Wednesday, May 27, 2015
Last week we watched Birdman. I certainly found it "worth watching," in the sense that I was captured by the events as they unfolded. The acting was excellent. I was particularly happy to enjoy Naomi Watts' work. She was the one flaw in the Bill Murray movie last year, St. Vincent. If you are drawn to stories about the drama and tragedy of the theatre, Gina Rowlands' Opening Night is similar and, qua "story," (to be downhome about it), better. So is All That Jazz, for that matter. There might have been ways for Birdman to go which didn't lead us to the grim back alley where the film in fact lands. And not all roads to that grim dumpster in the 3 AM dark are as objectionable as Birdman's. Hana-bi, Kitano's outstanding 1997 noir, is one of the best movies I've ever seen. It ends just like Birdman. But what bothers me--a lot--about Birdman's final solution is the shot of Keaton's daughter, looking skyward, a blissful expression on her face, as though her discombobulated father has actually taken wing as he keeps imagining he can throughout the film. I do realize that the director is actually God where his movie is concerned, and the laws of the planet and the universe do not necessarily apply. I also understand that if one takes the path of "realism," a film I'm going to praise in a moment will be pilloried in a certain sense. Still. Still. Critics have argued that the ending "makes sense" because it carries on the magical realism quality of the whole film, start to finish. That is, we remain, start to finish, in the universe of the film, where frequently "impossible" things happen. These include Riggan Thomson's ability to move objects at a distance, to levitate, and to actually fly. See, e.g.,
for this sort of "argument." Certainly the practitioner of magical realism, of which Alejandro González Iñárritu must be in the first rank, is free to claim that his form is his universe. In the solitary confinement of One Hundred Years of Solitude, whole galaxies may well burst forth, generate whole civilizations, and even burn out to dark cinders whilst the old man is merely sleeping under the banyan tree in the back yard, his chain rusting from the tropic squalls which daily pass across the forest from the Yucatan. All is "possible."
But you have to use those scare quotes. If you don't you are watching a summer blockbuster. Birdman, Mad Max, Iron Man III. It's all the same deal. When the show's over it'll be 90 outside, and your shirt will smell of stale theater butter, or the streets will still be wet from a storm that came and went, and you'll go home, or go have a beer or a pizza.
Last night I watched Mrs. Miniver again. It's saved on the dish box, and I scroll down through the list and see it, and almost every time I do that I think of watching it again. As usual it made me cry in a few spots. It evokes several lost worlds, Mrs. Miniver. The first lost world is the world of the late 1930s, just before I was born. My dad lived in that world, teaching at NC State in Raleigh, with his first wife. Just about the time the Germans started World War II by invading Poland, his first wife came down with pneumonia and died from it. Then he met my mother, they married, and I was born in early 1943. My mother talked a good deal about the drama of Dunkirk, which Mrs. Miniver depicts without any particular realism beyond the basic facts, that hundreds of little boats from England went across the channel and helped rescue the British Army before it was entirely overrun and destroyed by the Blitzkrieg at its most powerful. My parents both spoke little to me, a child, of the truth Mrs. Miniver presents front and center, that brave young men such as the Minivers' son, when they achieve the success of becoming Spitfire pilots in those days of the German air war on Britain, are achieving almost a certain death sentence. Everyone in the film knows this truth--Vin Miniver is most likely going to be burned to death in a Spitfire crash. All of them, including Vin, face this and deal with life on these dreadful terms. And of course one irony is that Carol, Vin's new wife, dies from wounds delivered probably by a British fighter pursuing a German bomber, an accidental casualty. And yes, a nice plot reversal if you must know but that technical fact is so much not the point that I doubt it's ever much remarked on. I might also mention the interesting doubling Wyler exhibits--the most vivid scene in the film is probably Mrs. Miniver's discovery of the German flier in her garden, and her subsequent interaction with him. He might be her son's older brother, even if he is the opposite in temperment, refusing succor, snarling about the coming German "masters" until she finally slaps him once in rebuke. But what viewer savors the technical artifice? We are too engaged with the unfolding events.
Oh I do think, like surely everyone who watches Mrs Miniver today, that the final scene, with the squadrons of British fighter planes passing overhead through the bombed out church's roof, is a bit rah-rah for today's real world. We see this same scene every weekend at the opening of a NASCAR race. We are bludgeoned by this scene. If Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch have their way we will all eventually march forward each blessed day with the chant on our lips, "We Are. Fox Sports."
But dammit, when Vin walks up the stairs to see his wife's corpse, and the door discretely shuts, and Mr. and Mrs. Miniver stand at the bottom of the stairs and watch the closing of the door as a shadow on the wall, there is no cute mystery about what's going on. William Wyler doesn't assert his godly powers as Director. He's telling the truth. And so, for that matter, is Kitano, in Hana-bi. Iñárritu's victory is ultimately technical. I'm glad he won the Oscar, and the cast was great. But silly Mr. Riggan Tompson's muddled life is what it is, and evokes only the mystery of Tony Scott's last moments. The Japanese detectives who hear the final shots in Hana-bi have a more profound reaction than does Riggan's daughter. "How can he live like that?" one asks the other. Granted, she's already said exactly that some time earlier, in the middle of the movie.