Monday, December 1, 2014

Fall Double Feature

Two of the best cinematic Fall offerings of 2014 also make for a pretty fine double feature. Whiplash and Birdman, which at least here in Dallas were released on the same day, are both about the nature of artistic pursuit, relevance in this big mighty world, and the question of whether greatness is actually worth it. Now, cinematically, these films, with the exception of their percussive soundtracks, couldn't be more different. Birdman, which by now you've probably heard, takes its mis en scene to the limit by giving the illusion that it's shot in one take (like Hitchcock's Rope, it does a pretty good job of concealing where the edits do occur). Whiplash on the other hand accentuates its use montage to the point where one could compare its extensive, fluid edits to jazz rhythms. Emotionally the two films are also distinct in that Birdman maintains a consistent level of comedy and pathos throughout while Whiplash shows, in the words of director Damien Chazelle, how musicianship "can bleed over into cruelty, into suffering, inhumanity, and fear." And yet the overarching ideas of these two films coincided in ways I never expected upon visiting them. 

I saw them back-to-back, and while I went with Birdman first and then Whiplash, I'd actually recommend reversing that order. Whiplash's diegesis concerns a jazz drummer, Andrew, played by the ubiquitous Miles Teller, who comes under the tutelage of a maniacal, brilliant instructor named Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). To call Fletcher intimidating would be a gross understatement. He pushes his pupils to the very edge, makes them cling for dear life, and if they survive he just does it again. This repetitious method of Fletcher's is emblematic of the film as a whole, both in terms of the practice of jazz itself and in Andrew's education. That Charlie Parker became Bird because he had a cymbal thrown at his head after making a mistake is sort of Fletcher's mantra, and Andrew goes along with his severe training partly because he respects Fletcher as much as he's scared of him, and because he has his sights set on becoming like Charlie Parker, someone who will be talked about long after they're gone. At the beginning of the film Andrew seems like a pretty normal kid, but once he allows Fletcher to guide him, he willfully neglects any sort of connection with other human beings. When he and his father are guests at a friend's house, Andrew deliberately is insulting in order to make the point that greatness and compromise cannot co-exist. Andrew's also got a girlfriend, but when he realizes what Fletcher's demands are and decides to go along with it, he breaks off the relationship because he knows rather than spending time with her he needs to be practicing to the point where blood is dripping on the snare drum. 

I suggest seeing this first because it's about youthful potential, and yet a chief concern--definitely for the viewer, and perhaps for Andrew as well--is that there is the possibility that even if one were to sacrifice everything for greatness, they could very well still end up being a washed up failure (there is also of course the question of whether lasting greatness is all that important, but since the movie doesn't really investigate this question this piece won't, either). Andrew does seem to have a special talent, but greatness is contingent on so much more, like psychological stability, connections, and sheer luck. This problem ties perfectly into Birdman, in which Michael Keaton plays the exact kind of guy Andrew could one day become. Riggan Thomson is a former Hollywood actor who made a name for himself playing a superhero named Birdman before getting old and predictably losing relevance. Now he's trying to turn the idea that all big-time blockbuster actors end up as nobodies with age on its head by writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway play. To reveal the direction Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's latest-and probably best-movie takes would be to spoil the copious surprises it has in store for the viewer. And yet with the basic premise it can already be argued why this would work so well as a follow-up to Whiplash. As an action star Riggan clearly didn't have the youthful prestige of a jazz drummer in an elite New York music academy, and yet his desire to be looked highly upon for his craft rather than as a human being is remarkably similar to Andrew's mindset. And if you wondered how Andrew would look in the eyes of those close to him when he reaches middle-age, you might as well just look at Riggan. His daughter, played by Emma Stone, sees him more as a fool than an inspiration, and the one woman (Amy Ryan) he seems to be able to communicate with won't be with him because she no longer trusts him. Were Riggan to maintain, if not respect, then at least respectability, it's hard to tell where his life would lie. That he now has neither makes one wonder if grand pursuits are ultimately worth the other sacrifices they often necessitate. 

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