Because we’re geeks, we frequently find it’s easier to understand an artist’s work when comparing them to another artist, finding out the common or antithetical traits that bind them. Hence Dueling Auteurs, a column where we take two auteurs from any medium and compare and contrast them. This month, new Loser City citizen Lars Russell examines Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman and Chris Rock’s Top Five and their differing takes on dual identities, comebacks and comics (in both senses of the word).
“I just want to be what you wanted. Now I spend every fucking minute praying to be someone else. Someone I’m not. I don’t exist. I’m not even here.”
So says Michael Keaton in Birdman, and as a dose of inward-looking discovery it does alright. You can hear the metamorphosis from fanatical, frustrated ego to blessed extinction of self. Like a lotus blossoming, an eggshell cracking open. Out of the mouth (beak?) of a supernatural protector it might seem a hero’s humble abdication, transubstantiating a collective wish for salvation by reflecting that burden as mass responsibility. We’ve all been there.
In the movie it plays rather more like dramatic irony: proof that Keaton’s aging actor Riggan Thomson hasn’t yet come to reckon with his own artistic and emotional frustration even though the admission lives close enough to his tongue he can write it into the role he means to redeem him. The lines come from a Broadway adaptation of the Raymond Carver story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” the speech of a pathetic lover’s rage as pleading sanctimony turns to pitiful self-awareness — and to make matters more humiliating for Thomson, each of three times we hear it, from rehearsal to preview performance to Opening Night, the moment gets trampled by some intrusion of the film’s reality into the play-within-the-movie. Cell-phone cameras leap from the gallery, giggling or shocked, dissolving both the stage’s fourth wall and the acting actor’s intended pathos. If it sounds like I’m searching for a whatness here amidst the trappings of spectatorship, presentation and identity, well, that’s sort of what this movie is for. Those words aren’t actually Carver’s either (not even Gordon Lish’s); they’re the product of Thomson’s made-up interpretation, a scene inserted to dramatize for the theater a moment of violence merely recollected by one of the speakers in the short story. But it is significant that Carver’s work becomes the foundational source, rather than any comic book material, for Birdman, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film allegedly about a flying superhero.
I really wanted this to be a superhero movie. I won’t take a side on whether or not Riggan Thomson “truly” has super powers, because I think the film allows both readings. Probably it even depends on their multistability like any good optical illusion. When I asked a friend if he planned to see the movie he said no, he heard it had too much magical realism. I asked him if he considered The Avengers magical realism. He said no, that’s science fiction fantasy. I wondered what was the difference between that kind of fantasy and magical realism, how our expectations of a genre alter which orders of reality (and how many) we can accept bending. What I imagined for Birdman was a deconstruction of the comic book fantasy in a celebrity cult century. The premise of a superhero story lapsed into a kind of rugged realism in denouement. What would it be like if a “real” superpowered hero washed out of crimefighting fitness and vigor for justice, converted peak fame and special effects talents into a slam dunk film career, then ended up withered, mildly misanthropic, battling relevancy and rival actors rather than archvillains while searching for worthy accomplishment in the new medium?
Instead, whatever else Keaton’s character is in his secret moments, he’s not an out superhero. The public knows him as Birdman only because they know him as that guy from the Birdman movies. For all his grandiosity, all the struggles in the story reroute to this lag between Thomson’s cardboard public legacy and the versatility of his own ambition. He’s not Birdman; he’s not even Icarus, he’s Sisyphus. In producing Carver for the stage, he aims for Aeschylus. I guess I would have settled for …Hancock. Okay, not. But, in exchange for a middle-aged, male Black Swan, maybe a blend of The Wrestler, Watchmen and, I don’t know, All About Eve.
Considering it gives a superhero figure in a universe where superheroes remain the creation of comics pages, Iñárritu’s picture pays awful little regard to comic books themselves. Whereas Ang Lee’s Hulk used split screens with layout gutters to suggest comics’ panels and their scanning, simultaneous sequentialism, Iñárritu employs a hovering camera and a lot of tricky cuts to make an illusion that Birdman’s several days of action appear in one seamless shot and take, reproducing the choreography complete with backstage hustling of a live theater production. That’s incredible technical cinema but it shows Iñárritu’s colors. The film is full of Godardian cinematic reference (straight from the opening titles typeface), with the core cast each featuring in earlier superhero flicks (Keaton as Tim Burton’s Batman; Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy in recent Spider-Man episodes; Ed Norton as Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk — however Fight Club may be the more pointed allusion here). The closest thing we get to a classic hero origin story is, again, Ray Carver: The boy Riggan Thomson got propelled into acting by an encouraging note the late author passed him 40 years ago, on a cocktail napkin, after a school play. (No interstellar rays or radioactive pigeon, though drunk Carver may be as powerful a medium.) The best examples of self-aware superhero realism, from Unbreakable to Kavalier & Clay, don’t just draw deeply from and comment on the traditions of comics narratives; these worlds contain newsprint sequential art, its industry and its readers. In the original Watchmen books, a child reads pirate fantasies outside a newsstand because the emergence of real masked crusaders in the nonfiction press pushes comics publishers into a different escapist genre. Yet in Birdman, the word “comic” gets hardly mentioned at all. The superhero question becomes, instead, euphemism for Blockbuster Hollywood, that cgi Void to the serious artist’s Sentry.
The one shoutout to comics comes as a requisite citation of Barthes (in the mouth of a pretentious film critic patronizing Thomson): “Cultural work done in the past by gods and epic sagas is now being done by laundry detergent commercials and comic strip characters.” It’s the stuff that launched a thousand papers of pop-cultural criticism and here it lends a mist of significance to Iñárritu’s superhero subject, but the conclusion that comics have overtaken religion’s power relies on a certain twisting of Barthes’s argument. I may have to crack open Mythologies again, but the point is that new customs fill the same shapes and links in our imaginations as the old, as mediated by communications surrounding us. Or as Sontag says, “The earliest experience of art must have been that it was incantatory, magical; art was an instrument of ritual.” That’s from her essay “Against Interpretation,” which supplies a lot of the subtext for Birdman*. Riggan Thomson even has a line attributed to Sontag, “A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing,” taped on his dressing room mirror. Like the others in the movie this quotation is gleefully apocryphal, but it shows how Thomson is defiant of critics and that he insists on his own highbrow sincerity — plus the real text is longer and harder to note in a blur onscreen. So following Sontag, and to be fair to Birdman, it doesn’t really matter if the movie was what I wanted. Give Iñárritu credit because in placing his film within the walls of a theater (and the neighboring bar) he finds a union of ancient and contemporary magic in a venue that suits both sorts of ritual.
Chris Rock’s Top Five is not any kind of comic book movie at all, but the story shares with Birdman a past-his-zenith actor in New York, trapped by public renown within a costumed franchise role (in this case Hammy the Bear), warring with critics while attempting to launch a more serious project. It also features a maybe-surprising mythological end zone, because it doesn’t get so broadly foregrounded as the superhero identity in Iñárritu’s film: the fairy tale Cinderella.
Top Five’s glass slipper moment punctuates the story, set up by a few well-spaced clauses throughout including when Rock’s Andre Allen finds the bookshelf in Rosario Dawson’s character’s apartment with its dozen or so different versions of the fable alongside the conspicuous feminist critique The Cinderella Complex. Rock (who wrote and directed) stays true to this counterpoint by avoiding the familiar sexist dynamics of that legend. Neither Dawson’s Chelsea Brown nor Allen need rescuing, except perhaps from the wicked stepsisters of their own natures. Both recovering addicts, dependence presents the substance of Allen’s and Brown’s problems, not any fairy tale solution. The rest of Top Five doesn’t get lost in adapting Cinderella either — which, thank goodness; I mean, it’s way funnier this way — so that I never revisited the thought, until that final punctuation, how personal transformation and costuming come up again and again in the script. After all, Cinderella too spent every fucking minute before the Ball praying to be someone else, someone she was not.
The language of comic books typically gives superheroes something to hide. Most put on disguises to shelter their ordinary lives from discovery by police and/or other enemies. You can trace this to literature’s first masked vigilante, the Scarlet Pimpernel. Sometimes, the costume is the super power, like Iron Man’s armor, Rocketeer’s jetpack, the Mask’s mask, Moon Knight’s shroud, and on and on. Shadowhawk, Darkhawk, the Hood, the Vulture, Venom; heroes and bad guys alike gain powers from clothes or otherwise augment talents with some article they wear, like Green Lantern’s ring or Dr. Strange’s “Eye of Agamotto” charm. Batman doesn’t use supernatural abilities but his outfit essentially gives him the identity that makes him more fearsome than his adversaries and protects his alter ego, Bruce Wayne. Same with Cinderella. Her magical gown projects her beauty and grace while obscuring her daytime life as a homemaking slave.
Traditionally, Cinderella’s glamorous enactment is not viewed as deception but as a platform for revealing her true self, for overcoming her unnatural, oppressed status. Indeed, the slipper fits her foot. Either way it’s a matter of presentation and, likewise, characters in Top Five continually strive to escape the way the world limits them, by slipping into some other role or persona. It’s not as hypertextual a movie as Birdman, but the in-universe signification works just as well. A journalist adopts pen names to place articles in a variety of publications. A reality TV star concocts an elaborate routine to cross over to more “legitimate” forms of fame. A closeted gay boyfriend tries to stay on the down low. A seedy nightclub fixer pretends to be a connected Houston pimp. On a series of radio junkets to promote his new film, a period drama of Dutty Boukman’s successful slave rebellion in Haïti (arguably the greatest real-life Cinderella story), Rock’s Allen struggles to contextualize himself as a thoughtful director instead of the clown in the bear suit in multiple Hammy sequels. Meanwhile, he leads Dawson’s interviewer on a tour of his projects upbringing to thwart a notion that Hollywood lifestyle has separated the comedian-turned-actor from his around-the-way roots or his sense of humor.
All these situations express individuals, for better or worse, hiding insecurities under some substitute performance. And then there’s the alcoholism angle, about which Top Five doesn’t define whether sobriety becomes more a functional mask to transcend reckless, indulgent behaviors, or abuse is a disguise for fitting in comfortably in a world that demands confidence and freeflowing humor rather than, say, honest self-appraisals or depressing protest art. For the recovering user, which identity is the “true self”? Like for the secret superhero, both are true, and it’s why Rock’s movie offers a greater toolset for everyday life than Iñárritu’s — and not just for celebrities and drug addicts.
“I won’t be your audience,” Allen’s girlfriend, Erica, played by Gabrielle Union, tells him when he reaches his very bottom. It’s a strong claim of self-determination, for her, but it also helps clarify the connection between a movie star’s relationship with his critics — or a comedian’s with his room, or a superhero’s with the public at large — and anybody’s relationships, however unspectacular and intimate. We are all performers dealing with an audience, all working to deliver the motion capture stunt our community of strangers and loved ones will view as our lives. Rock’s achievement in Top Five is presenting all these varieties of fabrication in a way that makes it clear they are not counterfeit. Some are disingenuous, sure, but as a stage performer Rock knows how bridging an interpersonal valley requires surrendering features that make us recognizable to ourselves. Every action, every word, our worst habits and most charming, enacts a transformation like Cinderella’s, or at least that attempt. You teach yourself how to make a new thing because you have no other choice, just like Tony Stark did.
The titular gag of Top Five involves characters naming their list of all-time greatest rappers. Rappers, like any other artists, present dual identities that sometimes challenge our beliefs about truth and reality. I don’t exist. I’m not even here. “I do look at it like ‘he,’” said Donald Glover recently about his rap alter ego, Childish Gambino, “— he has his own thing and his own stuff, and yes, those things are tied into my things and things I observe, but I know what I am at the end of the day. I’m a storyteller.” When, in the film, Andre Allen finds himself briefly in police lockup after a public breakdown, an encounter with, of all people, DMX, drives the point home. “I respect you man, you won’t let the industry box you in,” the former Ruff Ryder says, which could be a bit of a crack at black celebrity responsibility, since they both for the moment stand in jail cells. But then X describes his own desire to subvert the mold expected of him, and breaks into a show tune, a crooning version of Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile:”
“Light up your face with gladness,” the rapper growls,
“Hide every trace of sadness.
Although a tear
May be ever so near,
That’s the time you must keep on trying …”
This becomes more than a complicated joke: It’s a hidden recipe for getting along with other people. And in a way it represents the superhero ethos more faithfully than Birdman. Not that Birdman fails to address these themes of transformation and audience**. When Riggan Thomson finds himself in hospital after a performance injury, his bandage looks an awful lot like the Birdman mask. When he removes the bandage, his swollen, reconstructed nose vaguely resembles a bird beak. This is funny, but the collapsing of identities (“Stop saying ‘we’! There is no ‘we’. I am not you,” Thomson screams earlier at Birdman in his dressing room) ignores a crucial layer. If Riggan Thomson plays a fictional Birdman who exists independently in comics in his own universe, he should also play Birdman’s mortal identity and thereby inhabit another role for mediating the personality struggle. Birdman ignores this extra alter ego, which surely makes the film more comprehensible but it eliminates the superhero’s mode of relating to human peers. Thomson wrangles backstage with his Broadway castmates, his daughter and ex-wife, but in performance everything happens either in his skull or before the anticipated critics and national public, within W.S. Trow’s “Context of No Context.” There is a theater crowd, but this interaction only relates to the broader transmission of Thomson’s public image, Twitter, newspapers, not real people in the room or in real life, not the “audience” of Top Five.
In comic book stories, the hero’s adoption of a new identity or discovery of special powers transcends the limited self, but this is not the end of the hero’s performance. This is the beginning of a responsibility to other people. Keaton’s performance as Thomson is splendidly personal, but Thomson’s performance is purely a vehicle for the actor’s transcendence of his reputation. It doesn’t say what we talk about when we talk about love. Top Five widened and deepened on me afterward whereas Birdman, a more emotionally-wrenching movie while viewing, especially for an artist, seemed a lot smaller on retrospect.
A few weeks later I ran across this bit of interpersonal awareness, by Evan Fleischer concerning another work altogether, of which Rock’s movie, and even Carver’s original story, never loses sight: “There’s nothing wrong with seeking self-actualization through self-articulation (let alone the virtue of the connection between artist and audience) … but why is there no deeply placed, textual-based moment of realizing that a good ‘other’ is a lifeline, too, the back door through which magic can safely escape while the fires of a certain kind of normalcy try and burn you to the ground?”
(*“Art is useful, after all … medicinally useful in that it arouses and purges dangerous emotions,” for example, and, “The cinema, unlike the novel, possesses a vocabulary of forms — the explicit, complex, and discussable technology of camera movements, cutting and composition of the frame that goes into the making of a film.”)
(**It also deals with addiction recovery, in the character of Emma Stone’s Sam. When Sam and Norton’s gonzo actor Mike Shiner play “Truth or Dare” on the theater roof is the closest we get to Top Five’s ruminations on the vulnerable self and the stage. Mike: “You’re hanging around here trying to make yourself invisible behind that fragile little fuck up routine. But you can’t. You’re anything but invisible. You’re big. And you’re sort of this really great mess, a candle burning at both ends, and no amount of booze or pills is gonna hide that.” Sam: “How do you do it?” Mike: “What?” Sam: “How do you go out there and pretend to be someone else in front of all those people?” Mike: “I don’t pretend. Not out there. Just about every place else, but never out there.”)
Lars Russell lives in the middle ground between magic markers and permanent ones. He has written for SPIN, the Stranger, the Onion and Eyeshot. He is the editor of Beat Valley.