Birdman: or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Birdman: or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

Fox Searchlight

Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu

Main Cast: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts

Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous: Actors Edition. 

Birdman is a film that wants to be deep.  It concerns an aging actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), whose career has become defined by a title role in a superhero movie franchise.  But now he is organizing (as writer, director and actor) a stage adaptation of the Raymond Carver short story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love on Broadway.  Unhappy and frazzled, he brings in a well-known stage actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) as a replacement for one of the male stars.  His daughter (Emma Stone), back from drug rehab, is “assisting” him as a way to keep her occupied.  The film builds on intense scenes with long shots, set in the bowels of the theater, on the stage, and in the dressing rooms.  Intermittently through the film, Michael Keaton’s character hears a voice in his head, and he seems to possess the ability to fly, move objects with his mind, and otherwise really be a superhero — or is this just a psychotic break brought on by the stress of the theater production?

The early part of the film sets up the conflicts, between the actors in the Carver adaptation and between Riggan Thomson and his legacy.  Mike Shiner is a talented actor who we are to believe exists in two diametrically opposed realms: that of the “real world” where he is despised, impotent and rejected, and that of the stage, where he is adept, creative and appreciated.  To impress the importance of Acting and the Theater, his character, and the others, behave badly and obnoxiously, parading about naked, smashing things in bars, and engaging in public arguments and fights.  The main characters storm about the building, often met with bewilderment by the theater’s staff and technicians.  Yet the staff and onlookers seem powerless to engage any of this.  They are onlookers, not able to play a role in the tribulations of the Great Artists.  The last half of the film sets out the resolution of those early conflicts.  Michael Keaton gets most of the screen time toward the end.  The ending, as we’ll see, feigns ambiguity.

The fatal flaw of this film, except for pretensions to depth that it doesn’t earn, is that it relies on a con.  While Riggan Thomson seems to want to make deep art not just commercial movies, the Thomson character is always obsessed with status and power.  He has a lot of money (financial capital), which, by personally putting up considerable funding for his play, he attempts to trade for greater recognition as an artist (cultural capital).  In this, the theater is somehow seen as loftier in a hierarchy of arts, the audience of Broadway plays deemed more significant than the (presumably) middle-American moviegoers (and Times Square tourists) who liked Thomson’s turn as Birdman in the movie franchise.  During a run-in with a theater critic in a bar, who calls out Thomson for his attempt to convert his movie celebrity into a different kind of cultural status on Broadway — and rather implausibly states in direct terms her role as a guardian of middlebrow tastes who must oppose such conversions of social capital — he angrily proclaims what a risk he’s taking.  As the audience, we are to forget that this risk is just a gamble, like any other in (casino) capitalism, from a player who simply started the game with more chips than the others.  The critic says her complaint is that Thomson is taking up theater space that could be put to better use (we are to infer she means someone with pre-existing cultural capital in the New York City theater scene), and promises to destroy the play with a scathing review, confident that she alone holds the power to do this (something the film undercuts, given the insatiable craving that fans seem to have to see Thomson in, well, anything).

There is another, earlier scene in which the daughter excoriates Thomson for failing to understand his insignificance — apparently unaware that this is the set-up for an old joke.  That scene sits almost in isolation for a time, until the final scenes of the film provide a rebuttal.  By the end, we hear that the voice in Thomson’s head (it is the Birdman character) explains the truth to him, and on the question of whether he is a superhero or a psychotic, his daughter in the final scene appears pleasantly surprised that rather than committing suicide by jumping out a window, he might really be flying.  Rather than convince her father of his insignificance, instead it is her who ends up convinced of his exceptionalism.  She also instructs him about online social media — making a fool of oneself publicly is the new way to wield power over a fan base.  He just needed to understand contemporary marketing tactics a little better, see?  Other scenes in which tense family relations come up, seem to be resolved through professional prestige: if Thomson’s play succeeds commercially or critically (does this film see any distinction between the two, really?), then all his other problems are solved.

The film ends on a note seemingly lifted from the iconic Jimmy Stewart family film Harvey (1950), about an alcoholic man whose best friend is a giant rabbit who may or may not be a figment of his imagination.  Yet there is none of the heart or sweetness of the Stewart film here.  Yes, there is good acting, but the scenes in which the acting is prominently on display are constructed for maximum intensity — with long shot after long shot, many close ups and hand-held camerawork — all meant to focus attention on isolated emotional outbursts strung together in series.  While Harvey might be dismissed as a naïve children’s film, it opens the possibility for different ways of looking at the world, in a way in which, from the standpoint of social status, Stewart’s character stands to gain nothing at all from his friendship with a giant (imaginary?) rabbit. In Birdman, Michal Keaton’s character simply looks for the most effective path toward the fame and fortune he desires.  There is no question about the path he’s following.  He just needs to out-compete the other actors out there in the mean world of professional theater.  How?

Birdman suggests that there is Truth.  It is masked.  But the voice in Riggan Thomson’s head still tells him the something that guarantees his happiness.  This is the religious/theocratic core of the script.  Thomson succeeds or fails based on whether he recognizes this Truth sufficiently.  What we are left with is an apology for fame and status seeking, justified by reference to some higher power that only the exceptional few can access.  Left somewhat unspoken in Birdman is how Riggan Thomson came to be a major Hollywood actor.  There is a trite story of Raymond Carver congratulating him as a child, convincing him to pursue acting as a career.  But it takes much more than talent and desire to succeed in the world.  Only people with certain social capital can pursue careers in the arts, often having family legacies in that industry, having wealth that allows for unproductive time spent on artistic interests.  So, there is also a hidden fatalism in this film.  Thomson is destined to a path, he only needs to believe in it enough.  So, to paraphrase Bertolt Brecht from Geschichten vom Herrn Keuner, Riggan Thomson wonders maybe if there is a god, but in his wondering he already decided, and it seems he needs a god, because he would not act in such a way to achieve fame and riches if he could grasp any other way than what those fame and riches seem to guarantee for him in the world.  So no existential angst for him.  He is absolved of creating meaning for himself.  He just listens to the voice in his head.  This, supposedly, is the “unexpected virtue of ignorance.”  Strangely, it seems lacking in virtue.  Greed is good?

The Beach Boys – Wild Honey

Wild Honey

The Beach BoysWild Honey Capitol ST-2859 (1967)

Wild Honey began a new phase for the Beach Boys. They were back to playing instruments in the studio and sounding more like a live band than a Brian Wilson experiment. Vocal harmonies were surprisingly at a minimum. Coming hot on the heels of Smiley Smile, Wild Honey further confounded fans expecting an unchanging band. The soulful turn proved somewhat influential. It also strengthens the spontaneity in the Beach Boys’ music.

The Beach Boys – The Beach Boys in Concert

The Beach Boys In Concert

The Beach BoysThe Beach Boys in Concert Brother Records 2RS 6484 (1973)

This one is a hidden gem of the Beach Boys’ catalog.  Probably not the best entry point for the uninitiated, despite the good song selection.  But this album is ripe for fans with at least a general familiarity with the Beach Boys’ previous recordings.  It’s one of the rare opportunities to hear a lot of the group’s best songs performed live.  And by best songs, I mean this set leans heavily on Brian Wilson penned numbers rather than the light pop and early 60s (s)hit parade that dominated their later years of touring and (*cringe*) recording.  That is somewhat surprising given that Brian was on his way out of active involvement in the group at this point (apart from the fact that he hadn’t toured with them in years).  Plus, Ricky Fataar and Blondie Chaplin were in the band here, and they were valuable members whose superb musicianship shouldn’t be overlooked.  They help make the renditions here of “Marcella” and “Leaving This Town” the definitive ones.  This might be my favorite of The Beach Boys’ 1970s albums.

The Beach Boys – Beach Boys’ Party!

Beach Boys' Party!

The Beach BoysBeach Boys’ Party! Capitol MAS-2398 (1965)

A better album than it usually gets credit for.  Not truly a “live” album, it was certainly a step up from their only real live album of the 1960s, Beach Boys Concert.  The whole thing seems quite influenced by the urban folk movement still underway.  This is the only Beach Boys album that could draw comparisons to Peter, Paul & Mary and the like.  But this is more carefree and juvenile than any folk albums proper of the day.

The Beach Boys – The Beach Boys Today!

The Beach Boys Today!

The Beach BoysThe Beach Boys Today! Capitol T-2269 (1965)

Brian Wilson was a disturbed guy too sensitive for the smallest amounts of social normalcy. This led him down the erratic and grand path that plays out across the Beach Boys’ many albums. Those wanderings really began with The Beach Boys Today! The result is the complete range of wonder and horror pared down to universal experience lying within not just Mr. Wilson but the rest of us too.

There are three versions of the Beach Boys. Beginning with their scrappy little surf doo-wop number “Surfin’,” they were the extension of a teenage garage band, and they made great songs that were catchy for all the usual reasons. The band, complete with Wilson brothers Brian, Dennis and Carl, were in it together. Things just came easily. Next came a split. With The Beach Boys Today!, Brian Wilson stopped performing live and focused solely on recording. Studio musicians came in to play on the records. This began the Pet Sounds era, with Brian Wilson’s avant-pop genius at its peak. Then Finally, there was the lessening of Brian Wilson’s input and the Beach Boys returned to a more commercial and “live” approach to their records. Maybe their oldies circuit geezer period makes a fourth, but the story is better without that part.

The songs of The Beach Boys Today! make pleasant companions. There are ones with a strong beat leaning more towards the surfin’/cars/girls attitude of the teenage Beach Boys. Then side two debuts the orchestrated pop that became Brian Wilson’s signature. “When I Grow Up (To Be A Man)” is the kind of song ideal for a Wes Anderson film. “Please Let Me Wonder” takes the aching bewilderment of the newly reasserted Beach Boys to the precise affectation of wizened masters. And the opening cover of Bobby Freeman’s “Do You Wanna Dance?” has Beach Boys harmony in one of its most dynamic settings. Brian Wilson has timpani rolls bouncing the beat. Dennis Wilson sings one of the refrains with a muffled, “squ-kiss me baby.” The indecisive fronting belies the song’s dead-on portrayal of longing and dreaming.

“Help Me Ronda” is the original album version and not the hit “Help Me Rhonda.” This original is far denser and more intricate than the later incarnation issued as a single. The LP version does say something about what The Beach Boys Today! stands for. Though perhaps taking only a small step, this album goes beyond a mere collection of songs.

Johnny Cash – Cash: The Legend

Cash: The Legend

Johnny CashCash: The Legend Legacy C4K 92802 (2005)

A very nice though still imperfect set covering many sides of the Man in Black’s career.  There are plenty of opportunities to take in that inimitable voice.  This would make a very good introduction for a newcomer.  But let me comment on a few of the benefits and drawbacks of this particular collection.  On the plus side, there is a lot of fantastic material here, including just about all of Cash’s most essential cuts.  This boxed set is long enough to accomplish that feat.  The last disc features only collaborations and selections of other artists’ recordings where Cash guested, which is nice in bringing you to things like a selection from Bob Dylan‘s Nashville Skyline album and other things that might not otherwise come to your attention, even though it is the weakest of the four discs here.  There are some curious choices and glaring omissions — notably, nothing with Cash’s daughter Rosanne (their duet of “September When It Comes” would have been a better choice than the version with The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band).  Scattered here and there, especially on disc three, there are also a select few recordings that originally went unreleased, like the gem “Goodnight Irene”.  As for the drawbacks, on the other hand, I could quibble about a few song choices and exclusions, which tend toward rather conservative picks.   There aren’t too many epiphanies here for those familiar with Johnny Cash’s catalog, so there is nothing like “Happiness Is You,” “Orphan of the Road,” “The Folk Singer,” “Sugartime” or “Blistered” thrown in to surprise you.  Aside from a few minor gospel albums, Cash recorded for just four record labels: Sun, Columbia, Mercury and American.  The Sun, Columbia and Mercury recordings are the ones represented here. His Mercury recordings aren’t well liked critically or commercially, so their sparse representation here is probably appropriate, though again there are no surprise inclusions of great tunes like “The Hobo Song” from the Mercury years.  There is nothing at all included from Cash’s American Recordings comeback.  While the American Recordings material is sometimes overvalued by listeners who weren’t alive during the early part of Cash’s career, there is important material contained in it.  So, the lack of any American Recordings material is a big drawback, if for no other reason than it leaves the uninitiated wondering what Cash’s comeback was all about.  It probably also bears mentioning that some posthumously-discovered recordings from Personal File are some of the best things he ever recorded (!), and, while as a practical matter those weren’t available in time for inclusion on this set, in retrospect they can been seen as something necessary for that elusive “perfect” Cash collection that as of yet does not exist. The same might go for other posthumous archival releases like Out Among the Stars.  Lastly, the “thematic” arrangement of material across the discs is kind of a drawback, with a few commercially popular but artistically mediocre songs sprinkled ineffectively across the set.  In spite of all that, this still may be the best Johnny Cash boxed set available.  (See also Traveling These Roads Between Heaven & Hell: Johnny Cash, Singer of Songs).

Albert Ayler – Live in Greenwich Village

Live in Greenwich Village: The Complete Impulse Recordings

Albert AylerLive in Greenwich Village: The Complete Impulse Recordings Impulse! IMPD-2-273 (1998)

A compilation of Albert Ayler in Greenwich Village and The Village Concerts plus one track from the comp The New Wave in Jazz and one previously unreleased track, all of which were recorded in the same timeframe of 1965-67.  I guess this set is pretty uneven.  It gained a sort of inflated reputation because it came along when practically none of Ayler’s recordings were available on CD — something that has since changed considerably.  When I say uneven, I’m talking primarily of Ayler’s band.  Ayler himself is in quite good form throughout.  However his brother Donald is lagging most of the time, the violin (Michel Samson) is out of place as well.  Sunny Murray and Beaver Harris can’t be heard all that well on drums amongst so many other players.  But despite all that, this still manages to be a pretty good set when everything clicks.  “Omega is the Alpha” is probably my favorite Ayler recording.