Sunday, January 29, 2017

Up in the Air

SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.

This 2009 Oscar-nominated film had its inception before the 2008 Great Recession, but that event changed the tone and direction of this film directed by Jason Reitman, son of Ivan Reitman, who gave us Ghostbusters, and who is a co-producer along with his son on this movie.
The film opens with Woody Guthrie’s song, “This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land,” lyrics which suggest that the United States is supposed to be shared by all, but the current economic situation presents a different scenario, where many feel dispossessed. The big irony in this story is that the main character, Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), works for a company that is booming, not despite the economic disaster, but because of it. Businesses that are downsizing and laying off tons of workers hire people like Ryan to do the firing for them. They are so cold and unconnected to their employees that they don’t even confront them personally at this most difficult time. And, as Ryan says, these bosses are “pussies” that “don’t have the balls to sack their own employees.” As Ryan’s boss, Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman), says to his employee, because the auto industry is tanking, “Christmas came early” for his fire-for-hire company. And, Craig inspires his troops by telling them, “retailers are down twenty per cent, auto industry is in a dump, the housing market doesn’t have a heartbeat. It is one of the worst times on record for America. This is our moment.” This motion picture is another one that presents us with an upside-down world. Here, capitalism has become so corrupted that many suffer, and those that prosper rejoice at that failure, and feed off of the economic carcass like opportunistic vultures.
Ryan’s life mirrors the topsy-turvy world in which he works by the place he calls home. While most people would consider a permanent house a place of solace, a sanctuary, Ryan has the opposite attitude. He feels most “at home” in the airports, and especially in the sky, flying from layoff city to layoff city. He says, “All the things you hate about traveling - the recycled air, the artificial lighting, the digital juice dispensers, the cheap sushi – are warm reminders that I am home.” The company office where he works is in Omaha, Nebraska, and Ryan’s dislike of having to stay there for any length of time shows when he says, “Last year I spent 322 days on the road, which means I had to spend 43 miserable days at home.” When we do see his condo, it is austere, fittingly appearing as if nobody has been living there. Ryan gives motivational speeches using a backpack as a metaphor for the excess baggage people in the business world carry around, and which weigh them down, grounding them like a flightless airplane. He says, “Make no mistake – your relationships are the heaviest components in your life. Do you feel the straps cutting into your shoulders? All those negotiations and arguments, and secrets and compromises. You don’t need to carry all that weight. Why don’t you set that bag down? Some animals were meant to carry each other, to live symbiotically for a lifetime – star crossed lovers, monogamous swans. We are not those animals. The slower we move, the faster we die. We are not swans. We’re sharks.” And sharks are predators, attacking and feeding violently on others; they die if they don’t keep moving. Ryan, thus, sees a fixed home as a place that will kill him, and, so, he flies, putting distance between himself and any attachments to others.
It is, thus, expected that, when Craig calls him back to hear the company’s new proposed mode of operating the business without the need for traveling, Ryan is outraged. A new employee, a young woman, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), presents her idea of laying people off via the internet through teleconferencing. Ryan confronts Craig with the argument that, even though there is harshness in their work, at least by confronting those losing their jobs in person shows some dignity by including the in-person touch. He says that the inexperienced Natalie hasn’t a clue as to how to deal with the volatility on a case-by-case basis of each firing. Much to Ryan’s surprise, Craig sends Natalie on a mentoring journey with Ryan to cities to see how the firing sessions should be handled. Her online system of firing provides a buffer which relieves the hired gun from the anguish of the firing. But then her boyfriend dumps her in a short, brutal text. Ryan makes the comparison by saying it was like being fired over the internet. When asked if she loved her ex-companion, she talks as if her relationship was a job task when she says, “I could have made it work.” She then lists all of the items that made her boyfriend a good choice. Her speech sounds like what one would see on a spreadsheet.

Personally, Ryan wants to maintain a state of arrested development (the title of a series starring Jason Bateman). When teenagers are “grounded” they are cut off from having fun, and are restricted to the confines of the home. In the adolescent stage, the home can be a prison. And, the puberty period of a male youth lends itself to only wanting to indulge in self-pleasure, divorced from emotional entanglement with another. For this reason, Ryan feels happiest “up in the air,” a place of unattached liberty. Ironically, it is the much younger Natalie who calls Ryan on his selfish childishness, as she now feels the emotional sting of her boyfriend’s leaving, and witnesses up close the suffering of those that are losing their jobs, including one worker played by J. K. Simmons. (There is shot of Natalie sitting in an office surrounding by empty chairs, symbolizing all those who have been fired). When he talks about not being sold on marriage, he scoffs at love and says that despite having a spouse, everyone dies alone, and the failure of most marriages proves that they do not offer security. When he asks her if she has “that moment when you look into somebody’s eyes and you can feel them staring into your soul and the whole world goes quiet for a second,” she says “yes” and he counters with “Well, I don’t.” She says he is like a twelve-year-old, and when he talks about earning enough flying miles to have his name on a plane, she says, “Men get such hard-ons from putting their names on things. You guys don’t grow up. It’s like you need to pee on everything,” thus marking their territories like animals, not evolved humans.

Ryan’s selfishness only gets him material perks in the form of various traveling rewards. When his sister, Kara (Amy Morton), whom he calls the “glue” of his family, always involved in the interaction of its members, says, “You’re awfully isolated, the way you live,” he responds by saying, “Isolated? I’m surrounded.” Yes, but by strangers, not a true love, a friend, or family. His being “up in the air” means he is not “grounded” in the positive sense, of not having someone to rely on, provide sustaining comfort, and to whom he reaps the unselfish rewards of giving emotional sustenance to others. His sister, who is getting married, has little money, and asks that Ryan take pictures of a photo placard of her and her fiancé in front of places he visits so she can have a virtual honeymoon. Ryan complains about this request showing no loyalty to his family, as we see a sign on the wall of the airport terminal which says, “We value your loyalty.” The loyalty Ryan has valued is impersonal and money-based.

A complication occurs in the entrance of Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga) into Ryan’s life (I wonder if her name might conjure up Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction. More on that later). They meet, appropriately, in an airport bar. Their foreplay consists of rating car rental companies and commenting on each other’s rewards cards. She says that one hotel gives you cookies, and that she is a “sucker for synthetic hospitality,” which is all one gets, a hint of the real thing, when it is provided for a price, not given out of sincerity. When Ryan says that he hopes their comparing travel perks doesn’t cheapen their getting to know each other, she says that when you’re comparing elitism, cheap is a “starting point.” They know who they are, and feel that it is okay for them. There is nothing of meaningful substance in their conversation. But, there is humor and chemistry, and they spend the night together. It is noteworthy that when they go to Ryan’s hotel room, he has so many cards, he’s not sure which one opens the door, thus emphasizing his detachment from any place he can call home. Their relationship is “casual” as Ryan describes it, and Alex even reassures him that he doesn’t have to worry about her feelings when she says that he should think of her as someone like himself, “only with a vagina.” Even in their recreational time together, they crash another corporate party, illustrating that they live off of others, just as Ryan and Natalie’s salaries draw from the receding economic well of others.

But, in spite of himself, Ryan becomes attached to Alex. At first, they work out their schedules so that they can see each other as long as it coincides with work. But then Ryan asks Alex if she will accompany him to the wedding of his sister, Julie (Melanie Lynskey). He says for once he doesn’t want to be that guy alone at the bar. He wants to have a dance partner, have a plus-one. The lip-service that he has been giving about the compassionate part of his job, of telling people that anyone who has started an empire or changed the world had to first suffer a loss, and taking people at a time when they are most “fragile” and helping them move forward, may be rubbing off on him. He volunteers to walk Julie down the aisle, but finds out that it is already taken care of. Julie’s future husband, Jim (Danny McBride) tells Ryan about his real estate investment. His words echo the Woody Guthrie song, and contrasts with Ryan’s lifestyle, when he says, “We all need a place to call our own. This is America. It’s what we were promised.” The film is saying that, unfortunately, the country has not lived up to that promise. 
Ryan is now caught between two worlds. When he checks into the hotel in Wisconsin for the wedding, he calls the wedding program a “packet,” which is the word that he uses for the information folder he hands to those he is firing. Hi sister, Kara, has just separated from her husband, adding another statistic to Ryan’s belief that marriages do not offer security. But, he enjoys taking Alex around his hometown, and visiting the school he attended. He seems to be reconnecting with the place he once called home, and also with his family. When Jim gets cold feet, he is the one Kara asks to convince the reluctant groom to go through with the nuptials. Jim voices the fears of many when he looks ahead and only sees a passage of time that ends in death. Ryan admits that marriage is difficult, and there isn’t some universal point to it all. But, he asks Jim, “the most important moments in your life … were you alone?” Jim realizes, as does Ryan as he says these words, that it is better to share life with someone. Ryan’s next words are significant, because he tells Jim, in life, you need a “co-pilot.” So, the man who has been flying solo now understands that is it better to have a fellow traveler on the journey. After he convinces Jim to go to the marriage ceremony, it is fitting that his sister, Kara, says to Ryan, “Welcome home.” He has joined emotionally with his family. The scene hearkens back to the beginning of the film when one of the men who lost his job says that his family consisted of people he worked with, and leaving them made him feel like he was about to die. In a way, Ryan, who was already dead to his family, has been resurrected.
When Ryan returns to the office, he discovers that a woman, who Natalie had fired on the road, followed through with the promise of killing herself by jumping off of a bridge. Natalie is so shaken that she quits, texting Craig, who ironically complains about the method used by Natalie’s boyfriend, since Craig was willing to fire people electronically. She goes to San Francisco which is where she was originally headed, and gets a job with the help of a recommendation from Ryan. Will Natalie marry herself to her job and give up on relationships after her break-up, or be able to find a “co-pilot” after quitting the unsavory work in which she was briefly employed?

Ryan leaves in the middle of one of his speeches about emptying the backpack, not believing in the words anymore. He needs to be with Alex, and makes a trip to her hometown of Chicago without any business agenda attached. Maybe we should have seen omens earlier, such as when the lights went out on the party boat after Ryan says he is now looking at what to put back in the backpack, or when Alex said she hoped Ryan wasn’t changing. There is a reason why she said she couldn’t behave at home the way she was with Ryan. When Ryan arrives at Alex’s house, he finds it is a home, with children and a husband behind the half-open door. He flees, and later has a phone conversation with her. At least he was honest with her. She has been a deception, pretending that she was just like Ryan. She has no sympathy for him or remorse for being misleading. She says he almost “screwed things up. That’s my family. That’s my real life.” In a way, she is the opposite of the Alex in Fatal Attraction: this Alex is the married person selfishly cheating on the spouse. She wants both the freedom of the road (or sky here) and the security of the family home. To her, Ryan was an “escape” from her being “grounded.” She calls Ryan a “parenthesis,” something that is self-contained, limited, not material for a long story.
Craig says there has been a hold on rolling out the teleconferencing layoff program. He needs Ryan “up in the air” again. Natalie said he should use his frequent flyer points to actually travel somewhere, enjoy what the rewards stand for, not just accumulate them. He goes one step further – he gives his sister enough of them to travel around the world on a honeymoon. He now values the loyalty of family. But, after reaching ten million miles he is asked by Chief Pilot Maynard Finch (Sam Elliott), where he is from. He says “I’m from here,” that is, in the sky. At the end of the film he is at another airport, and the movie ends as it started, with Ryan in a plane. Will he ever land and find a permanent home, or will he continue to pass over the homes of others, his “wingtip passing over?”

The next film is Bicycle Thieves.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Shadow of a Doubt

SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.

I suppose I’ll run out of Alfred Hitchcock films I want to write about some time. Not yet, though. This 1943 work was one of the director’s favorites. Its primary theme is the evil or darkness that lurks beneath benign surface appearances. This duality exists within places and people. This double nature appears in all Gothic or horror stories in one form or another. They explore the subterranean nature of humanity, or as the current TV show Stranger Things calls it, “The Upside Down.”
The opening credits appear over men and women dancing in turn-of-the-20th-century clothes to The Merry Widow Waltz by Franz Lehar. The image is one of a civilized society surrounded by lively music. It appears other times in the film, as does the melody, and it becomes an ironic contrast as the news about the killer known as The Merry Widow Murderer becomes known. Within the killer’s nickname we have an ironic contrast embodied in one entity, emphasized by the music, of happiness and death. The first scene has the camera expose the seediness of an urban environment. We see derelict men on the ground next to an illegal dump site. The story presents an East versus West theme, which American literature uses as a motif in many works, most notably in The Great Gatsby, which emphasizes the two sides of American life. In this movie, there is the outward corruption of the East compared with the pretty California town of Santa Rosa. From a religious viewpoint, the movie contrasts the fallen nature of the urban with the Edenic life of a small town.

The first glimpse of Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotton), a deceptively sweet name, shows him stretched out on a bed in a cramped rented room. There is money on a piece of furniture and on the floor. The landlady comes in saying that two men are asking for the reclining man. When she goes to the window and closes the blind, bathing the man in darkness, he bolts upright and into action. The effect makes one think of a vampire who was sleeping in a coffin, waking up when the light cannot expose his dangerous nature. Later, Jack Graham (Macdonald Carey) asks the young Ann (Edna May Wanacott) to tell the story of Dracula. And Uncle Charlie says to his niece, his namesake, Charlie (Teresa Wright) that “the same blood runs through our veins,” highlighting the food on which the vampire feeds. The vampire appears like a non-threatening human, but is really a creature that drains life out of its victim, and then turns its prey into one of its own kind, in a way subverting the nature of the person it attacks.
When we first see young Charlie, she is in bed, just like her Uncle. The images suggest the contrast between his depravity and her innocence. But, it is more complex than that. She is bored with her life and wants some excitement, and comes up with the idea that a visit from Uncle Charlie is just what she needs. At the same time, Uncle Charlie has given the two men, who are police officers, the slip, and decides to visit his sister’s family out west. These two are, thus, linked by genetics and name, and possibly psychologically. Charlie even says at one point that they are like twins. The double is often used in horror stories to show the good and bad sides of the same person. So, the dark side of Charlie yearns for the danger embodied in her uncle.
 Santa Rosa contrasts with the East. Here, the houses are pretty, the streets are clean, and there are trees growing. But, its exaggerated “typical” American small town nature appears forced, as if it is trying hard to clamp down on anything nasty happening. Charlie’s mother, Emma (Patricia Collinge) is very fussy to a point of paranoia, trying not to expose furniture that needs reupholstering, and complaining how the house always needs painting. These are all symbols of the attempt to maintain that benign surface. Of course, you can’t fight evil by pretending that it doesn’t exist. Its presence comes in the form of Uncle Charlie, who arrives on a train. Hitchcock loves to use trains, and employs them as phallic symbols (see the post on North by Northwest, for example). Here, it may also imply the serpent entering the western paradise. His sister called him “the Baby” of the family, an ironic reference, as she sees him as innocent. Hitchcock said that the black smoke spewing out of the train at the station was a type of omen implying the arrival of evil into the town in the form of Uncle Charlie. When he is traveling on the train, Uncle Charlie is withdrawn and sickly. When he arrives in Santa Rosa, he appears energized, as he did when he rose from the bed in the boardinghouse, like an animal smelling fresh blood to feed upon.
In a way, Uncle Charlie shows a cynical viewpoint that sees corruption in everything. But, by doing so, he exposes the latent decay in even supposedly good-natured small town existence. When at the bank where Charlie’s father, Mr. Newton (Henry Travers), works, Uncle Charlie makes jokes about embezzlement, which causes Mr. Newton and other employees to become nervous. Uncle Charlie says, “We all know what banks are. Look alright to an outsider, but no one knows what goes on when the doors are locked. Can’t fool me, though.” He, being evil, can see where evil lurks. He points out that the head of the bank, the appropriately named Mr. Green (Edwin Stanley), will probably lose his job to his brother-in-law, revealing that the affable Mr. Newton may have a ruthless, ambitious side. Later, Uncle Charlie questions the effectiveness of religion, and implies derision toward followers, when he shows surprise that a church service was fully attended, saying, “That show’s been running such a long time. I thought attendance may be falling off.” That there is a darkness underneath the happy surface here can be seen in the conversations between Mr. Newton and friend Herbie (Hume Cronyn, in his film debut). They play at a game of presenting various ways murderers carry out their deeds. Herbie says he put soda in their coffee, which could have been poison, for instance. Mr. Newton seems to favor the more direct approach, using blunt instruments. But, Herbie says that a crafty killer will be subtler. He could be talking about Uncle Charlie. In any event, it is a disturbing back-and-forth between the two in a supposedly non-threatening world.

We learn that Charlie is very bright, so it is no surprise she learns about her uncle’s secret. She is at first enthusiastic about his visit. However, she senses that he is hiding something. It is only later that she has a “shadow of a doubt” about his true nature. He gives her an emerald ring (something he took from one of the widows he killed), but she notices it contains an inscription to someone else. Uncle Charlie covers up this discovery by saying the jeweler fooled him. He hides a newspaper clipping which Charlie pulls out of his pocket, thinking that it will point to his secret, but not suspecting anything threatening. Uncle Charlie turns from Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde, telling her the news article is none of her business, and hurting her arm while grabbing it. Two men arrive stating that they are making a photographic study of a typical American family, and they want to include the Newtons as part of their project. There is an attraction between Charlie and one of the men, Jack Graham. When he questions how quickly she turned from being depressed and bored to feeling excited after her uncle arrived, she becomes defensive, asking if he is implying that Uncle Charlie isn’t as wonderful as she described. She actually is voicing her own doubts about her uncle.
Graham reveals that he is a detective, and that her uncle is one of their suspects in The Merry Widow Murderer case. He concedes that there is another man they are following in the eastern states. They took pictures as part of their charade so as to have witnesses back east identify Uncle Charlie. He tried to take the film, saying he didn’t like being photographed, but the men switched the film. Graham convinces Charlie to work undercover for him. So, she must now employ a sham façade, and break rules, as she did when going to the library after hours to learn about the newspaper story her uncle hid. It appears that the situation requires that she fight fire with fire.

Uncle Charlie makes a disturbing misogynistic speech at the dinner table about widows. He says that there are many dead husbands who slaved their lives away making money that their widows now enjoy. These “silly” wives go to the best hotels, “drinking the money, eating the money, losing the money at bridge.” He calls them “horrible, faded, fat, greedy women.” Charlie rushes out of the house, and her uncle pursues her. (There is an ironic statement from Uncle Charlie to the local policeman who tells Uncle Charlie that his niece should watch how she ruses into traffic, and must obey the laws. He says we “wouldn’t want to break the law”). He forces her into a bar to talk. The sleaziness of the place is another example of underlying decay even in an upstanding community. The waitress, a former fellow student of Charlie’s, appears world-weary, having been around the block, so to speak, several times, and she is surprised someone like Charlie would show up there. Uncle Charlie is symbolic of how the darker “twin” part of Charlie can steer her into the wrong side of life. She knows from the news story that the inscription of the ring matches the name of one of The Merry Widow Murderer victims. He reveals his ugly view of the world, saying she is basically naïve. He tells her, “You live in a dream. You’re a sleepwalker, blind. How do you know what the world is like? Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know, that if you rip off the fronts of the houses, you’d find swine? The world’s a hell. What does it matter what happens in it?” Admitting that he is the culprit, he asks her to let him leave, so as not to destroy her mother emotionally once the news gets out.
It turns out that the other suspect was killed while trying to escape police, and Graham says that Uncle Charlie, thus, is not the killer. Her uncle now feels as if he is in the clear, so he decides to stay. But, he feels that Charlie is a threat to him while she lives. He weakens a step outside so she will fall, but Charlie grabs hold of a railing, escaping serious injury. He also prevents Charlie from escaping the carbon monoxide-filled garage caused by a running car; she survives because Herbie heard her screams as he approached the house. When Uncle Charlie tells Graham how precious his niece is, he holds her face in an almost suffocating manner, undermining the expressed sentiment.

Uncle Charlie does decide to leave after Charlie’s survival. On the departing train, we see Mrs. Potter, who he met at the bank. She is another rich widow, who would probably be his next victim. Charlie is on the train, but her uncle prevents her from leaving as the train starts to move away from the station. He tries to push her off, but she reverses their positions, and it is Uncle Charlie who topples out, into the path of an oncoming train. In a way, this scene symbolizes Charlie conquering the darker side of herself, and, ironically, the evil that arrived on a serpent-like train, now is destroyed leaving on one.
At the end, Graham and Charlie decide not to expose Uncle Charlie’s demonic deeds, believing it would be too difficult for the family and the community to be exposed to such horror. They plan to be together, which is optimistic, but the ugly hatred of the world that Uncle Charlie embraced haunts her.

The next film is Up in the Air.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Birdman (Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.

There are a lot of feathers flying in this Best Picture Oscar winner (sorry, I couldn’t help myself). The 2014 Alejandro G. Iñάrritu movie takes on a number of themes: commercialism versus artistic achievement; the role of critics; the lives of actors; illusion versus reality in film and theater.
Let’s start out with the title of the motion picture (we’ll get to the parenthetical subtitle later). It’s sounds similar to the superheroes in other movies. The main character here is Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton). He used to be the star of the Birdman films, but walked away after three outings. Movies that feature Batman, Superman, Iron Man, Spiderman, etc., have a dichotomy in their names. They are part “man” (or in the case of Wonder Woman, part female), and part something that makes them special, something that allows them to overcome the limitations of others. For audiences, they provide a vicarious escape from everyday living and the possibility of vicariously becoming something greater than themselves. Major Hollywood studios have cultivated this desire for escapism into the only enterprise they are willing to bankroll, at the exclusion of films that explore the actual plight of everyday people. Iñάrritu’s movie makes several references to this “selling out” to solely produce diversion.
Riggan is trying to break away from his fantasy past to produce a serious play on Broadway, and is looking for an actor to fill a role. But, he can’t get Woody Harrelson because he is doing The Hunger Games, Michael Fassbinder is committed to “the prequel to the X-Men prequel,” and Jeremy Renner, who was in the realistically gritty The Hurt Locker, is now working as an Avenger. At one point Riggan despairs of being forgotten for giving up the superhero life to the point that if he was on a plane with George Clooney, and it crashed, the press wouldn’t even mention his name. The reference of course is that even Clooney played Batman once. But, the bigger inside joke is that Keaton himself walked away from playing Batman, and the actor in Birdman who plays Mike Shiner, Edward Norton, was The Incredible Hulk. As Riggan says, it seems like Hollywood has put everybody “in a cape.” As the voice of Birdman in Riggan’s head reminds him, people love entertainment that is “Big, loud, fast!” As Birdman, he was able to “save people from boring, miserable lives.” Birdman says the audience members “love action. Not this talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit,” that Riggan is presenting on stage.

So, Hollywood is a target here, and the way it typecasts actors in the audience’s mind makes it difficult for Riggan to do serious work. But, Iñάrritu also ridicules the elitism of the New York theater community. Shiner is an extreme method actor who will do anything on the stage if it promotes, for what is for him, a truthful experience, even if it ignores artistic discipline or taste, such as drinking real gin or engaging in actual sex during the performance. He dismisses fame derived from commercial projects when he says, “Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige.” His prejudice is that he believes that people become famous only by compromising their artistic standards.
 The nastier attack is against the theater critic, Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan), whose sole New York Times review carries so much power that it will make or break a play. Riggan meets her in a bar and she arrogantly tells him that she is going to kill his play without having even seen it yet. She has an artistic bigotry toward him for coming from low brow Hollywood and presuming to attempt something serious on Broadway. She says, “I hate you and everyone you represent. Entitled spoiled, selfish children. Blissfully untrained, unversed, and unprepared to even attempt real art…Well this is the theater and you don’t get to write, direct, and act in your own propaganda piece without going through me first.” She assumes he is not an actor, only a “celebrity.” Riggan grabs the review she is writing, and says that she is just using stock terms without really analyzing what she saw. He accuses her of being a lazy writer. He says, “There’s nothing here about technique! There’s nothing in here about structure! There’s nothing in here about intentions! It’s just a bunch of crappy opinions, backed up by even crappier comparisons.” Riggan says as a critic, “You risk nothing!” It is the artist that has put his heart and soul into his work. As he says, “This play cost me everything.” Actually, it is Shiner, in an earlier meeting who delivers the most damning line to Tabitha, when he says, “A man becomes a critic when he cannot be an artist, the same way a man becomes an informer when he cannot be a soldier.” Based on that statement, the critic, out of anger springing from artistic inadequacy, actually becomes a traitor, betraying those truly committed to the creative process by judging a work without compassion.
The beginning of the film presents a quote from writer Raymond Carver. The words are on his tombstone, and in them Carver asks himself what he wanted out of life. The response is “To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on earth.” This line especially pertains to actors, who usually admit to being insecure and entering show business to compensate and gain validation. Riggan is adapting a story by Carver entitled "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love."  As was stated above, Riggan stresses over whether he will be forgotten after he has died, that the fans’ devotion will have disappeared after taking off the superhero costume. This falling from the show business heavens may be why the first image of the film is one of a spacecraft plummeting from the sky toward the ground. His own daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), diminishes him by saying that he is producing a play that is out of date, just like him, and that his work, and even Riggan himself, are “unimportant.” He wants to do a play about the human condition, represented by the “man” part of Birdman, but the “bird” part feeds his ego, encouraging the desire to soar above others. The superhero character aspect of himself says to Riggan, “You are larger than life.” His alter ego tells him that he should return to the movie franchise because he will gross a billion dollars. He says Riggan isn’t bound by human restrictions, that “gravity doesn’t even apply” to him. His Birdman persona tells Riggan he is not only a superhero, but should be called “a god.” His ex-wife, Sylvia (Amy Ryan), tells him that he may be working in a play about love, but he doesn’t understand the emotion because he confuses “love for admiration.” Love is a complex feeling which means caring for and accepting someone despite flaws. Admiration is less intimate, and may only refer to one’s work. The actor in Riggan can’t seem to make the distinction, and assumes that if others admire his work they will love him. With this attitude, he will always find himself lacking satisfaction. But, he is not the only one who expresses the actor’s propensity for insecurity. One of the actresses in the play, Lesley (Naomi Watts), asks “Why don’t I have any self-respect?” To which another actress, Laura (Andrea Riseborough) responds, “You’re an actress, honey.”
This insecurity is mirrored toward the end when Riggan says, “I’m nothing. I’m not even here.” In the play, Six Characters in Search of an Author, the premise is that actors are indefinite, mutable entities, whereas the characters they play are clearly defined, something to get a fix on, reliable. Lesley tells her boyfriend, Shiner, that on stage, he is Mr. Truth, but in real life, he is a fraud, nothing to bank on. He is able to have an actual erection playing his character, but is impotent with her in their relationship. Thus, he also suffers from a lack of self-confidence outside of the work process.

But, Shiner’s demanding “truth” on stage brings up the main theme of the movie, which is artistic illusion versus reality. Plays and movies deal with these two states by presenting the illusion of reality. Artists present their vision on a sliding scale between these two poles. Some paintings are almost photographic in the depictions of their subjects, while others are impressionistic or abstract. Plays cannot provide the verisimilitude of movies because of the confinements of the theater environment. But, some are more grounded in their depiction of the world than those that bring in elements of say, farce, and the breaking of the “fourth wall.” The same can be said for movies. In any event, there is always a pretending, a suspension of disbelief, which one may call “the unexpected virtue of ignorance.” When we follow a story, we allow ourselves as the audience to be ignorant of the fact that we are watching a fiction, and that allows us to participate in that world of make believe. In Birdman, Iñάrritu offers us a contemplation of what happens when we lose sight of the distinction between illusion and reality. The first shot of Riggan is of him hovering in midair in his dressing room. He believes, at times, that he can do this, because part of himself thinks he really is Birdman. While alone, it appears that he can turn a TV on and off with his fingers and make things fly through the air. But, when his lawyer and partner, Jake (Zach Galifianakis), enters his dressing room, we see him using his hands to hurl objects. He wants to deny that fantasy part of his mind, wants to remove the movie poster of himself in the costume, and has sacrificed his career to do a down-to-earth play about love. But, even the play is not “real,” which is emphasized by the falling of a spotlight onto one of the actors, emphasizing how different actual reality is compared to a dramatic presentation.
Shiner is the toast of New York City theatergoers because of his devotion to presenting “reality” on the stage. He gets a tanning bed to emphasize the redneck quality of his character, for example. He is not happy with the gun that Riggan uses for the final scene, because it doesn’t look like a real one (a foreshadowing remark). He uses real gin in the play, not caring about the intoxicating effects it will produce. He tells Lesley that he wants to really have sex with her in the scene leading up to the ending of the play, unconcerned about the inappropriateness of the suggestion. Shiner takes the idea of method acting, which is supposed to be based on using real life experiences, to the extreme of actually creating those experiences on stage. In essence, he is undermining the craft of acting by eliminating that part of it which recreates life in order to present an illusion that resembles reality in order to comment on it.
Iñάrritu’s directing style constantly reminds us that we are not watching reality. The apparently one-shot technique of the film is an illusion, since the story moves from night into day, and from periods of time offstage and onstage which could not occur if the story was done in real time. The jarring percussionist soundtrack does not blend into the background, reminding us of how a movie adds sounds that are not found in everyday life. We even see the drummer in one scene, emphasizing the artifice of what we are viewing and hearing. At one point, Riggan enters the theater from the street and says to cut the music, drawing our attention to the fact that we are watching a movie, not a presentation of actual events.

But, the film comments on our current world that does not appreciate that gradation between extreme make-believe and verisimilitude in art. Today’s audiences go from one extreme to the other, preferring the total escapism of the superhero genre, or reality television (which is not “reality’ since it creates contrived, extreme situations peopled with non-actors). Since everyone records everything to be presented online, people associate the viewing screen now with actual occurrences, and seem to prefer even non-documentary films to be based on “true events” to be palatable. Fictitious stories can, thus, lose validation as a way of revealing understanding into the human condition.
 This movie shows the opposing desires for escapism and reality in Riggan himself. In the earlier scene where Sam pronounces her father’s irrelevance to the modern world, she berates him for his scorn of Twitter and Facebook, and says that it is online where the young people of today are vying for importance, which translates to visibility and attention, hoping for the social media stardom that movie actors used to have a corner on. When Riggan locks himself out of the theater in his underwear briefs and must wander around Times Square to return to the play, pedestrians use their cell phones to record him. His daughter informs him that one of the videos has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times. She tells him that today, that is “power,” implying that his play is not.

Riggan finally combines the two aspects sought by today’s audiences in his play when he uses a real gun at the performance and shoots himself in his face, damaging his nose. (Earlier, when he locks himself out of the theater, he starts the scene using his hand in the form of a gun, which, if the audience is trusted to use its imagination, can be accepted as a weapon). Afterwards, at the hospital, the bandage over his face makes him look like he is wearing the headpiece to his Birdman outfit, thus suggesting the joining of his superhero character with actual bloodshed. The critic who threatened to kill his play, now praises Riggan’s performance, declaring that he has created a new art form, dubbing it “superrealism,” merging the superhero aspects and reality TV into one form of entertainment. Earlier, he flies around the Broadway area, and we hear a passerby ask if this is a movie. The mere question suggests the merging of reality and illusion to the point where they are indistinguishable today.
 At the end of the film, Riggan opens the hospital room window and jumps out. His daughter enters the empty room, sees the window open, and looks out. First, she looks down, but then gazes skyward, and starts to smile. The joke is on us. Iñάrritu does not give us a definite answer because the audience now shares his daughter’s perception, and possibly that of the rest of the population at large that is unable to see where the real and the illusion diverge. Maybe, if we can accept “fake” news as real, and begin to believe the deceptions of our leaders, then perhaps we can even believe that superheroes actually exist.

The next film is Shadow of a Doubt.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Hospital

SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.

Plays concentrate on words. Film scripts focus on the picture, the image. However, there are a few writers, such as Aaron Sorkin and Woody Allen, for example, whose words make listening to a movie just as important as watching it. Paddy Chayefsky was such an artist. He received an Oscar for the film, Marty, and won one for this motion picture. He would go on to receive the writing award again for the brilliant Network (see the prior post on that one) before leaving us all too soon.
This 1971 story targets the medical profession, and it is as timely as ever. The focus is on Dr. Herbert Bock (George C. Scott, brilliant, and nominated for Best Actor for the role). Satires usually spend their time on the object they are attacking and spend little effort on character development (Dr. Strangelove, Wag the Dog are examples). Not here. Bock is a fully fleshed out person. He is an eminent Harvard-educated physician who is Chief of Staff, and teaches, at a New York City hospital. But, he ironically is sick, mostly in a helpless, life-stricken way. We see him not showing up for rounds at the medical center, oversleeping, and smoking and drinking to excess. When he receives the call that one of his staff doctors died due to hospital negligence, we see a weary look on his face, as if another in a long line of spiritually-depleting weights has landed on his weakening shoulders.

About that doctor. His name is Schaefer (Lenny Baker). We are told in an omniscient narrator opening (spoken by Chayefsky) that he is a young stud who has been having sex with multiple nurses in various uncomfortable places, and now is excited because he has a vacant bed. It became available because a patient named Guernsey (slaughtered like a cow?) (Roberts Blossom), who occupied it, died because of a misdiagnosis by a nursing home physician. The narrator says that it is “axiomatic,” that all nursing home doctors are “wrong.” Those who have had, or have, loved ones in these facilities can judge whether even today that impression is correct concerning the mostly contracted out doctors employed at these establishments. The hospital staff compounded Guernsey’s health problems with further misdiagnoses and incorrect treatment, resulting in his demise. The next time we see Dr. Schaefer, he is a corpse in that same bed. The nurses, thinking him to be Guernsey, stuck an IV into him. We learn that he was diabetic. Nursing supervisor Mrs. Christie, (Nancy Marchand, no Christ-like figure here), says to Bock, “These things happen,” as if accidents are an acceptable way of life in a hospital. She gives as an excuse the fact that nurse “floaters” who move from floor to floor don’t know individual patients. Bock yells at her, saying, “Now what am I going to tell this boy Schaefer’s parents. That a substitute nurse assassinated him because she couldn’t tell the doctors from the patients on this floor?” He is outraged, and says, “I mean, where do you train your nurses, Mrs. Christie, Dachau?” Pretty bad when a supposed place of treating the sick rivals a Nazi concentration camp. In addition, instead of compassion, we hear a hospital administrator’s concern for the bottom line, as he worries about a lawsuit concerning Schaefer’s death.
Bock is confronted by John Sundstrom (Stephen Elliott), the hospital administrator, who knows how Bock has been dodging his responsibilities, and that he has recently separated from his wife. He suggests seeing a hospital psychiatrist. After seeing protesters outside angry at the hospital’s eviction of neighborhood residents to accommodate the expansion of the medical center, he then hears a list of other problems from his assistant. He decides to pay a visit to the shrink, Dr. Joe Einhorn (David Hooks). This narrative device provides exposition to understand Bock’s back story. He admits to bouts of depression, which date back to suicidal thoughts when he was younger. He tells the psychiatrist that he was from a middle-class family and his parents were proud of their brainy son. However, he was terrified of women and bad at sports, which implies feelings of inadequacy as a man. He says his seventeen-year-old daughter had two abortions and was arrested for drug dealing. He evicted his son, who he scornfully describes as a shaggy-haired Maoist who hypocritically espoused universal love while despising everybody. But, Bock heaps guilt upon himself, saying he was at fault for these “worthless” children. He admits to being impotent, but hasn’t had a chance to even have sex in quite a while. When asked about suicidal thoughts, he shows that he has given considerable thought about using potassium which would not show evidence of self-harm, and, thus, making sure his family would receive the life insurance payment. Thus, his need for responsibility even carries on into death. Einhorn is concerned, since he sees a man who is exhausted, guilt-ridden, and isolating himself, possibly preparing for death. Bock says he just has to throw himself into his work.

We see, despite the efforts of modern medicine, an emergency room filled with sick people, and how the business bureaucracy part of the hospital comes off as unfeeling in the person of Mrs. Cushing (Frances Sternhagen, although there is nothing “cushioning” about her attitude). In the middle of all the suffering, she harasses ill patients for insurance information, and chastises doctors for not clearing their activities with her first. When she interrogates one inactive patient, she determines that he is dead. When she informs a physician that there is a dead man in the corner of the ER, he asks how does she know he is deceased. Her answer is “Because he wouldn’t give me his Blue Cross number,” which shows her only criteria for a vital sign.
The patient in the bed next to where Guernsey died is a man named Drummond (Barnard Hughes). Bock is curious about the man’s visitors, one, a beautiful young woman, the other a half-naked Native American. The senior resident, Dr. Brubaker (Robert Walden), tells Bock that Drummond, a Methodist missionary who lives with the Apaches in Mexico, came in and was found to have protein in his urine. He was then bullied into a biopsy where a blood vessel was damaged. Everything went downhill from there, with the man having one kidney removed, the other damaged, and him becoming comatose. The woman, Barbara (Diana Rigg), his daughter, wants to return her father as soon as possible to Mexico. Bock tells Brubaker to let him go, “before we kill him.” The Apache, a shaman, is Mr. Blacktree (Arthur Junaluska), who does a dance while a thunderstorm rages, from which he supposedly can draw some cosmic healing power. The storm itself seems to be symbolic of the destructive professional climate inside the medical institution. Bock asks Barbara if she really believes the Native American can help, to which she answers that he can’t do any harm. That is the creed by which doctors are supposed to live by, and, in this ironic story, it is the “medicine man” who is the only one who appears to adhere to this ethic.
 Bock invites Barbara to use his phone to make arrangements to have an ambulance remove her father. She uses the opportunity to provide a lengthy personal history of how her dad, a doctor in his own right, was at a religious service when he started speaking in “tongues.” It turned out that Drummond spoke in an obscure Apache dialect. Believing he had received the word of God, he moved to Mexico to be with the Apache and worked at a mission. Barbara became a Hippie, took drugs, and had incestuous dreams about her father. She had a breakdown, but eventually wound up at the mission. This story was her way of saying that she was attracted to middle-aged men, and especially to Bock. He admits to his impotency, which he explains goes beyond a physical problem. He tells her, “When I say impotent, I mean I have lost even my desire to work. That’s a hell of a lot more primal passion than sex. I’ve lost my reason for being, my purpose. The only thing I’ve truly loved.” Bock lists medical advances that we still explore today, including work in genetics and cloning. But despite creating “an enormous medical entity,” ironically, children in the surrounding neighborhood have not been vaccinated. His feeling of helplessness is palpable as he bellows out into the supposedly nurturing halls of the hospital, “we’re sicker than ever. We cure nothing! We heal, nothing! The whole goddamn wretched world, strangulating in front of our eyes.”

Bock says that there is no viable alternative for him except death. At first Barbara tries to dismiss the doctor’s rant as self-pity. He dismisses her. But, she returns, rightfully concluding that his suicidal threat may be real. She finds Bock about to inject himself. He is enraged by this suicidal interruptus (the needle substituting for his flaccid penis), and sexually assaults Barbara, who actually doesn’t mind, since she wants him. As it turns out she says that during the night he ravaged her three times (ironically, a religious number, if one considers the “Holy Trinity). And, in fact, Bock is reborn, sexually, and as it turns out, spiritually. He actually says that she “resurrected” feelings in him that were dead (If you use a Schwarzenegger dialect, his last name could be “Back,” which means he has returned to the man he once was). He wants to personally take care of her father, but she has had ominous dreams about the whole hospital staff heading in a suicidal march to the sea. In the context of this film, dreams and portents are more reliable than medical science. She declares her love for Bock, and says he should come with her and her father back to Mexico where he would be needed the way he once was, and purpose in his life will, in essence, will return. She says he has a choice between the mountains of Mexico or the bottle of potassium.
But, there are more deaths among the employees of the hospital. We see one in the lab get clubbed by a mysterious person. He shows up as the dead man in the ER. His name is Dr. Ives (Robert Anthony). A young nurse is also knocked out, and turns up on the operating table instead of a middle-aged woman scheduled for a hysterectomy. The nurse dies of a reaction to the anesthesia. These victims, along with Dr. Schaefer, were involved in the mistreatment of Guernsey and Drummond. In addition, there have been reports of a doctor wearing the dead Dr. Schaefer’s ID badge around the hospital. Bock, who has decided to leave with Barbara, remembers that he saw Schaefer’s jacket in Drummond’s clothes locker. When he goes to check it out, Drummond, not comatose at all, tries to strangle Bock, who is rescued by the entrance of Barbara. Thus, Drummond, too, appears to have come back from death, to fulfill a purpose. He proceeds to say he is the “angel of the bottomless pit,” and the “wrath of the lamb,” who is to exact biblical retribution, “an eye for an eye,” Those who committed medical negligence would die “by irony,” being made patients in their own hospital. He was given this mission, he believes, by Guernsey, who was in fact God, and who came to Drummond after his death. Thus, we have another resurrection, in this case a symbolic one, whose purpose is to restore balance to the wrong deeds perpetuated against innocent people.

Drummond sedated Schafer, put the doctor’s own insulin into his IV, and the nurses allowed his death to occur by not recognizing the wrong person was in the bed. Drummond emphasizes medical incompetence by saying he wanted time to carry out some of his actions, so he rang for his nurse, “To ensure one full hour of uninterrupted privacy.” And, he put the young sedated nurse prior to the hysterectomy surgery outside the x-ray department, where a patient left for an excessive number of hours would not be considered anything unusual. The man who died in the ER was Dr. Ives. Drummond had given him Digoxin, brought him to the ER in time to be treated, but his heart gave out, because, as Drummond says, he was, “simply, forgotten to death.” As he tells Bock and his daughter about Dr. Ives, he provides a chilling, horrific epic catalog of the sick people who are in the ER, and the illnesses replace their names, as they become their afflictions: the fractures: the infarcts; the hemorrhages; the old lady mugged in the subway; the rapes; the septic abortions; the colonic cancers; the asthmatics; the overdosed addicts, etc. To sum up, Drummond calls them, “the whole wounded madhouse of our times.” The implication is that perhaps Bock’s speech that despite scientific advances, we are sicker than ever.
There is one more person on Drummond’s hit list, Dr. Welbeck (Richard Dysart), whose name itself is ironic, because instead of getting people “well,” he has shown up inebriated at several operations, including the one he performed on Drummond, and is an incompetent surgeon. Welbeck is all about the money, as he counsels younger doctors on how to give themselves bonuses at the same time they avoid paying taxes. Cosmic irony does Welbeck in, instead of Drummond, as he discovers on the phone that his partner has stolen everything and gone off to Brazil. Welbeck sustains a fatal heart attack and dies in Drummond’s room. The staff assumes it is Drummond who died, which Bock confirms, thereby giving Barbara time to get her father out of the country. On the way out, Drummond says before anyone can confirm that it was Welbeck who died, they will remove the body, send it to Mexico, and people will think Welbeck was in on the scam with his partner, who he joined in Brazil.
Instead of going with Barbara, Bock sees that between the protests, financial problems, and medical ineptitude, the hospital is falling apart, and he must be there to help. As he told her earlier, his middle-class background taught that it isn’t love that triumphs over all, it is responsibility. But trying to fix things, as Sundstrom says, is “like pissing in the wind.”
Some may say that feeling may be reflected today in the United States as we try, seemingly with no viable plan, to deal with an aging population with more illnesses, younger people with more asthma and allergies, and soaring costs for doctors’ bills, nursing homes, and medications that seem to have more harmful side-effects than beneficial ones.

The next film is Birdman.