Theology + Movies

Ad hoc reflections on cinematic depth

Tag: Manhattan

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.”

Blue Jasmine (dir. Woody Allen, 2013)

One of the more important insights of the Christian spiritual tradition — echoed from Gregory of Nyssa to Thomas Merton — is that life is not so much about accumulating as letting go, not so much a matter of working to acquire as learning to give away. It is, to be sure, a time-honored piece of wisdom, yet one that has little truck with contemporary society. After all, we live in a time where “growth” and “progress” are the watchwords of human enterprise, whether in business, politics, or even religion. If you’re not growing, if you’re not adding, if you’re not better today than yesterday (understood in a variety of terms, from money to prestige), then you’re doing something wrong.

Woody Allen’s latest film, Blue Jasmine, takes aim at this notion. It stars Cate Blanchett as Jeanette (“Jasmine”) Francis — a former Manhattan socialite who lost everything when her husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin), was arrested and convicted for fraudulent business practices. Panicky, overmedicated, and showing signs of psychosis, Jasmine relocates to San Francisco, where her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), lives. Through a series of flashbacks, it is revealed that their relationship has never been particularly harmonious: the sylphlike Jasmine, who, it is remarked, has the “good genes,” condescends to the more homely Ginger, who cannot extricate herself from working-class trappings. Even after Jasmine’s downfall, an imbalance remains. Jasmine disdains Ginger’s mechanic boyfriend, Chili (Bobby Cannavale), and she laments having to take shelter in Ginger’s overcrowded flat. What’s the point of living, she implies, if you simply accept mediocrity?

Nevertheless, Blanchett is able to transform Jasmine into a pitiable character: it’s not that she is a bad person but that she has failed to think through the purpose of life. Ginger’s problem, meanwhile, is that she cannot convince herself that Jasmine is wrong. Thus she suddenly finds Chili less than enticing, and, despite having everything that Jasmine doesn’t (a stable job, loving children, etc.), she cowers in her sister’s proverbial shadow. This, Allen suggests, is the real trouble with the “American Dream”: it keeps us from being content with what we do have; it sets up the terms of life in such a way that no one is ever actually happy.

In a sense, then, Jasmine is a victim. The question is: will Ginger, too, succumb to this counsel of despair? Will she come to save her life by learning to let it go? Allen only hints at the answer to the latter question. Indeed, given his “militant Freudian atheism,” it may be that he himself is unsure of the answer or of whether or not an answer even matters. Still, the triumph of Blue Jasmine is that it diagnoses the problem in pointed fashion, and, to paraphrase Kierkegaard, the secret of Christianity is to become sick with some purpose.