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Film Reviews: Birdman and Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me


 (2014, Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu)

Reviewed by Hadley Hury



Michael Keaton being followed


With Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) Mexican-born director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu continues an arc of filmmaking guaranteed to evoke wildly disparate views among viewers and critics but which is unarguably one of the most noteworthy trajectories in film in recent years. Even some who find his earlier works—including Amores Perros (2000), 21 Grams (2003), and Babel (2006)—visually and emotionally stunning have questioned whether Inarritu has sometimes confused a sense of dread, calamity, and fatal contingency with dramatic tension and asked audiences to suffer without revelation or catharsis or even a coherent provocation of tragicomic questions.

A closely related charge sometimes leveled at Inarritu’s explorations is humorlessness. Whatever else one may think about his new venture it should put that criticism to rest. The humor of Birdman is bleak but bracing; like shards of anthracite under a cold moon it crackles and gleams with a sharp buoyancy that feels both real and necessary underfoot. Birdman will no doubt vex those who have not previously found it enlivening (or worth the effort) to be seduced by Inarritu, but this time out a significantly larger audience will likely accept some vexations as a legitimate price of admission and follow him down the rabbit hole of the human condition.

This will be, in no small measure, due to superb casting—most particularly, Michael Keaton in the lead role of Riggan Thomson. Inarritu has always been an actor’s director and the actors here, bringing their best, include Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, and Emma Stone. All of the performances in Birdman are compelling. Keaton’s picks you up and doesn’t put you down.

Michael Keaton being followed

Twenty years before, Riggan was a Hollywood icon in three boffo box-office installments as Birdman, an avian superhero. To the chagrin of his fans and accountants, he turned down Birdman 4 because he harbored more serious ambitions as an actor. Having had plenty of time to wonder about that decision, and taunted by the internal alter-ego voice of a Birdman presence (“You were a movie star, remember?”), Riggan now seeks redemption, both for his art and his life, by adapting, directing, and starring in a Broadway production based on Raymond Carver’s short story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.

A man trying desperately to wake from a long sleep choked with nightmares of misspent talent and opportunity, Riggan has decided to draw a line in the sand: he’s determined to put all his chips on the table and—for whatever it may be worth and because he’s almost certain no one else cares—live fully in the present moment as his own existential hero. He has apparently learned to cope with the profanely jeering Birdman in his head, at times more effectively than he copes with those of others, and has been trying to make more resolute attempts to be there for his daughter (Stone) who is freshly if querulously out of rehab, his manager (Zach Galifianakis), his girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough), his ex-wife (Amy Ryan), and his needy lead actress (Watts). Just before previews Riggan brings in a replacement actor named Mike Shiner (Norton, excellent in his richest role in years). Shiner is a difficult but critically respected actor who Riggan hopes will lend an additional patina of serious theatre to his all-or-nothing Broadway gamble. Unfortunately, Mike is also a nearly maniacal egotist, one of those actors who thinks provoking his fellow actors, however irresponsibly or even dangerously, is his truest artistic mission. And thus the intersecting dramas of Riggan Thomson’s life—off-stage, onstage, and internal—ignite.

The film's ambitious embrace of various elements and tones will accommodate some viewers more satisfyingly than others. In a broad spectrum of social gatherings conversations have been teeming with divergent opinions about “What Did You Make of That? …and Why?” Whether they are abstract discussions conducted with earnest assiduousness over martinis about the reflexive comparisons Birdman raises between theatre and film and between life and art, or more raucous “WTFs” among pals over beers, this is a film destined to leave few viewers unexercised. We can only hope no glasses or friendships are broken. The chief variable in receptivity may be a viewer's tolerance for questions that go unanswered—and whether one attributes that to a lack of artistic integrity or to differences in our expectations of what art is capable of giving us even when life does not.

Aside from the vox populi, a few critics appear to be finding their fodder for discussions of Birdman in deconstructionist examinations of his cinematic vocabulary and his experimentations in bending dramatic unities and categorical genres. Attention has been given to the film’s varied palette (gritty naturalism, magic realism, ironic black comedy), the fact that the extraordinarily long camera takes create a sense of uninterrupted real time, and the inside jokes and self-references of the casting. (Keaton famously played in two of the Batman films and turned-down a third, and Norton starred in The Incredible Hulk). While all of these may be valid facets for consideration, films that require something other than an academic response—and Birdman is one—tend to confound at least some precepts of conventional criticism.

Certainly, not all of the daring pays off. Some elements of the film may not work for some viewers, but my guess would be that fewer moviegoers will find these distractions impossible to overcome while many more will find that their cavils can either be cerebrally or imaginatively condoned or subsumed in the overall experience. In either case, there’s a good argument that well-articulated gut-level reactions to Birdman may be more edifying than disquisitions—though undoubtedly somebody has to do it—about “meta” framings, borrowings of Godardian tropes, and whether or not the fluidity of the cinematography (see Hitchcock’s Rope, 1948, or Aleksandr Sokurov’s The Russian Ark, 2002) is really anything new.

Whatever its minor missteps or occasional loose threads, Birdman’s intelligence and audacity will bring Inarritu a wider audience. The quality of its success in galvanizing formal and stylistic elements and its capacity for engaging us is, though not faultless, quite remarkable. Michael Keaton gives an arresting, deeply felt performance—focused, naked, searching, and fearless—and it’s hard to imagine that many viewers will be rummaging around in their response to make room for comparisons with his earlier work, even if that may afford a few afterthoughts on art and life imitating one another. This is a performance far more likely to pique one’s interest in what lies ahead for the actor. (If not—like Riggan, the stage—film versions of lead roles in Chekhov, Williams, and Miller come to mind. Lear comes to mind.)

It’s not often that a film demands a suspension of disbelief—or more accurately here, a reconsideration of what that even means—even as it grips us from moment to moment with insistent realism. Whatever clever film a clef concepts or transmogrified genre conceits may have littered the project’s initial conference tables, Birdman emerges as, at once, rarefied and lyrical rhapsody and scrupulously grounded, visceral drama.

Inarritu, his three co-writers, Ernesto Luzbecki’s breathtaking cinematography, the fine actors—and most memorably Michael Keaton, give this film a universality that transcends its backstage-story genre. Fierce, sensuous, and touching, Birdman moves with alert sympathy to the human reach sadly and sweetly exceeding its grasp. For those it doesn’t wear out it will prove an exhilarating film.



By Hadley Hury, Film Review Editor




Elaine Stritch  1925-2014



Elaine Stritch died last July at the age of 89.

My wife and I were fortunate enough to see her in New York in the 1997 Tony Award-winning revival of Edward Albee’s classic A Delicate Balance. And of course there are filmed performances to savor, such as Sondheim: The Birthday Concert at Avery Fisher Hall (2010), Elaine Stritch: At Liberty (2002), Woody Allen’s September (1987), and others. Last year’s wonderfully engaging documentary Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me makes me wish I had been able to witness her stage presence far more often throughout her remarkable career. I would have needed to begin five years before my birth.

Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me is a deeply entertaining, provocative, and enthralling documentary, an 82-minute synthesis of cinema verite, archival footage and performance clips, and interviews—both with the gifted, funny, irascible, whip-smart Broadway legend and those who knew and worked with her. The film was completed early in 2013, and Stritch has never seemed more indelibly the unique incandescence that audiences have come to know over six decades in musical theatre, drama, comedy, film, television, concert and cabaret, than she is here, discussing—with her trademark candor and wit, matched by an intimate vulnerability—the art of performance itself, its exhilarations, its exacting demands and harsh necessities.  There is a breathless, edge-of-seat sense of dramatic tension and thrill as the viewer becomes absorbed in Stritch’s stringent insights, her fierceness and her fears, the camera following her through preparations for her 2010 all-Sondheim cabaret act at the Hotel Carlyle.

In her directorial debut, award-winning documentarian and former script supervisor Chiemi Karasawa weaves a taut and emotionally complex montage of the camera-as-observer footage, sequences from the cabaret acts, the interviews with other actors, writers, friends, and producers, giving play to the subject’s famously tart language and her perfectionism while framing with a tender nakedness Stritch’s musings about love and loss, need, age, illness, and death. The synthesis is never less than moving, shrewd, unflinching—and it is often riveting.

Elaine Stritch is the toughest of the tough broads and she would’ve been the first to tell you, in no uncertain four letter-word terms. She was also known, both onstage and before the camera and in life, for her ferocious insistence on veracity. Her vigilance in sniffing out the faintest traces of hypocrisy, dissemblance, evasion, or disingenuousness—in herself, colleagues, performances—has prompted many who knew her and worked with her to allow that she could be “difficult”. They are also quick to say she was always more than worth it. That same propensity was paired with another signature trait: her capacity onstage or on film for revealing genuine emotion and for wielding a particularly ironic scalpel in exposing that which is not. It earned her the title of “legend” in the musical theatre. (Noel Coward had her in mind when he created Sail Away. George Furth wrote a character and Stephen Sondheim the music and lyrics of “The Ladies Who Lunch” specifically for her in their Company. The list goes on.) She was also a hoot of extremely sly and outlandish proportions.

Interlaced with footage from performances and the apercus of colleagues and friends, the cinema verite approach—the camera tagging along through the dailiness of Stritch’s life (at home, walking around Manhattan, rehearsing, lunching and dining with friends)—allows for a surprising degree of intimacy. There is never an aura of staginess or contrivance. The title of the film itself carries a characteristic tone of imperiousness. No doubt Stritch had a good deal of input into how the film would unfold and, of course, she is in the strictest sense of the word “on”. However, she is doing what she actually does, and clearly—from the occasional confessional tone—wants, as she says, and has been her habit throughout her career, to “keep it real”.  Though there are glimpses of the narcissism to which the flesh of some actors, especially stars, may inevitably be heir to, we never think that this is a heightened, contrived, or glamorized version of her life. And there is always her unrelenting, objective self-awareness. At the only point in which she breaks the “unseen” relationship—admonishing one of the cameramen to reshoot an innocuous scene in her kitchen by taking a few more steps actually to watch her set an empty muffin box in a recycling bin outside the service door of her apartment—it is purely because, as she tells him, ‘It’s part of my little routine”.

In Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me we hear insights from an array of those who have known her well—including Hal Prince, Cherry Jones, Nathan Lane, Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, George C. Wolfe, John Turturro, and the late James Gandolfini—and who all point out that behind the brassy boldness was a simple sweetness and generosity, need, and vulnerability. It is, they suggest, the heady and human combination of her courageous determination and her refusal to wear a “protective shell” that made her such an astonishing force onstage. Her cabaret work has a cerebral and visceral charge, an emotional immediacy, like Garland at her best. Actor George Grizzard, with whom she appeared in A Delicate Balance, said on opening night of her Tony Award-winning one-woman At Liberty in 2002: “It is perfect that someone has created a vehicle that allows no other performer to interrupt the audience’s unabashed love affair with Elaine Stritch”.

As a performer she left few personal stones unturned, and expected no less of those who watched her. It could be fatiguing; it could also be the transcendent art of theatre. For more than 30 years Stritch talked openly—even in concerts and cabarets—about the greatest threat to her professionalism and her life: “I am a recovering alcoholic. I decided to do something about it when I realized that I’d gotten to a point at which I often thought I was being brilliant and witty, when I was actually being only loud and boring. And I hurt some friends. That’s not me. So I stopped. Discovering I was diabetic sharpened my motivation.” Utterly sober for more than 26 years, Stritch began scrupulously allowing herself to enjoy one drink per day in her last few years. The almost religious discipline of this rite suited her Catholic upbringing and daily nurtured her belief that, “Fear can be exciting”.

The film concludes with Stritch girding her loins finally to retire. We go with her to suburban Detroit to scout property, to “go home”. (She was raised in affluent Bloomington Hills.) After the documentary was wrapped and a farewell cabaret gig at The Carlyle in 2013, she indeed  made her home in nearby Birmingham, Michigan. Early last year her 89th birthday drew throngs of friends, theatrical and otherwise. In a scene near the end of the film Stritch recalls a childhood memory of a summer day when she was seven. Her mother was busy with something and insisted that Elaine stay outside and occupy herself. “I didn’t want to play outside alone. I finally killed enough flies to spell out my name and called her to see. I wanted her attention. My name on the walk in dead flies. How’s that for a first billing?”

In one of the last segments of Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, the star says she must think now of, “as my mother put it, the picture one will leave behind”. This film is a very rich and substantial treat—and what a touching, gritty, enthralling swan song to “leave behind”. 

Stritch was, both simply and complicatedly, a formidable human being; and here she encourages us, with characteristic aggressiveness and raw humility, to consider life ablaze at the verge. When asked her greatest fear at this point of her life—“Pre-shows nerves? Death?”—she immediately answers. “Oh, no. Drinking. It’s such a beautiful escape…so warm and inviting.”

Her testimony in this remarkable film lends credence to the old axiom that those who do serious comedy most wrenchingly are those who have looked hard at demons and known the darkness. As Hal Prince observes, “Everyone knows Elaine as such a force, and she is; but you can never forget that she is also that sweet, innocent, nineteen-year-old Catholic girl who graduated from a convent school and came to New York. There is always the insecurity. Constantly.” Stritch was kicked out of one of her first New York plays because, as she puts it bluntly, “I didn’t know what I was doing”; but she had a prodigious talent, she worked as hard as anybody in the business, and quite evidently made demands of herself that far exceeded those she placed on others. She accepted her need for attention and love as a contractual obligation, fine-tuned over six decades, to give back.  It was a rare relationship. This film makes us aware how lucky it is for us that for a very long time Elaine Stritch kept putting herself out of her misery.

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