With the annual drought of films to track and write up after the Oscars, I’ve had some time to dive a little deeper in to what I admired so much about this past year’s Best Picture winning film, Birdman.
So much to admire from Alejandro Inarritu’s innovative film; from Emmanuel Lubezki’s seamless tracking photography, to Edward Norton’s dynamic peacock performance, to the ubiquitous snare drum accompaniment; and finally, of course, to Michael Keaton’s career defining work, sending up his own inner demons of regret since turning his back on the Marvel Comics mega-buck franchise that began with his original turn as Batman.
After having said all of that, at the heart of Birdman‘s conflict is an effort to adapt a Raymond Carver short story in to a Broadway play. And, while the film does an admirable job of paying homage to the tormented writer, the audience ultimately is left with little understanding of the man and his significant contribution to the oft uncelebrated art form of short fiction.
The fact that Carver’s prose was placed at the core of this script’s concept deserved further examination.
My exploration led me to a wonderful essay that was published in the North Dakota Quarterly Summer/Fall 2008 edition. The writer, Robert Lacy, gets right to the heart of Carver’s distinctly conflicted expression in just a few short pages.
Here’s how Lacy opens his piece, titled Adrift in the Land of Shame:
I never met Raymond Carver. But for a time back in the 60s and 70s I was friendly with some fellow writers out in Missoula, Montana, who claimed to know him pretty well. They used to speak of a Good Ray and a Bad Ray, and of a difference between the two that approached Jekyll and Hyde proportions. As I understood them, the Good Ray was the Ray who wrote the stories: a gentle, humorous man, hard-working, sober, a good pal and an honest citizen. But the Bad Ray was something else again; feckless, untrustworthy, a drunk, a check kiter, even a wife-beater when the mood seized him. All in all, not a man you’d want to spend a lot of time with.
(I like how Lacy establishes his credibility in his opening, it immediately grabbed me and told me I was in good hands.)
Interestingly, though, looking back on it, to the best of my memory, nobody – none, that is, of my Missoula friends – ever got around to making the obvious point that it was the Bad Ray who provided the material that the Good Ray wrote about. Without the former the latter would have been as artistically neutered as your average pharmacist. With the former, however, the latter was able to take American short fiction into a whole new territory.
Scott Fitzgerald has a character in his short story “Crazy Sunday” who in a moment of crisis clings desperately to his rule of “never betraying an inferior emotion until he no longer felt it.” In this case the inferior emotion is self-disgust. (The character has just made a fool of himself in front of some powerful people.) Fitzgerald seems to assume that we as readers all know what the inferior emotions are, so he needn’t spell them out for us. But what, exactly, are they? Guilt? Shame? Self-pity? Envy? Resentment? At any rate, though, Fitzgerald’s implication is clear: a man of breeding, a man of a certain class or family background, must strive to avoid “betraying” such emotions if at all possible. Fitzgerald, well brought up in St. Paul, Minnesota, was a notorious snob.
Ray Carver lacked Fitzgerald’s advantages. His father was a sawmill worker – a saw filer – who had come out to the West Coast from the Ozarks during the Great Depression, looking for a job. A hillbilly, in other words. A redneck. One of Steinbeck’s Joads. Carver grew up in blue-collar Yakima, Washington, married his high school sweetheart at eighteen and was the father of two children before he was twenty. He writes about this in his much-reprinted essay “Fires,” in which he cites the two children as “the greatest single influence on my life, and on my writing.” Not influence in the Chekhov or Hemingway sense, you understand, but in the much more real one of day-to-day encumbrance, and obligation. “The time came when everything my wife and I held sacred, or considered worthy of respect, every spiritual value, crumbled away,” he confesses in his essay. “Something terrible had happened to us…It was erosion, and we couldn’t stop it. Somehow, when we weren’t looking, the children had got into the driver’s seat.”
(In just a few paragraphs Lacy has laid out the schizophrenic nature of most fiction writers and then abruptly paired it with the inevitable paradox the writer (artist) finds himself in once he become “happily” domesticated…)
Further down in the essay…
“Fires” is a remarkably self-pitying document. But it helps to explain Raymond Carver. Here was a man who chose shame as the primary engine of his literary imagination. Or maybe it chose him. In any case, it’s hard to think of another writer who has employed shame and other of Fitzgerald’s “inferior emotions,” to the extent that Carver did in creating his fictions.
It is shame, and our inability – or unwillingness – to pinpoint it as such, that accounts for the slightly queasy fascination we feel with Carver’s characters and the sometimes comic predicaments they find themselves in: the man who is vacuuming his apartment n the middle of the day when the telephone rings, the out-of-work salesman who shows up drunk at the coffee shop where his wife is waitressing, the poor schlub who has hauled all of his bedroom furniture out into the yard to sell it. These are the men from whom all pride has fled, all sense of honor and self-command vanished.
To truly understand and admire Birdman, I think we need to be aware of these Carver themes, themes fully on display in the film. Keaton’s character (Riggan) shuffling in an anxious panic down the rainy Broadway streets in his underwear is meant less for laughs than it is to display the depraved extent that men often go through once they have hit rock bottom and “all pride has fled, all sense of honor and self-command vanished.”
The best films do not merely entertain us, they display a world through which we can examine some of these very universal themes. The good, the bad, and the ugly.
Even the ones we are ashamed of.