Birdman or (The Critic-Proof Film)

I recently saw Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), and I was surprised I didn’t like it (my review is here). The film currently has a 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and its appeal is obvious. It deflates superheroes at a time when our pop culture is oversaturated with them. And it does so in a tightly-wound meta package that juices star Michael Keaton for all he’s worth: his status as the original movie Batman now turned washed-up actor clawing back his relevance parallels his character’s status as the original movie Birdman now turned washed-up actor clawing back his relevance.

Birdman also insulates itself from criticism by exploiting our sympathy for Keaton, flattering the audience intellectually, and purporting to offer universal truths.

Micheal Keaton in Birdman

The film badly wants us to understand that its protagonist, Riggan Thomson, is Michael Keaton, albeit an unhinged, desperate version of the actor. An early scene sees Keaton – uh, I mean Thomson – doing press for the prestigious new Broadway production he’s directing and starring in. The interviewers alternately quote Roland Barthes, interrogate Thomson about facelifts, and become excited at the mention of Batman – uh, I mean Birdman. The scene is a caricature of how Keaton might be treated in interviews. One interviewer asks the ugly question, “Are you at all afraid that people will say you’re doing this play to battle the impression that you’re a washed-up comic strip character?”

The effect of all this Keaton = Thomson business is that the audience's pre-existing sympathy for Keaton is immediately drawn upon to create sympathy for Thomson. It doesn’t even matter that Thomson is a maniac or that his production – which is extensively showcased, for whatever reason – looks stiff and sophomoric. People want Keaton’s comeback to succeed. For that to happen, the audience also has to find some value in Thomson’s comeback, the substance of Birdman. Which is pretty easy to do. After all, Thomson is basically Keaton, and we all went into this movie rooting for Keaton, right?

The worst exploitation of the audience's sympathy comes when a cartoonishly sinister theatre critic promises to skewer Thomson’s play sight unseen because she resents the whole notion of a movie star on Broadway. This character's inclusion is a preemptive strike against anyone who would dare criticize the underdog Keaton or his ambitious new film. According to Birdman, artists are brave champions of truth and critics are acid-spitting villains. And you’re not a villain, are you?

The problem is that Thomson’s Broadway production – rightly shot down throughout the film as a pretentious vanity project – is successful due only to its surprise gimmick of Thomson shooting himself in the head, onstage, with a live gun. The film's equation of itself with this production is not really flattering. Birdman also gets by on gimmicks, particularly the faux-single-take (not revealed in trailers and mostly kept under wraps until the film's debut in Venice). Strip away the movie’s ouroboros-like construction and its technical prowess and you’re left with a standard melodrama full of subplots that go nowhere.

Even if Birdman is purposely terrible, as might be suggested, it’s easy for viewers to claim that was the point, it’s a meta black comedy! Yeah, sure – a black comedy that repeatedly draws on two jokes: a) a person throws a tantrum or gets in a fight and then someone walks in on them, and b) the word “balls.” No matter. If you go into Birdman wanting it to succeed, you can find a way to argue that it has. It’s a critic-proof film.

Keaton and Edward Norton in Birdman

One detail doesn’t fit into the grand meta scheme: Thomson directs the Broadway production, but Keaton certainly didn’t direct Birdman. So who did? The film's scheme quietly but firmly denies the existence of director Alejandro González Iñárritu. Among all the meta messiness and the unedited, seemingly authentic performances, there is no room for the film to admit its own subjectivity. Instead, Birdman is desperate to be seen as a piece of living, breathing art that risks body and soul to expose universal truths – just like the way Thomson views his own Broadway production.

And it’s obnoxious as hell.

Iñárritu begs you to be on his side as he demolishes ad nauseam the evil strawmen of Hollywood, critics, and social media, all while pretending his viewpoints are the unspoken stuff we all know to be true. It's easy to agree with the basic arguments – but it's a little too easy, and the arguments are never more than basic. I just don’t harbour the same endless angst over those supposed evils that Birdman does. I’m also not so invested in Keaton’s comeback that I’m blind to the film’s myriad tricks, which include constantly patting the audience on the back for having the taste to choose Birdman over Batman.

The audience and critics end up adoring Thomson’s play because of its live gun gimmick, and they are undoubtedly fools. I wonder what that makes us for hoisting Birdman onto the Oscar-contender pedestal. Suckers for a good (or in Thomson's case, bad) comeback story? Suckers for intellectual flattery? Or participants in a piece of purposely terrible performance art? I’m not sure, but the film’s bitter, manipulative spirit doesn’t inspire any love in me.

Robin Williams in Los Copa

After Robin Williams died, I read an article that tried to combat the idea that suicide is selfish. Check out the headline and accompanying photo:

Williams looks seriously weary in this well-chosen photo. He looks like he might be arguing, postmortem, with angry loved ones who would accuse him of selfishness. But outside this calculated repurposing of a head shot, Williams has given voice to the other side of the argument.

When I think on the actor's death, I recall a monologue he did in The Birdcage. In the film, Armand (Williams) has gravely offended his long-term partner Albert (Nathan Lane), to the point where Albert leaves for Los Copawhich has nothing but a cemetery. Although Albert isn't suicidal, he is threatening to permanently exit Armand's life. Armand catches up with his despondent partner and speaks his mind, equal parts anger and affection.
Albert (Lane) and Armand (Williams)
Armand: “My cemetery’s in Key Biscayne. It’s one of the prettiest in the world. Lovely trees, sky is blue, the birds... The one in Los Copa’s really shit. What a pain in the ass you are. It’s true – you’re not young, and you’re not new, and you do make people laugh. And me? I’m still with you because you make me laugh. So you know what I gotta do? I gotta sell my plot in Key Biscayne so I can get one next to you in that shithole Los Copa, so I never miss a laugh."
You can watch the scene here.

For me, all this talk of cemeteries suggests deatheither from an early end (the ugly Los Copa, Albert’s purported destination) or natural causes (the beautiful Key Biscayne, Armand’s chosen resting place). For me, the monologue articulates the bitterness that can arise when a loved one lands in the shallow ditch of suicide rather than the deep grave of a life fully lived.

Robin Williams was a really funny man and an impassioned actor. Mrs. Doubtfire helped me understand my parents’ separation when I was little (the ending is practically a PSA on the topic), I delighted at being introduced to Mork & Mindy, and I still count The Birdcage among my favourite films. I’ve got nothing for him but thanks.

Soda Fountain

I’ve found it: The embodiment of choice. The embodiment of democracy. The embodiment of freedom.

Look at all these choices.

You’d be forgiven for thinking this soda fountain has all the varieties of pop you’d ever need. From left to right, this machine runs the gamut: Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite, orange Fruitopia, Nestea, strawberry Fruitopia, Barqs, Barqs, Coke Zero, Sprite, Diet Coke, and back to Coke again.

And all generously provided by the Coca-Cola Company.

I mean, I guess there is some repetition in the choices. But who could complain? These pops are enough to keep anyone satisfied. You can settle on one and feel content with it. Sure, sometimes you want a different pop. In that case, you just need to find a Pepsi product fountain. You thought you had lots of options before? Well, now they’ve doubled!

When I look at this soda fountain, my choices feel infinite. I know they’re not, but they might as well be. And that’s great. That’s good enough for me.

Thank you, Coke. And for that matter, thank you, Pepsi. All these choices – that’s freedom. I certainly couldn’t ask for more.

This “World’s End” Fan Theory Will Blow Your Mind

The other day, I Googled things like gary king killed and gary king murdered to see if anyone else had ever considered the notion that Gary King, the hero of Edgar Wright’s excellent film The World’s End, might be a murderer. Nothing relevant to the film came up. But consider this.

(Spoiler alert.)

If the teenager – the one Gary picks a fight with and then beheads in the bathroom – hadn’t been a smashy-smashy-eggman, wouldn’t that mean Gary had murdered an actual teenager? For the uninitiated, the scene can be viewed below.

You might ask the question, “What makes you think it was MURDER?” I’ll answer that with another question. Why are all the events before the beheading plausible and mundane, and all the events after the beheading implausible and fantastic?

There’s only one explanation. After Gary kills the teenager, the reality of his situation becomes unacceptable. So he invents a new reality wherein his violence is justified: the teenager was a robot, and robots are taking over the world.

Mind. Blown. (Yours, I mean.)

I also Googled gary king psychotic break to see if anyone else ever thought Gary had experienced the latter half of the aforementioned Google search. Turns out, some other people have also suggested that parts of the film represent a psychotic break – the ending, or the whole film, for example.

Tune in again next month, when I post another stupid idea that probably would have fit into a tweet.

The Spectacular Spider-Man: What Season 3 Could Have Looked Like

The Spectacular Spider-Man lasted only two seasons, and fans of the cancelled-before-its-time TV series have often speculated about the potential content of season 3 and beyond. Supervising producer Greg Weisman has generally been mum when asked to reveal his plans for the show (he often cites the notion that ideas absent execution aren't worth sharing), but he has given some info over the years.

So with the intent of providing hard info, not speculation, I’ve read all of Weisman’s Spidey-related “Ask Greg” posts to date on the Station Eight Gargoyles website and all of his IGN interviews regarding the show.

I’ve assembled all the info I could find regarding his plans for The Spectacular Spider-Man. The info is listed and divided into three sections: characters, new villains, and series plans. You can follow the links provided to read it in Weisman’s own words.

Hit the jump to see the list of potential content for season 3 and beyond.

Homophobia in Skyfall

I’m not saying anything controversial here: James Bond has long embodied values of masculine, heterosexual, and imperialist superiority. The character's preferred subject (i.e. the audience such a character would chiefly draw) agrees with these values. Ian Fleming might have said it best in 1962 when he claimed he created the character for “warm-blooded heterosexuals in railway trains, aeroplanes and beds.”

No doubt the long-running James Bond film series could still be said to uphold most, if not all, of the aforementioned values. Consumers know what they're buying when they purchase a ticket to a Bond film. But the guarantee that the series will uphold those values is only implicit. The film producers, through the material substance of their product, can at any moment offer differing viewpoints to the audience.

A watershed moment for the support of female and gay viewpoints in the series came in 2006’s Casino Royale, wherein an iconic 1962 Dr. No scene (originally featuring Ursula Andress emerging from the ocean) was recreated. This time, James Bond himself (Daniel Craig) was the object of the camera’s gaze.

Get it? Watershed?

James Bond shot in such a manner shocked some fans, especially those accustomed to a parade of “Bond girls” going all the way back to the ‘60s. How dare the series toss a bone to women and gay men! (While one could argue that Sean Connery’s occasional shirtlessness appealed to women in the ‘60s, the camera never gazed upon his body like it did upon Craig.)

Then, in a scene from 2012’s Skyfall, Bond (Daniel Craig again) implied he’d had gay sex. Lots of ink was spilled across the internet as viewers rushed to say their piece on the scene. Personally, I have waited almost two years to give my thoughts on it. So either my thoughts will stand out because no one else is talking about the scene anymore, or my thoughts will be ignored because no one else is talking about the scene anymore. Probably the latter. No one reads this blog anyway. Except you, dear reader.

Skyfall grossed over $1 billion in box office worldwide – and this with an apparently bisexual Bond. Of course, no one who bought a ticket to Skyfall could have reasonably expected a positive view of gay sex in a James Bond film. Such a viewpoint is not found within the character's preferred subject. However, if a viewer did not appreciate the thought of a bisexual Bond (for whatever reason, homophobia or otherwise), that viewer was forced to confront his thoughts on gay sex.

Skyfall (2012)

In the film, the villain, Silva, ties Bond to a chair (pictured above). Silva then undoes Bond’s shirt and caresses his chest and legs. The villain makes verbal sexual passes at Bond and comments on how Bond, despite all his training, is unprepared for a sexual advance by a man. The scene contrasts with a similar but differently gendered scene in 1999’s The World is Not Enough, wherein a female villain threatens Bond sexually and mortally at the same time.

The World is Not Enough (1999) ... is an awful movie and I don’t recommend it

Despite containing mortal danger, the 1999 scene is never as uncomfortable as the 2012 scene. The 1999 scene feels dangerous, sure, but in a kinky way that’s accessible to men. For better or for worse (let's be real
for worse), it’s easy for viewers to assume the masculine Bond will come out on top, because part of masculinity's essence is the ability to reign over femininity.

But in 2012, Bond’s hegemonic masculinity is squarely matched by a villain who possesses a man’s traditional power within a woman’s traditional sexual orientation (male-oriented). Bond's very core is being threatened. For the character’s preferred subject, Bond’s sexual defeat at the hands of Silva would be worse than Bond's death. The preferred subject, who identifies with Bond, is invited to squirm along with Bond in a first person point-of-view shot.
Even Bond’s material self appears to be invaded, as Silva inserts a phallic knee between Bond’s legs. 
The viewer experiences discomfort through Bond’s eyes

Despite Silva having the upper hand, the preferred subject is still resolutely on Bond’s side. That is until Silva offers the line, “There’s a first time for everything,” and Bond responds, “What makes you think this is my first time?”

Many viewers, particularly in the gay community, accepted this scene, and it has been celebrated in Bond/Silva fan fiction and art. But what of the preferred subject, who is decidedly heterosexual? At this point, he can: accept the thought of James Bond engaging in gay sex; let his view of homosexuality be challenged and changed (or not); or he can flee the theatre in disgust. Many Bond fans, who did not want Bond removed from hegemonic masculinity, proposed that Bond was only bluffing to appear unfazed by Silva’s advances and never actually had gay sex.

However, the struggle over whether or not Bond actually had gay sex is immaterial. The fact that Bond is suddenly supportive of the idea, after the preferred subject’s discomfort has grown and grown, tears Bond away from the preferred subject’s viewpoint. The viewer is left to feel uncomfortable all by his lonesome. (Of course, one might feel uncomfortable more at the thought of Bond being raped. But that feeling is likely still informed by homophobia. A man raping Bond feels distinctly more violative than a woman raping Bond, and it’s worth asking why.)

The scene’s message, finally, is this: James Bond has no qualms about aligning himself with homosexuality, for whatever reason. The preferred subject can either join Bond’s side in this matter, or he can remain on the side of heterosexual anxiety and panic – the losing side.

I'm pretty sure this is fan art, but who knows these days, am I right?

Some may argue that pitting Silva (fighting as homosexuality) against Bond (fighting as heterosexuality) demonizes homosexuality. To Ian Fleming, homosexuality itself was villainous, but to Skyfall’s producers, homosexuality simply levels the playing field between Bond and Silva. Homosexuality itself is a threat only if one supports hegemonic masculinity. But in this rare case, Bond does not.

All of this doesn’t mean Bond is some kind of revolutionary gay icon. How could he be? Skyfall is an artifact (and only one artifact) in a legacy of hegemonic masculinity, and it shouldn’t be overpraised for its admittedly small contribution to the acceptance of homosexuality.
The implication that Bond is bisexual goes against the character’s foundational values, plain and simple. Whether or not it’s “wrong” for Bond as a character to have gay sex is a debate for another day. Maybe it is wrong. Maybe that’s the point. The material substance of Skyfall is certainly efficient in challenging homophobia.