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

He Looks Like A Deranged Easter Bunny!!! Top 10 Christmas Movies

Look at what Aunt Clara sent you

Look at what Aunt Clara sent you

By Ryan Hilligoss, December 2012

Just in time for the season. I have been rifling through my video collection and pulling out the usual suspects of movies I try to watch every year at this time. Below are my top 10 favorites, starting at the bottom, along with clips from each. Some are standards but hopefully some are ones you never saw or heard about and runs from pure slapstick to corn pone cliché to downright tear jerkers.

I’ll show you mine if you tell me yours. After you’re done reading and viewing(just click on the arrow in each youtube image for those technophobes out there), leave a comment on what your favorite Christmas movie is. Goodnight to all and to all a goodnight. Seriously, for anyone who reads this that I don’t get a chance to talk to, I hope you have a good, safe holiday with whoever it is you choose or have the opportunity to spend time with. And to remember those we love who are no longer here.

10) Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer

Nothing says Christmas like an elf who has lost his way and wants to be a dentist, a giant Yeti chasing small boys and misfit toys around the frozen Tundra and a gold miner named Cornelius!!! Oh, the voice of Burl Ives, fellow EIU alumn….Silver and gold….silver and gold.

9) Saturday Night Live Christmas

From old school Eddie Murphy, back when he was funny, doing Mr. Robinsons Christmas in which he demonstrates how to sell black market Cabbage Patch Dolls by putting a head of lettuce on a bay doll body, to Dana Carvey doing a dead on Jimmy Stewart impersonation as he and Dennis Miller beat the crap out of Mr. Potter in “The Lost Ending” of It’s a Wonderful Life to original players Belushi, Akroyd, Chase, Curtain, Newman and Garrett Morrison singing Winter Wonderland. But who could ever forget the Terry Gross and Fresh Air send up in the Schweddyy Balls episode.

8) Home Alone

Yes it is a crazy stretch to think that an 8-year-old could be left at home by his parents while they fly to Paris, but crazier things have happened and at least they didn’t strap their dog to the roof of their car on during a family road trip. Yes, Macaulay Culkin  slapping his face with aftershave and screaming like Munch’s Scream is funny, but the best part of the movie is the 15 minute segment of pure juvenilistic, slapstick humor when Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern’s characters try to get into a booby trapped house. “What happened to your head? Why’d you take your boots off?”

7) It’s A Wonderful Life

I can hear some of you hitting the gong like Chuck Barris telling me to get off the stage. I know , I know…..but there is a reason movies like this always make the best of whatever lists….it’s a classic for good reason. Fine acting from a good cast, well written and well-directed. Poor put upon George Bailey in Bedford Falls never got to live the life he wanted because he was too responsible. Besides that, who amongst us doesn’t think about how different the lives of those we have touched would be if we hadn’t been born. Go ahead, you can admit it.

6) The Family Stone

Viewer alert….for anyone who hasn’t seen this one, bring a box of tissue. I saw this in the theater when it was first released in 2005 and shed a few tears and probably would have wept myself dry if my wife wasn’t sitting next to me and I didn’t have to be a typical male who is allergic to showing emotion in public. Starring Diane Keaton, Claire Danes, Rachel McAdams, Craig Nelson and Luke Wilson, the story of the zany Stone Family and navigating life and the holidays after the death of mother Stone. One of the first scenes shows Diane Keaton’s character staring at the family Christmas tree in their living room and we later find out she is dying of breast cancer and this will be the last Christmas she will have with her family. The movie closes with the final scene of the family decorating the tree a year later with only a photo hanging on the wall to remind them of their losses. Who wouldn’t cry seeing Diane Keaton die? I would rank it higher if it weren’t for the fact that Sarah Jessica Parker gets a lot of screen time and a little of her goes a long way.

5) Elf

What is your favorite color? Don’t be a cottonheaded ninnymuggins. The credits states based on David Sedaris’ now classic Santa Land Diaries, wickedly funny by the way, but other than the fact some of the movie is spent inside a department store Christmas land, not sure about that. Starring Will Ferrell as Buddy the Elf with excellent supporting role for the deadpan master Bob Newhart. If you can’t laugh when the overgrown man-child Buddy uses a couch as a trampoline to put the star on top of a giant Christmas tree, check your pulse.

4) A Christmas Story

Based on a short story written by Jean Shepherd entitled In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash. Shot on a bare bones budget of $4 million and released by the studio with little publicity in November of 1983. Now a holiday classic and played on a continuous loop by TBS over Christmas. Who can forget little Randy stuffed into 20 layers of winter outerwear yelling, “I can’t put my arms down”, Ralphie being pushed down a giant department store slide by the heavy black boot of a wretched Santa Clause, or the bullying tactics of Scott Farkas, the kid with the yellow eyes, and his little toadie Grover Dill.

3) The Family Man

Despite the usual over the top overacting of Nicholas Cage, great writing and cast make this a modern classic that I watch every year. Basically, an updated rewrite of It’s A Wonderful Life but this time, the lead character is an uber wealthy Wall Street merger specialist who left the love of his life in the dust to chase billions. But he is a given a glimpse of what it could have been like if he had gotten married and had kids. This time around, the role of Clarence the guardian is played by Don Cheadle. Yes it is hokey and incredibly cheesy at times but, holidays are built for sentimental gluttons like myself. Plus it   helped convince me that getting married and having kids might not be as terrible  as I thought at the time….boy was I wrong:).

2) National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation

“We would have called but Clark wanted it to be a surprise. You surprised Clark? If I woke up tomorrow with my head sewn to the carpet I couldn’t be any more surprised.”

“Can I refill your eggnog? Get you something to eat? Take you out in the middle of nowhere and leave you for dead? No, I’m just fine Clark.”

1) Love Actually

Released in November 2003, the film features a cast of what appears to be any actor still living at the time of production. Starring Hugh Grant, Liam Neeson, Emma Thompson, Laura Linney and Alan Rickman and showing about 10 different stories that begin and end with the characters arriving or departing from an airport in search of love. Given the security measures put in place after 9/11, it is nostalgic to watch the final scene which is a montage of film with the Beach Boys’ God Only Knows in the background. The final act features film taken at airports all around the world with families greeting their loved ones who have arrived off an airplane, greeted with hugs, kisses and smiles all around. Oh, the memories of waiting at Lambert Field waiting for Uncle Ron to get off the plane last or saying goodbye to everyone in Phoenix on my way back home.  In the end, we see that Love…Actually…is all around. With an excellent turn by Bill Nighy as Billy Mack, a depraved, lewd and washed out middle-aged rocker (appears to be loosely based on Mick Jagger). Well worth the viewing time. Plus it has an excellent soundtrack including the showstopper himself, Otis Redding, backed by the incredible Booker T and the MGs, with a powerful, touching version of White Christmas.

Ok, now I want to hear from you. Please leave comments in the section below. Mele kelikimaka is Hawaii’s way of saying merry christmas to you.