remembering One Dead.” Though it has been accused of suggesting that loving the dead is preferable to loving the living, Kierkegaard’s argument is actually far different. As he sees it, one of the pitfalls of human relationships is that, even when they flourish, there is a quid pro quo involved. It is not so, however, when one loves the dead, for to love the dead is precisely to love one who can give nothing in return. Hence, for Kierkegaard, the practice of loving the dead is a kind of “training” for loving the living. It teaches one to seek love even when it is not (palpably) returned, to allow oneself to be oriented by love even in the face of grim reality. In this way, the loving one comes to reflect the love of God.

Stephen Frears’ Philomena might be seen as a meditation on Kierkegaard’s insight. Inspired by a true story — albeit with a few key deviations — it tells of Philomena Lee (Judi Dench, in a poignantly understated performance), an Irish woman who longs to be reunited with the son she gave up for adoption almost fifty years before. But there are significant obstacles. Philomena’s son was conceived out of wedlock, and, as punishment, she was sent to work at Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, Ireland. In turn, the abbey’s nuns legally assumed control over her affairs, including her baby. So, when they approved the child’s adoption by an American family, Philomena was not only powerless to prevent it but even excluded from any knowledge of his whereabouts. It was, in any legal or political sense, as if she had never known him.

And yet, one of the presuppositions of Philomena is that love cannot be reduced to the juridical or to the political. Love has the unique quality of being limitless, uncorrupted by worldly realities or the ravages of time. Hence, when journalist Martin Sixsmith (a mordantly amusing Steven Coogan) agrees to help Philomena find her son, she jumps at the opportunity. Philomena and Sixsmith are the proverbial odd couple, and Frears mines their relationship for both humor and perspective. Philomena (despite everything) is a devout Catholic, while Sixsmith is an atheist, who cannot reconcile faith in God with the atrocities of the news cycle. Ultimately, the validity of their respective worldviews is tried in the extreme. Following a number of leads, they learn that Philomena’s son, after a successful career, died of AIDS and requested to be buried in Ireland — indeed, at the very abbey in which he was born. Sixsmith is livid. The nuns had told Philomena that they knew nothing of her son’s fate. Thus the pair travel back to Roscrea, where a climactic confrontation takes place.

Indeed, it is here that the film’s theme crystallizes. Frears depicts two opposed institutions — that of a church seeking to protect its interests and of a press hostile to everything but a marketable story. Philomena refuses to join either side. She is angry with the sisters of Sean Ross Abbey, even as she wants nothing to do with Sixsmith’s cynicism. To be a Christian, she understands, is about love. And it is the love that she has for her son — a love that is its own gift, for it asks nothing of the other — that now teaches her to forgive.

As is well-known, many have objected to this denouement, noting its historical inaccuracies and (potentially) anti-Catholic undertones. Granted, the portrayal of one Sr. Hildegarde (Barbara Jefford) is, in effect, pabulum, pandering to the crudest stereotypes of Catholic nuns. And yet, Philomena does not dwell on this point. As the film comes to a close, Philomena visits the grave of her son. A chastened Sixsmith joins her there, and he presents her with a small figure of the Most Sacred Hart of Jesus. The aging woman places it on her son’s gravestone — a symbol of the love in which she shares and still finds hope.