Then there’s all the complicated references between real world/movie world/theater world. We’re aware Michael Keaton was Batman, and now he’s playing an actor who was Birdman. We’re wondering: “Is Michael Keaton a good actor? Was he a good actor in the ’80s or just a celebrity? Is he good in this film? In the play inside the film? What will this film mean to his career? And what about the character he is playing– is that guy a good actor?”
For me, there was an extra layer, and another multi-layered story about art and celebrity, in the fact that the play being staged is an adaptation of the short stories of Raymond Carver. So all I actually want to talk about in this blog entry is Raymond Carver.
When I was in graduate school at Sarah Lawrence College for creative writing (1988-1991), Raymond Carver was a total celebrity. His work was everywhere. People who knew him told stories about him. It was a great tragedy that he had died, in August 1988, of lung cancer. There were strong connections between our program and Syracuse, where he had taught and lived with the poet Tess Gallagher. There was a strong cult around his stories and her poems, particularly poems about their relationship. Carver had gotten sober just before meeting her, and after almost killing himself with drink in the 1970s, he had turned his life around. He was portrayed, romantically, as both a terrific drunk in the mold of John Cheever, and a tragic hero, for losing his life after cleaning up and finding love, at the very young age of 50.
I still remember one story told about him. A writer had supposedly told Carver the story of taking a walk in a canyon and witnessing a hawk diving down and grabbing some small prey. In no time, the scene of a writer walking in a canyon and observing a hawk and its prey appeared in one of Carver’s stories. The writer confronted Carver, saying: “I told you that story, Ray. It was my story. You stole it from me.” To which Carver replied, “I take walks.” The moral of this story was, “Human experience doesn’t belong to anyone. Go ahead and use whatever you can get hold of.”
I read all the stories, and felt it was a great tragedy that, as a young, romantic writer myself, I had not gotten a chance to meet Carver or hear him read in person. After Sarah Lawrence, when I received a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford, Raymond Carver was among the most revered former fellows. It made us feel important to be following in his footsteps.
However, later, as a teacher I began to see Carver differently. Carver was always hailed as a great minimalist, a Hemingway. His stories of mostly working class people, of their relationships and experiences– losing a child, finding a girl’s body on a fishing trip, talking around and beyond each other as a marriage cracked, making money on a sex hotline while raising small children– were trimmed to their essences. The stories were spare and real.
But it was the editor Gordon Lish, not Carver, who made them that way. No set of Carver stories was more heavily edited by Lish (you could even say excised) than What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, the volume that gives its name to the play by Michael Keaton’s character Riggan Thomson. Carver so objected to the changes made by Lish that he later broke off his relationship with the editor. Tess Gallagher fought for the rights to the original stories and later had them published under the title Beginners. (Really too bad since the original title is SO good!) I used to discuss companion stories, Carver’s draft and Lish’s draft of the same story, with creative writing students. It was a great lesson for revision and also discussions of the role of an editor. It also clearly showed that Carver was not a minimalist.
So I watched with great fascination an early scene in Birdman, where Riggan (Keaton) and younger, respected stage actor Mike Shiner (played by Edward Norton) are rehearsing a scene from the play. Mike has all the lines memorized already (he’s been practicing with his girlfriend, who is also in the play, an insecure actress played by Naomi Watts), and he is taking over the role from an actor whom Riggan cruelly sabotaged. Shiner is contemptuous of the celebrity Riggan and, in fact, he’s contemptuous of the play Riggan has written.
As they start to do the scene, Mike interrupts. He doesn’t like Riggan’s line. It’s repetitive. Why say something three times when once will suffice– and then Mike can come in quickly. His changes immediately improve the scene. Now it feels like real dialogue, like real people at a dinner party. Mike is good. Mike knows what he’s doing. But also, in that scene, it feels like he and Riggan have established a rapport. They will be able to work together.
As rehearsals progress (in previews, so all these rehearsals are before a live audience), we see that Riggan has given himself some juicy parts, and some big speeches. This is the comeback role he has written, produced and directed for himself. Mike continues to throw a wrench in things, dashing a glass to pieces and breaking character when he realizes Riggan has replaced his onstage gin with water, and strutting around with a giant hard-on after the (in real life impotent Mike) is turned on by his girlfriend playing his mistress on stage. This “realism” messes with the “art,” and builds to the ultimate reveal on opening night.
Riggan’s taste is also called into question when we see from the wings, multiple times, one of the four actors in the ensemble standing on a wintry stage festooned with sparkly trees and reindeer to give her own dramatic monologue about losing a child. It is so at odds with Carver, so full of spectacle, that even the actress draws attention to it. We have to at least suspect that this might not be a great play, though it is certainly an attempt at a highbrow vehicle. And I believe “vehicle” is the right word, because in the end the film sets up a bunch of dichotomies: celebrity vs. actor; plays vs. film; real life vs. fantasy; realism vs. artifice; superhero vs. human; actor vs. role, and so on, that are either not resolved, or are resolved in a number of contradictory ways by the multiple endings of the film (I count three endings). In the end, we’re left with all sorts of judgments to make given the raw material of the film (which can also be taken as a series of short stories, really amazing gems of scenes, like the ones in Riggan’s dressing room with his ex-wife (played by Amy Ryan), or the ones on the roof with Mike and Riggan’s daughter (played by Emma Stone).
And, of course, there is yet another layer of references here. Robert Altman did a film, Short Cuts, that adapted and interwove nine Raymond Carver Stories. The main criticism of that film (a fantastic film, IMHO), was that he set the stories in Hollywood, and gave them a Hollywood frame, when Carver’s stories are set in the Pacific Northwest. It was star-studded and also broke up the stories (edited them), to interweave them, in ways people didn’t like. As I remember it, the most controversial and talked about scene in the film was the same scene we see enacted in Birdman. But in Altman’s film a husband and wife are getting ready for a dinner party and the wife, played by Julianne Moore, takes off her skirt and irons it. She is not wearing underwear– brave, brave, Julianne! Such a thing to do on film!!
And lest we forget, the film Robert Altman made before Short Cuts was The Player. Like Birdman, it is a black comedy (the blackest) about the film industry. And it opens with a very famous, very long, single shot…
Birdman opens with a quote that is engraved on Raymond Carver’s gravestone. It is as poignant a quote about love vs. celebrity as one can find, and in this context reflects on Carver as well as Riggan Thomson:
“And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?”
“And what did you want?”
“To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.”