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Life and art in two recent films

11.21. 2014 Posted By: Gordon Houser

Among the many well-made, one-word films out this year (Boyhood, Interstellar, Fury, Nightcrawler), two recent ones stand out: Birdman (though it has that curious parenthetical addition: or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) and Whiplash.

Let’s begin with Birdman (and we’ll leave off the playful, if not pretentious, part of the title).

It’s about a washed-up Hollywood actor who 20 years earlier played a superhero called Birdman in three films. Riggan Thomsen (Michael Keaton, in an outstanding performance) wants to be considered a serious actor and has written a play he is directing and starring in, an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”

The film combines humor with serious themes. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu is playful in many ways, but he infuses the film with profound questions we all face to some extent. He also uses various means to present these themes.

The camera follows the actors around like a documentary, and Iñárritu loves closeups. We viewers are intimately involved with these actors. We also get to see what goes on backstage during a play as well as what leads up to its being performed at all. The cuts between scenes are so smooth that the entire film feels like one long take. Again, this places us in the action, in present tense.

Throughout, Iñárritu satirizes both Hollywood and the New York theater scene. He does this not only through dialogue but with some fantastical special effects that show Riggan’s thoughts. He also employs some magical realism, giving Riggan the ability to levitate and use telekinesis, usually when he’s angry.

Riggan’s daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), is a recovering drug addict and a reminder of Riggan’s failure as an absent father while she was growing up. She confronts him at one point with the question of why he’s trying to make his life meaningful by being considered a serious actor.

The film also uses the play, in which the main character feels he doesn’t exist because his wife doesn’t love him, to display its themes.

These themes or questions about how we try to find meaning are there, yet they don’t overwhelm the action or hinder the humor. They are subtly made, as is the satire, which also works on several levels. In the end, we’re left with the question turned back on us. What do we hold up as worth pursuing for meaning. And is it?

And now to Whiplash, which was the opening film at the Sundance Film Festival in January and won the audience award there.

When you hear it’s about a young jazz drummer and his emotionally abusive teacher, you may shrug and say, What’s the big deal? But it, too, works on several levels and grabs us right away with its storytelling and pacing.

Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), 19, is accepted into the Shaffer Conservatory and soon wins a spot in the jazz ensemble led by the school’s premier teacher, Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Fletcher at first is nice to Andrew, but soon his verbally abusive treatment of his students comes out and gets directed at Andrew when they play the song “Whiplash.”

Andrew wants to be a great drummer like his idol, Buddy Rich. He’s so dedicated that he gives up dating his girlfriend. The whiplash of emotions and confidence move back and forth throughout the film, and it goes directions you don’t expect.

The main question the film raises is, How much should one sacrifice for one’s art? But it goes beyond the creative arts. Is it good to push ourselves (or be pushed) beyond our perceived limitations in order to reach our full potential?

The film is well-shot. The drumming scenes are gripping. I’m still not sure how they did it. And J.K. Simmons’ performance is excellent.

Don’t be surprised if he (for supporting actor) and Keaton (for actor) are Oscar nominees.

Birdman and Whiplash deal with the tension between art and life. It’s an age-old theme, but they tackle it in new, creative ways.

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