Thursday, October 16, 2014

Thoughts on Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014) and While We're Young (2014) (or Look at that F**king Middle-Age Hipster) New York Film Festival 2014

Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman and Noah Baumbach's While We're Young both played at the New York Film Festival this year, and I couldn't help but think they were linked. No, it's not because they're movies set in New York that could only take place here--Birdman is built around Hollywood's invasion of Broadway, While We're Young is, in part, about Brooklyn hipsterdom. It's not because the movies are about characters who work in specific mediums that inform the concerns of each film--Birdman is about theater (and capital-T "Truth") and While We're Young is about documentary filmmaking (and capital-T "Truth"). And no, it doesn't have anything to do with Naomi Watts, who appears in both movies.

At the center of both Birdman (read John's review here and read Steve's thoughts here) and While We're Young (read Steve's thoughts here) is an exploration of entitlement and the desire for validation. The films also look at how these human wants and needs manifest themselves in different generations. Underlying all this are the frustrations of protagonists who want to make "authentic" art but fail in their own ways as they also fail at life.

While We're Young is most explicit with its exploration. Ben Stiller plays a middle-aged documentary filmmaker who's been working on a film for years that's nowhere close to finished. He and his wife (played by Watts) are childless and feel increasingly isolated since their friends are having kids. They befriend a young hipster couple played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried, who are like younger versions of themselves. So begins a goofy spike of vitality, with hip-hop aerobics, biking, and stylish headwear. For Stiller, he feels he can mentor the Driver character, who is a would-be documentary filmmaker with a potentially great story on his hands

Stiller's character comes across as a kind of obscure also-ran sort of filmmaker (i.e., a documentarian's documentarian), and his inability to find direction in his current project is a mirror of his own life. He's worked hard, he's slaved to say something (albeit muddled) about his life and the world he's grown up in, and yet he finds no sense that his life's work has been worthwhile. Stiller's tendency to play men who are pushed around as they conceal a smoldering rage works well here. There's a frustration in his glares that speak to the core dissatisfaction of all mid-life crises: I've gotten this far, I've paid my dues, I'm still struggling toward what exactly; all this effort and nothing to show for it--where is my fucking parade, already? The mentorship gives Stiller a surrogate child that he and his wife don't have, and maybe even a second chance to get things right.

By contrast, Driver's character is the hipster millennial poster boy whose every action is tinged with irony, from the fetishization of retro artifacts (e.g., manual typewriters, VHS) to his own way of telling a story. The entitlement of the millennial is there with them from the outset because of the Internet. The hunt is gone, the sincerity is gone, and all artifacts can be co-opted and used as they see fit. Th Driver character's method of filmmaking becomes a major source of contention as the film progresses, which leads to a clash of generational ethics and worldviews.

I was talking to my roommate about millennials just the other day and, as agist as it sounds, I think of most millennials as the first generation who has all the information in the world at their fingertips but absolutely no idea what to do with it. That may be the underlying thesis in While We're Young about what Driver and his clique in Bushwick represent... at least until Baumbach sputters out in the third act and seems to sort of give up on his screenplay.

Keaton's character in Birdman is even more desperate in his need for validation. While Stiller's character in While We're Young has languished in obscurity without getting a break, Keaton plays a Hollywood star whose main claim to fame was starring in a trio of superhero blockbusters. No one takes him seriously since he's just another movie hack, so he tries to go legit. His quest for artistic credibility is ridiculously pretentious: he's adapting the clipped, subtle, quietly observed prose of Raymond Carver to the stage in a gaudy production full of on-the-nose monologues and broad histrionics. During a confrontation with a theater critic (Lindsay Duncan) in a bar near the theater, he's accused of being a dilettante and a fraud, and she's sort (or more than sort of) of right.

Hollywood coming to Broadway is relevant since that's been happening a lot lately, and viewed cynically it seems like film actors and actresses are looking for cred by doing theater rather than working on the stage because they appreciate live performance; they're also using their status to dabble on Broadway rather than paying their dues for years off-Broadway in order to get to the top.

That isn't to say that Keaton's character is without suffering. The need for validation, while partially narcissistic, seems to be a final call for help. Well past his prime, Keaton plays someone whose crises have less to do with mid-life concerns and more to do with his own mortality. He knows he's come up short as a person, and he's making apologies to his daughter (Emma Stone) and his ex-wife (Amy Ryan) at various points in the film. At one point in movie, Stone's character rails on Keaton about her less-than-perfect upbringing. Later, Edward Norton's hotshot actor character assesses her childhood in just a few short observations, partly to flirt but also as if to say, "Trust me, kiddo, you (a generational 'you') haven't really suffered yet."

While the the play at the center of Birdman is misguided and the documentary at the center of While We're Young lacks focus, they're both earnest appeals for appreciation by characters who don't know what they're doing and are coming to terms with the fact that they're lost. Keaton's character wants to figure out, like Carver tried to delineate, what we talk about when we talk about love; Stiller's character wants to say something about 21st century America. They each sort of figure out what they're trying to ask and trying to say, but not really--they figure out the question, but never the answer. Ultimately, they're both asking the same questions: Was all the effort worth it? Do you love me?

In real life, the answer is always maybe.

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