Saturday, January 31, 2015

Birdman and Heidegger's crisis of identity: A Film Doctor discussion

The Film Doctor and his wife sit on opposite sides of the dining table one cold winter evening in South Carolina. Dr. B eats a dark chocolate with sea salt caramel. She just came back from a local college baseball game. I was just reading Ibsen's Hedda Gabler. We both watched Alexandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Birdman last night, and we both thought it was excellent. Dr. B finds that it has weighed heavily on her mind, even enough to wake her up in the middle of the night, as her head fills with theories about what it means. I was mostly impressed with the acting and the film's snarky (but slightly hypocritical) treatment of superhero movies. Who knew that Ed Norton could adapt the swagger of a young Sean Penn? By the by, spoiler alert! We both get some decaf coffee, and the theorizing begins:

Dr. B: Okay.

FDr: Shoot.

Dr. B: The movie literalizes the metaphoric split between being true to yourself as a dramatic actor and the selling out to Hollywood celebrity lifestyle, so the Birdman character seeks ascendency in Riggan's (Michael Keaton's) psyche to try to convince him to return to his movie star self. Riggan hides from everyone else this inner voice of Birdman which suggest schizophrenia, and he hides his telekinetic powers from everyone around him as well.  I don't know if that telekinetic stuff is part of the magical realism of the movie or if it's supposed to be real within the movie's universe.

FDr: That's just what I disliked about the movie. The telekinetic powers, fun as they are, put Birdman on the same level as the superhero films that the movie mocks.

Dr. B: It's important because part of what Riggan has to do. His quest is not to be relevant as his daughter Sam (Emma Stone) loudly suggests to him, but rather to be able to admit to people that he's capable of being vulnerable. He has a weird relationship with his ex-wife and his ex-girlfriend, because he won't risk showing people what he can do. Probably his most honest relationship is with his lawyer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) who at least understands his search to show what he can do is important.  Riggan reveals himself in the play he directs and acts in. His whole identity, his whole self-worth, is wrapped up in the risk of the play.  The telekinesis is a metaphor for his real talent as a dramatist, an actor, and as a person who is insightful into the human condition. Even when he tells Jake that he drops a light on a bad actor's head on purpose, no one believes him because Riggan hides everything from everyone. When he's sleeping on the stoop, that demonstrates how alone he is. Everybody's afraid to reveal that vulnerability. That's the facade the daughter Sam adopts too.

FDr: I mostly saw the film as a great way to showcase the actor's talents, and I liked the idea of one long pseudo-continuous shot. The film takes risks, and it maintains a level of intensity that seems earned because of the desperation of everyone involved.

Annoyed at my lengthy typing, Dr. B starts looking at a Belk catalog of Valentine-themed jewelry.

Dr. B: Some of the themes of the movie are imbedded in the themes of the Raymond Carver story (also the name of Riggan's adapted play) entitled "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," which concerns a person extremely alienated from everyone around him. That's the end result of what happens when you refuse to make a leap of faith and risk failure by trusting others. So, take the metaphor of his levitating....

Fdr: I saw all that floating and flying around as a kind of cheesy effort at transcendence such as one finds in the Talking Heads' song "And She Was."

Dr. B: It's more than that. Like the telekinesis, levitating is something that he trusts when he's by himself. He doesn't trust that he can jump off a building, so he levitates over the floor. If you translate that to his working life, he won't take a risk unless he knows its safe. So he literally has to risk annihilation to prove to himself that his talents are real. That's my main thesis right there. When he steps off the ledge, he's working without a net. He does this in front of his daughter Sam at the end of the movie.

Fdr: She just left the room.

Dr. B:  Riggan knew she would come back and see him fly. She wouldn't have let him do it otherwise. He wanted her to see the talent first. It reminds me of the end of the book Station Eleven when the people of the future can see lights in the distance from a tower, showing the eminent return of civilization. The world is going to be okay. That's how I felt at the end of Birdman. I couldn't imagine how it could end positively, but it does because Riggan finally knows that he can do it.

FDr: But people in real life cannot fly.

Dr. B: That's the magical realism touch. It's all a metaphor. Birdman mixes the real with the imaginary so well, the verisimilitude is not necessary at this point. For instance, I'm not sure if the drummer is real or in his head.

FDr: I understand that the drummer is a meta-cinematic device like the guy (Seu Jorge) who plays soundtrack David Bowie songs on the guitar for Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.

Dr. B: It's also reminiscent of the stage directions for Tennessee Williams' plays where the music becomes a character in the play. It's discordant, not melodious.

FDr: Williams used that music as an expressionist device to show Blanche's inner turmoil or the symbolism of Laura's impossible crush on Jim.

Dr. B: That drum solo is designed to show the discordant functioning of Riggan's thoughts. I like the way Keaton played that character as both blank and tightly complex. He's so unreadable, and yet open.

FDr: One could also say that the pounding drums indicate Riggan's midlife crisis, the lack of time he feels to put everything right. Also, the movie might drag without the staccato beat to offset the lulling pseudo-single shot technique.

Dr. B: I also think the whole labyrinthine theater, the hallways and doors, reflects Riggan's inner world. The fact that he has to get locked out shows how he hasn't mastered his self.

FDr: So, the film depicts an almost ritualistic stripping away of Riggan's psychological defenses that he's built up over the years.

Dr. B: (still looking at the catalog) Ed Norton's character Mike is there for contrast, because he can give it all up onstage. As he says, he's fully himself on stage, but he's absolute false in regular life. He's reached a place, unlike Riggan, where he's champion of the drama. He's only good at the real when he's fake.

FDr: That reminds me of the paradoxes of Inherent Vice. These Oscar-worthy films keep twisting every point they make into its opposite.

Dr. B: In some ways, Riggan has to go beyond the realness of the theater. The play is not just the play but a means for him to make himself vulnerable to everybody. He's trying to work out a relationship with his daughter. So, ultimately, the play only works when he no longer cares anymore. He can only be vulnerable when it no longer matters. It goes back Heidegger.

The Film Doctor groans.

Dr. B: One of Heidegger's points is that you can only understand your act of being when you fully acknowledge your lack of being, i.e. death. It's only when Riggan can semi-commit suicide on stage that he can fully break through as a great artist. It's not the act of doing it so much as committing himself to do it. Much of the time, he's thinking of his death, but it's only a phony Hollywood demise. Even the play he's putting on is about death, but it's only when he commits to walking onstage with a loaded gun that's when he's fully recognizing his not being. That's when he becomes fully himself.

FDr: Yet he lives. If he died, the end of the movie wouldn't work as well. I found the fact that he shot himself in the nose to be farcically funny.

Dr. B: There are moments of humor in the film that seem bizarre.

FDr: That may be the movie's saving grace (aside from its bravura technique), that it doesn't mind making fun of itself even amidst all of these serious crises of artistic identity.

Dr. B: Mostly, Birdman just made me want to go New York.

FDr: I agree. Let's go.

Risking it all, they leave on the Northbound Amtrak train that evening. 

Friday, January 30, 2015

novelty bias links

---The Bad Sleep Well (1960)--The Geometry of a Scene

---Smog Journeys

---"What makes Martin's study of mise en scène and film style is precisely its capacity to enrich an educated cinephile's cinematic experience by awareness of the stylistic elements and strategies employed to create any single film and the multiple ways those elements and strategies can be approached and expressed." --Michael Guillen

---The Oscars' Horrible Lack of Diversity

---Things Are Not What They Seem

---Altman TV

---"Around the world, instances of palpable, immediate environmental catastrophe and brazen, systematic oppression proliferated at a terrifying rate, which underscores a position we and others have taken of late: With such nightmares growing more real each day, where does dystopian fiction end and reality begin?" --Devon Malony

---one shot from Raid 2

---Children of Men Advertising and Propaganda

---trailers for Hard To Be A God, Kidnapping Mr. Heineken, Clouds of Sils Maria, H, Nobody Wants The Night, Nailed, Big Game, The Lazarus Effect, Eden, and Unfriended 

---Top 15 Mistakes Beginning Filmmakers Make

---"Daily / Sundance 2015 Index" by David Hudson

---"There is a certain seasoned impossibility to Rumsfeld—like an onion, if you pull back all of the layers, there is nothing but air. Because of this, there is a particular, almost vertiginous feeling when watching Unknown Known. In each exchange, Morris is always trying, and sometimes failing, to get the better of Rumsfeld. In this important sense, Unknown Known is fundamentally adversarial; we understand Rumsfeld’s decision-making negatively, because he never volunteers anything of himself. It is reveled through his misdirection and emphasis." --Juliana Cosma

 ---links to film magazines via Cinephelia and Beyond

---Annapurna Pictures: 2012 to the Present

---filmmaking tips from Mark and Jay Duplass

---"Multitasking creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop, effectively rewarding the brain for losing focus and for constantly searching for external stimulation. To make matters worse, the prefrontal cortex has a novelty bias, meaning that its attention can be easily hijacked by something new – the proverbial shiny objects we use to entice infants, puppies, and kittens. The irony here for those of us who are trying to focus amid competing activities is clear: the very brain region we need to rely on for staying on task is easily distracted. We answer the phone, look up something on the internet, check our email, send an SMS, and each of these things tweaks the novelty- seeking, reward-seeking centres of the brain, causing a burst of endogenous opioids (no wonder it feels so good!), all to the detriment of our staying on task. It is the ultimate empty-caloried brain candy. Instead of reaping the big rewards that come from sustained, focused effort, we instead reap empty rewards from completing a thousand little sugar-coated tasks." --Daniel J. Levitin

---World's Most Generic News Report

---the opening title sequence of Do The Right Thing

---"When you shoot with an iPhone, are you losing some control over your instrument. Yes. Are you losing image quality. Of course. Does it matter? Maybe not as much as you think, considering the fact that The Hollywood Reporter described the look of Tangerine as 'crisp and vigorously cinematic', with 'an aesthetic purity that stands out in a field where so much indie filmmaking has gotten glossier and less technically adventurous.'"--V. Renee

---The Setpiece

---"How Wes Anderson's Cinematographer Shot These 9 Great Scenes" by Kyle Buchanan

---"Over time, however, consumers’ waistlines exposed the expensive storage costs that allowed the oversupplied corn market to function. Far from receiving nutritional benefits from the supersize revolution, consumers functioned as the new repositories of agricultural surplus. Consumers’ bodies became jam-packed silos, replacements for the federal repositories that had once helped stimulate scarcity by keeping excess corn off retail shelves. Consuming ever-greater quantities of calories each year, Americans became bigger and bigger." --Bartow J. Elmore

---"As Inequality Soars, the Nervous Super Rich Are Already Planning Their Escapes" by Alec Hogg

---A Diary by George Lucas

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Bugs in noir land: 3 notes on Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice

1) In comparison to the clarity of Boyhood, Inherent Vice is murky. It has an idealized romantic subtext with a long lost girlfriend Shasta played by Katherine Waterston, a fundamental division between the squares (Nixon, the FBI, the police) and the hippies in an early 70s Los Angeles milieu, the director of The Master with his actor Joaquin Phoenix playing Larry "Doc" Sportello, a grungy distracted private eye with mutton chop whiskers who constantly invites the viewer to wonder how a forgetful stoner could ever remember anything long enough to solve crimes, a convoluted Thomas Pynchon story line (I tried to finish the novel Inherent Vice twice but couldn't) with much skullduggery, secret organizations, heroin, pizza to help with the munchies, a kidnapped billionaire, gunplay, Benecio del Toro playing a lawyer reminiscent of both Savages (2012) and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), Jena Malone, Reese Witherspoon, a lush neon-lit Rastafarian cinematography by Robert Elswit with lots of greens, reds, and yellows, and many characters asking Phoenix "What's up doc?" so that we can associate him with the trickster figure Bugs Bunny. Clear?

2) The movie seems written in a kind of code, not unusual with Pynchon, but it still left me wondering what Paul Thomas Anderson is saying. Even as it favors the hippie over the neurotic establishment types, Inherent Vice comes across as more serious than The Big Lebowski (1998). I was always bothered by the way the Coen brothers ultimately glorified Jeff Bridges' doofus central character as some sort of vessel of Zen wisdom, but Anderson seems to want Doc to cut both ways simultaneously. He is an anti-establishment authority figure, a sympathetic victim of police abuse, and a man capable of being quite astute in deciphering crimes with the boorishly humorous mega-cop Bigfoot (Josh Brolin with a buzzcut). In his recent films, Anderson likes to explore the various ways in which male authority establishes and undermines itself. In There Will Be Blood (2007), he diagrams the rapacious American capitalist mindset of Daniel Plainview, a man happy to seek profit absolutely regardless of the damage that it may incidentally cause to the people around him. With The Master (2012), Anderson ironically explores what little of mastery remains amongst con men, religious cults of personality, and damaged World War II vets.

3) In Inherent Vice, the only authority figure left is the freak with his John Lennon-esque military jacket, his granny shades, his sandals, and his long brown hair (at one point turned into a pseudo-Afro). One can see hints of Robert Altman's revamping of Philip Marlowe with a preternaturally nonchalant Elliot Gould saying "It's okay with me" no matter what happens (Altman's career seems like a good model for Anderson), but Inherent Vice's blend of social critique and slapstick satire makes it hard to know how to react. I get the feeling that the movie would benefit from the kind of slow, measured, note-taking viewing on Blu-ray that illuminates Scorsese's Goodfellas (1990).  In the meantime, much as Doc remains befuddled, I was often confused by Inherent Vice, perhaps because Anderson has conditioned me to look for Art when he was trying to be funny.  

Thursday, January 1, 2015

filmmaking links 2015

---"Ten filmmakers to watch in 2015"

---"Where to Find Film Work"

---Eduardo Angel's 20 best books on filmmaking

---Don't Worry About Your Gear: Casey Neistat's Guide to Getting Started

---5 Skills That Will Make You a More Valuable Filmmaker

---"Top 10 Screenwriting Blogs"

---"How Do You Make a Career in Independent Film in the Age of Piracy?" by Emily Buder

---What Is Composition?

---A Brief Look at Texting and the Internet in Film

---The Rules of Film Noir

---"The Evolution of Special Effects"

---"Team Top 10: The Greatest Working Cinematographers" and "21 World-Renowned Cinematographers Share the Shots That Heavily Influenced Their Work"

---learning from Reservoir Dogs

---Edgar Wright: How to Do Visual Comedy

---"The 30 Camera Shots"

----filmmaking tips from John Cassavetes, Shirley Clark, John Boorman, Lars Von Trier, Kentucker Audley, Alain Resnais, James Gray, Terry Gilliam, Frederico Fellini, and Joe Swanberg

---"The Essential Shorts"

---Evolution of the Dolly Zoom

---my December 2012 filmmaking links list (and the one before that)

---"7 Tips for Getting Great Footage on the Canon EOS Rebel T3i"

---Grip It Good

---The Art of the Close-Up

---"5 Essential Indie-Run Film and Filmmaking Resources"

---"The Filmmaker's Guide to Indie Festivals and Organizations" by Eric Escobar

---Kevin B. Lee's Transformers: The Premake"

---"50 Essential Feminist Films"

---"David Fincher: Into the Darkness"

---"25 New Faces of Independent Film" and "27 More Filmmaking Related Twitter Accounts You Should Follow"

---best title sequence website: Art of the Title

---Impossible Shots

---1000 Movie Snapshots

---"The 25 Best Films Directed by Female Film Directors"

---Nathalie of Mentorless looks back at 2014

---"How the Death of Mid-Budget Cinema Left a Generation of Iconic Filmmakers MIA" by Jason Bailey