Birdman: A Thing Is A Thing


By Ryan Hilligoss, November 17, 2014

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Coming through people, I gotta a package here. Michael Keaton from Birdman, walking down Broadway in his undies

Coming through, I gotta a package here people. Michael Keaton from Birdman, walking down Broadway in his undies

I went to see Birdman last week with my good friend Dave, The Reverend Mr. Black, and after the movie ended, we watched the credits waiting for what he said might be the ultimate homage to super hero movies which would be a quick snippet of footage leading viewers towards the next series installment such as appears at the end of The Avengers. He asked me to reel off some adjectives to describe the movie. But all I could jokingly verbalize was the word heavy….heavy man… because I was trying to wrap my head around the movie and still am five days later.

The film is visually stunning as it is made up of several long shots stitched together as the camera follows the actors and stage crew around backstage of St.John’s theater in NYC where Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is a washed-up Hollywood actor who once played the superhero Birdman in three blockbuster movies, before leaving the multi-billion-dollar franchise. More than 20 years after Birdman, Riggan wants to reinvent his career by writing, directing, and starring in a play, an adaptation of Raymond Carver‘s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love“. Throughout all of this, Riggan from time to time hears his voice as Birdman either mocking or bolstering him; he also performs small feats of telekinesis and levitation when he is alone.

In the voice of Birdman, "How did we end up here? It smells like...balls."

In the voice of Birdman, “How did we end up here? It smells like…balls.”

Co-writer and director Alejandro G. Inarritu, director of prior films Babel and 21 Grams, wrote the script specifically for Keaton and sent it to him to read. According to Keaton who recently appeared on Letterman, he read it and called the director and said, “Are you making fun of me?” Keaton starred in the first two Batman movies but rejected the lead role in the series’ 3rd installment along with a reported $15 million dollars. In Birdman, Riggan is asked by a critic if he’s not just doing this production so he can’t be accused of being a washed up actor of comic book films and he responds, “That’s why 20 years ago I said no to Birdman 4. “As a child, I grew up watching Keaton star in films including my favorites, Mr.Mom, Gung Ho, Night Shift and of course Beetlejuice. While he has been acting on a regular basis since walking away from the Caped Crusader, he is probably known by most young viewers today as the voice of Chick Hicks from Cars and Ken from Toy Story 3.

In Riggan’s dressing room, on his mirror is taped a quote, “A thing is a thing. Not what is said of that thing.” This concept speaks to me as an overriding theme of the movie, story and philosophy. In one great scene, Riggan has a confrontation with his daughter Sam, played by Emma Stone, who he employed after she was released from rehab as his production assistant. Riggan tells her that this play is the first time he’s been able to do something important. “Important to who”, she asks and then tells him that he and his “art” are not important to anyone just like no one else in the world is important and he better get used to it. Ouch!!! For an actor struggling with issues of ego, celebrity, and popularity versus art, coming from his daughter, these comments left a visible impact on his face and psyche. A thing is a thing reads to me as an argument for intrinsic, inherent value versus social or critical value. As an artist, if you want to make a movie, play, story, poem, etc, you craft it for the value of the act and end result itself and how that speaks to you the artist, not the praise or criticisms of viewers and critics.

Which leads to my favorite scene of the movie. After a preview of the play, Riggan and fellow actor Mike Shiner, played by Edward Norton as a narcissistic, pain in the ass ‘serious actor’, go into a bar for a drink. Shiner looks around the bar and says to Riggan, “See that lady at the end of the bar who looks like she just licked some homeless guy’s ass?” Riggan, after being accosted by a passing family for a photo with “the guy who used to be Birdman”, sees the lady and responds,” Jesus, she does look like she just licked a homeless guy’s ass. The lady in questions is the drama critic for The New York Times who informs Thomson that, come opening night, she will destroy his efforts and close down his play. Why? Because she claims he, and by association many other film stars who have turned their efforts to drama on Broadway, are children, not true actors who are taking up valuable theater space that instead should be used for productions of more merit and value. Riggan explodes,informs her he is sacrificing everything with this production including his money and career, asks her what she has ever done with her life, grabs her notebook upon which she is writing her review and picks apart her writing, and finishes by telling her to shove her paper up her wrinkly…tight, old ass.

The writing in this exchange is sharp and seems very specific and possibly is a reflection of how Inarritu feels about culture critics in general and more pointedly, critics of his past films that have pointed out his self-importance and piety. And I wholeheartedly agree with him on this point. Professionals and lay persons abound with catty, negative comments on the artisitic works of others, but what have they ever done? Have they ever written a short story, play, poem? Have they ever learned a musical instrument and performed or recorded any songs? Have they ever written a script, directed a movie or acted on stage? Mostly, no, their efforts are saved for savaging the efforts of others. The only cultural critic I am aware of who made a successful transition into culture itself has been Jon Landau who began his career as one of the first rock and roll critics, writing for Rolling Stone and other publications, and then helped produced records for The MC5, Jackson Browne, and Springsteen’s Born To Run, after which he became Springsteen’s manager.

The same goes for government and politics. Talking head pundits on never-ending news channels and op-ed writers prattle on to eternity about politicians, government officials and civil institutions, but have they ever ran for elected office or served in a public role? Rush Limbaugh sits in his nice shiny studio, speaking into his golden microphone while collecting his $50 million a year for pontificating and blithering about what legislators should or shouldn’t be doing. Well, if you know so much, then why don’t you build a campaign organization, run for office and if you win, implement your great ideas. Until then, write a check and go to hell. I was reminded of Theodore Roosevelt’s speech, Citizen In The Republic, given in 1910, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

But I digress.

I am The Birdman...awwww...

I am The Birdman…awwww…

The movie is very dark at times… actor is hit on the head by a falling light during rehearsals…..but also very funny, ie fight between Riggan and Norton’a Mike Shiner. But it is also touching in its depiction of private, personal moments between Riggan and his ex-wife and daughter. It touches on celebrity, ego and narcissism as well as social media. In the middle of a  preview performance, Riggan accidentally locks himself out of the theater while getting his robe wedged in the doorway, and after losing everything but his tighty whities, has to speed-walk  down a crowded Broadway in order to get back into the theater, where he finishes the preview to a confused and perhaps delighted audience. During his walk, people ask for autographs, take pics, yell at him that he is both great and that Birdman sucks.  The video of his speed walk becomes a viral hit with over 300,000 views within an hour. He becomes a sensation again through the power of a social media he had not liked and openly mocked up until that point. His daughter shows him the video and tells him, “This is power.” Indeed.

Michael Keaton will hopefully receive an Oscar nomination for this role and if I were allowed to vote would so in a heart beat over Bill Murray who is now appearing in St.Vincent. While Murrary does a great job amidst a fine ensemble including Melissa McCarthy and first time actor Jaeden Lieberher as Oliver Bronstein, I watched it with a smile of familiarity knowing Murray was playing a loose characterization of himself, of which we’ve seen many times over in prior films. St.Vincent is a fine film, well written, direct and acted and Murray has some heartbreaking scenes, but in Birdman, Keaton turns in his finest acting performance and I recommend you see it ASAP. Run to your nearest theater, or fly. if you have the wings of a superhero.

Odds and ends:

Great piece on Keaton from CBS Sunday Morning

Airborne Toxic Event: Timeless

Timeless, Airborne Toxic Event EP 2013

Timeless, Airborne Toxic Event EP 2013

By Ryan Hilligoss, March 13, 2013

The Airborne Toxic Event, Timeless EP, Island Records

Rating: 4 1/2 gold records on the wall

“Elvis fell apart with grief when Gladys died. He fondled and petted her in the casket. He talked baby talk to her until she was in the ground. It seems fairly certain that Glady’s death caused a fundamental shift at the center of the King’s world view. She’d been his anchor, his sense of security. He began to withdraw from the real world, to enter the stage of his own dying.” White Noise, Don DeLillio

In 2011, The Airborne Toxic Event released their second album, All At Once, and the title track serves as a microcosm of the band’s sound, fervor, lyrical content and musical purpose. Standing as a musical metaphor for life, the song begins quietly with an uptempo guitar click clacking away like a clock passing time with keyboards lightly undercutting lead vocalist Mikel Jollett singing:

We were born without time/Nameless in the arms
Of a mother, a father, and God
When the world would wait for us/A thousand years in the crush
Of our eyes, fearless, in awe/So quietly we’d fade into sleep
With nothing on our mind

And then, just as in the struggle of life he describes, the song takes off with a galloping, pounding drum beat and bass line, the music moving along rapidly propelling us along just as in life, ‘wishing for more time’ but just wasting our opportunities. In the third verse as the waters rise around us the rhythm builds and builds as the drummer smashes the cymbals over and over, Jollett sings:

We get old all at once/And it comes like a punch
In the gut, in the back, in the face/When it seems someone cried
And our parents have died
Then we hold onto each other in their place
Yeah, I feel the world changin’ all at once/ I guess it’ll be OK

With the final verse, the tempo and levels slow and grow smaller as ‘we all hope that someone was looking down as we return our bodies to the ground.’ It started soft and quiet just as in childhood before we understand the concepts of time and mortality, goes crashing through the bulk of the song in a mad dash to the quiet end. Jollett as lyricist and the band seem to have a deft, great feel for the fears that we all have but most people and musicians refuse to address or even acknowledge.

The band has released a four song EP, Timeless, as a precursor to the April 16 release of their third album, Such Hot Blood. The four tracks released will be included in the full album and include The Secret, Timeless, The Storm and Safe and play as an epic take on the same themes that have run through all of their work; topics of life,the passing of time, love lost and found, and the pain, wonder and puzzlement that is human existence. The band consists of Jollett on guitar and vocals, Steven Chen on lead guitar, Noah Harmon on bass, Darren Taylor on drums and Anna Bulbrook on viola and vocals. They often also use orchestration of some level to add strings and backing heft. The overall sound is that of a 21st century Phil Spectoresque ‘wall of sound’ with Jollett’s vocals reminding me somewhat of a plaintive Adam Duritz of Counting Crows but with more soul and muscle ala Bruce Springsteen.

The Airborne Toxic Event

The Airborne Toxic Event

Springsteen’s influence can be heard in the big, full sound that fills in the spaces when needed but often packs a rock hard punch, and that is no coincidence. In a recent Rolling Stone interview by Steve Baltin, Jollett says he watched recent documentaries on the making of Springsteen’s classic and learned some necessary lessons on artistry. Born To Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town albums. (The movies Wings For Wheels and The Promise, respectively, are both fine films made by Thom Zimny and well worth the investment in time and attention for those interested in the process of artistic production, whether you are a fan of Springsteen or not). Jollett says,  “I asked myself, ‘What would Bruce Springsteen do?’ If you want to do something that’s important, you can’t fake it. I remember thinking, ‘You can do a lot more: you can learn to play piano for real, you can learn to sing for real, you can take what you know about songwriting and forget it and then remember it. You can learn other forms, you can rewrite your lyrics 20 times so they’re exactly right. So yeah, it was a choice to try and grow and to push to grow.”

The band takes their name from the above quoted novel, White Noise, which focuses on college professor Jack Gladney, teacher of Hitler studies at a small liberal arts school, and his family. Jack and wife Babette live their lives with a soul crushing fear of death with such force that Babette prostitutes herself with a drug manufacturer rep to obtain a test drug called Dylar in the hopes to treat her fear. The book is split into three acts, the second of which is The Airborne Toxic Event in which an industrial accident unleashes a black chemical cloud that floats over their city and forces Jack and Babette to confront their fears. Jack describes the cloud as ‘ a towering black mass like a shapeless growing thing, a dark breathing thing of smoke.’

That black mass forms again with the EP’s four songs and may possibly form the “four corners” of the full album once it’s released. The four corners represent the sequence of songs used with vinyl LPs  and would have been the first and last songs of each album side. In many cases, the four corners of the album formed the foundation of the artist’s and the album’s musical, lyrical and meaning in content. This EP starts with The Secret, with siren-like keyboard sending out a warning or distress signal with Bulbrook’s viola adding a counter measure with a driving bass line underneath as Jollett sings:

The sound of the engine/The feel of the tires

Your hands on the rail/The smell from the tires

Streetlights and headlights on a road that goes nowhere

She left you she left you/But you know she’s still out there

And somehow it always seems/Like you were waiting for something

But the secret’s out now

The secret may be out now in the song, but I am still trying to decipher what that secret is: who was driving that car that left the narrator behind, where are the fires and what is burning, where did she go, what is the something he’s been waiting for and what is the secret?

In Timeless, the narrative continues as the same “she” disappears into the darkness and the spurned lover can still feel her spirit in the room. The narrator wonders ‘what is this whole in my heart that I cannot abide.’ Jollett sings:

I wish that our lives are just endless/’Cause it’s all too short and I’m leaving soon

I want to hold onto all the people I lost/I want to keep them with me/ We would never part

We are timeless/We are, we are timeless, timeless/Everything we have, oh my god

I feel like I could live forever with you, my love

It’s  like their lives were over/Before they had even begun

Like many of their songs, the tempos, levels and sound arrangements perfectly match the lyrics and vocals and build the narrative and meaning of the songs. On this one, it starts with a mellow sound but builds throughout the song and goes into a funky bridge with heavy guitar chords backed by matching orchestration that works well as the drums crash and fade out.

In The Storm, the missing lover comes back in the door after 25 days, or 25 weeks, or 25 months and announces they are here to stay and the worst of the storm is over. The actual amount of time is unclear because the road opens before the narrator and goes on forever so the concept of time doesn’t really exist and speaks to the heart of many of their songs. The final track of the EP, Safe, is replete with Springsteenesque influences, and I was left with the feeling that this is an updated, 21st century version of Thunder Road as it opens with a Roy Bittan like piano line, tinkling away as Bulbrook’ viola sways lightly in the background. I imagine Springsteen’s Mary on the front porch as the screen door slams and the driver asks her to get into the car but advises that the ride, it ain’t free.

It was early for summer/All the people and the music from the bar

You in your grey dress/Your arm on the window/You said what’s the difference

Just say it to me, just say it to me

Let’s not make it a thing, it’ll be ok babe

The tempo speeds up quickly with the viola rapidly calling out as a siren, the drums ticking away the time just like Al Jackson’s drums on Otis Redding’s Try A Little Tenderness, and the guitar and bass clashing together as the drama builds and the two lovers decide if they will take that ride together. Then Bulbrook begins singing in a haunting, ghostly fashion, “Do you really want to hear it, did you really think this was real?” Jollett sings back that they can’t slow down now since it’s not safe for travel. Finally, they get to an unknown location and arise from the car and “she” leaves her bag in the backseat and he sees that as a sign of love and confirmation of his hopes. Act four of the drama has come to an end, but questions abound for characters and listeners alike.

In The Promised Land, one of Springsteen’s penultimate songs that encapsulates much of his career’s intent, his character faces down the storm of life as he watches ‘a black cloud rising from the desert floor and packs his bag and heads straight into the storm.’ Airborne Toxic Event faces that storm of life and death with each album and each song with pride, strength and determination, and I highly anticipate the release of the completed album so I can hear them do it again with ‘Such Hot Blood.’

Selected videography and notes

More than coincidence: Airborne Toxic Event’s debut album, self titled and released in 2009, contains a bonus track entitled The Girls In Their Summer Dresses which is very close in title to Springsteen’s Girls In Their Summer Clothes released on Magic in 2007.

Airborne Toxic Event bio page