We’ve all heard the old saw.
“Those who can’t, criticize.”
But I doubt any of us have heard it expressed so eloquently or so passionately as it is in Alejandro Iñárritu’s Birdman.
Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton), a movie star fallen on hard times after walking away from the leading role in a superhero franchise, is risking everything that he has, everything that he is, to mount a comeback—to prove himself and his talent on the boards of Broadway.
It’s not going well.
In fact, everything is threatening to fall apart.
With catastrophe looming, he takes refuge in a bar off the Great White Way, drinks himself silly, and ends up in a confrontation with powerful, arrogant New York Times theatre critic, Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan).
Tabitha tells him she’s going to destroy him and his play, which she has yet to see.
Because she resents Hollywood celebrities like him— untrained, unversed, unprepared—filling Broadway’s precious theatre space with nothing but their egos.
Riggan turns fire-breathing dragon.
In fact, he’s so drunk you probably could light his breath, but the booze has freed him of all restraint.
Whatever happens, he asks her contemptuously…whatever happens in a person’s life to make them become a critic?
She offers theatregoers nothing but labels, no real analysis, just adjectives and bitchery. None of it costs her anything, he insists.
He, as an actor, risks everything for his art.
She, as a critic, risks nothing, creates nothing.
And I silently shout, “YES!”
It’s a bit like All About Eve’s Margo Channing giving Addison DeWitt the shellacking he so richly deserves, or Ratatouille’s Remy dressing down the despicable Anton Ego.
It’s a brilliant actor giving voice to the frustration of all the talented performers, writers, artists, composers, choreographers—all the creative souls—who have suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous, self-aggrandizing critics.
I burst into spontaneous applause, much to the annoyance of my fellow filmgoers.
…I remember my own complaints about Hollywood’s invasion of Broadway, and I recall that famous line from Walt Kelly’s Pogo.
“We have met the enemy and he is us.”
I myself, I reluctantly admit, have been guilty of writing film and literary criticism of late.
I wish I could offer some excuse.
Well, actually, I can.
It’s very simple.
I couldn’t help myself.
I’d see or read something that inspired infatuation or loathing and feel compelled to write about it.
Is it possible that I need to rethink my position on critics?
…if I’m one of them…
Perhaps I should start this piece over.
Begin again and remind the reader that Riggan Thompson is a Hollywood interloper and Tabitha Dickinson is right to despise him–that Birdman to the contrary, there are, in fact, some good critics.
There have even been a few great ones.
Take, for example, the New Yorker’s Pauline Kael.
For decades (decades in which we still considered movies art as well as commerce), she served as the film community’s conscience.
We read her loyally, sometimes cheering her, sometimes hissing, but always provoked to serious thought about the medium she (and we) loved.
Love, in fact, was the key.
Everything she wrote—good, bad or indifferent—brilliant, misguided or outrageous—arose from her abiding love of cinema.
It was her review of Bonnie and Clyde, which many of her fellows had dismissed as a shameless exercise in unprecedented violence, that turned the critical tide in favor of the film and helped Warren Beatty talk Jack Warner into re-releasing this masterwork.
Or to offer a more personal example…
My friend and mentor, Lamont Johnson, directed a wonderful feature called The Last American Hero but quarreled with the then head of distribution at Fox, who recut the film and dumped it on the drive-in theatre circuit.
Kael, who loved it even in its butchered form, summoned Lamont to her New York apartment, and when she opened the door to his knock, the first words out of her mouth were “You, my friend, are being fucked!” She became a fierce advocate of both Hero and Lamont.
Even when she was wrong (and she often was—she hated Hitchcock and Fellini among many, many others), the opinions she offered us were part of her lover’s quarrel with the world of cinema.
It was not an accident that the title of her best-known book was I Lost It at the Movies.
She lost her heart to the movies, and it was an affair to remember, filled with dizzying highs and depressing lows, impetuous quarrels and passion-filled nights.
Her kind shall not pass this way again.
But there are those of us who share her motives if not her skills.
…if I should venture to criticize a movie or a book as I have occasionally done over the course of the last few months, be assured that it comes from my own love of the medium, be it literature or be it film.