MEET THE READER: Birdman OR the Importance of Keeping an Open Mind

Ray Morton is a writer, senior contributor to Script Magazine and script consultant. His new book A Quick Guide to Screenwriting is now available online and in bookstores. Follow Ray on Twitter: @RayMorton1

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Back in February, Birdman won a number of Academy Awards, including one for Best Picture and one for Best Original Screenplay. Many people loved it. I did not. I had a lot of problems with the film – most having to do with the screenplay – but for the purposes of this column, the one I want to focus on is a notion that the film presents most emphatically: that there are good types of movies and bad types of movies.

In Birdman, Michael Keaton plays a down-on-his-luck actor named Riggan Thomson – the former star of a blockbuster Hollywood franchise based on the fictional comic book superhero named in the movie’s title. Thomson’s career tanked after he quit the series and, as Birdman begins, he is attempting to make a comeback by writing, directing, and starring in a gritty Broadway play. His costar is a “serious” actor (played by Edward Norton playing, it seems, Edward Norton) who constantly puts Riggan down for portraying a superhero and thus voices one of the film’s major themes – that all mainstream commercial Hollywood films (and especially those based on comic books) are bankrupt crap totally without virtue or value and that only “art” films (for which the Riggan’s play is clearly a stand-in, since its production and content are both presented in ways that have nothing to do with theater in the real world, but much to do with independent filmmaking) are valid and worthwhile. To me this is a ridiculous notion that must be rejected – certainly because it is arrogant, pretentious, sophomoric, and condescending, but primarily because it is simply not true.

Birdman Courtesy of Fox Searchlight

‘Birdman’ Courtesy of Fox Searchlight

Sure, there are a lot of mainstream commercial Hollywood movies that are not very good, but there are also many that are quite wonderful and there always have been – even with tongue deeply in cheek can anyone argue that films such as Casablanca, The Searchers, Lawrence of Arabia, The Godfather, Jaws, Star Wars, Raging Bull, Tootsie, Die Hard, Toy Story, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and their brethren are not terrific movies? As for superhero films, many are junk but lots (Superman, Spider-Man, Batman Begins, Iron Man, The Avengers, etc.) are extremely well done and entertaining. And while there are definitely a great many excellent “art” films that have made a profound impact on viewers around world, there are just as many that are nothing more than pretentious drivel. Ultimately, there is no such thing as a good type of move or a bad type of movie. There are simply good movies and bad movies (of all types).

If Birdman were just an isolated example, then I would simply dismiss its narrow, restrictive contention as the elitist nonsense that it is. Unfortunately, it’s reflective of an attitude that I am seeing a lot of these days:

  • In folks who refuse to watch silent movies or black & white movies or movies made before 1994 because they are “old” and therefore seemingly without value or relevance in our cool, hip, cutting edge modern world.
  • In elitist moviegoers who will only watch foreign or “art” films and refuse to watch mainstream movies. And in their mirrors, the “regular Joes and proud of it” folks who will only watch mainstream movies and dismiss all other types of films as being “artsy fartsy.”
  • In those who dismiss all films in a specific genre out of hand (“I hate musicals,” “All Westerns suck,” etc.)

As regrettable as these attitudes are, I usually just sigh with resignation I hear them expressed by civilians. I am much more troubled when I hear them coming from those who make or aspire to make films, especially aspiring and professional screenwriters. And sadly, I do hear such things coming from screenscribes much more often than you might think. This troubles me because such views are incredibly narrow and rigid and therefore are the complete opposite of the openness and flexibility required to do good creative work (and I think Birdman proves my point because, Oscars aside, the screenplay is [IMHO] just not very good). But I am also troubled because I think screenwriters who hold these restrictive views are extremely short sighted and robbing themselves of a valuable education.

The cinema is now a little over one hundred years old. Since its founding, there have been thousands of films made in hundreds of different formats, styles and genres on many different levels of budget and quality. The literature of cinema is vast and there is so much that screenwriters can learn about the craft and art of cinematic storytelling — what to do; how to do it; what not to do; and so on — from every facet of it: silent films can provide excellent examples of how to tell stories visually; the fast talking films of the 1930s and 1940s have much to teach about writing effective dialogue; good commercial blockbusters can show screenwriters how to present their material in ways that will allow it to connect with broad audiences the world over; quality foreign films can suggest ways to present our material with more subtlety; quirky indies can inspire us to take an offbeat approach to our work. And, while Alejandro Innaritu might disagree, even superhero movies have much to offer us – the best of them tell solidly constructed story that make effective use of archetypal narratives and characters, and succeed in making the fantastic real.

If you restrict yourself to watching only a narrow range of films and close yourself off to others, then you are separating yourself from incredibly potent veins of inspiration, instruction, and illumination. So please – watch movies. All sorts of movies; every sort of movies. You don’t have to love or even like them all, but do try to appreciate them all and learn from them all. Your work will be the better for it. And you will be too.

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Harve Bennett passed away in February. Bennett was a former network executive who became a TV writer and producer and was responsible for entertaining and well remembered shows from the 1970s such as The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman, The Mod Squad, and Rich Man, Poor Man. In 1980, Paramount commissioned him to produce the second Star Trek feature after the first one misfired creatively. He accepted and ended up saving the series. He analyzed the TV show, figured out what made it tick and then wrote or co-wrote and produced Star Trek II – V. Except for Star Trek V (which was somewhat out of control) his Star Trek movies are all really solid films (especially in terms of story structure, at which he excelled). Bennett was a smart and talented man who understood genre and series filmmaking better than just about anyone of his era (he gave a great one day seminar on this very topic back in the 80s that I was lucky enough to attend). Bennett was one of those great people working in film and TV who never get enough credit — a solid craftsman who knew how to tell (in his own words) “a good yarn” and pack it with entertaining elements. His work may not necessarily been profound (although that point can certainly be debated), but it was always engaging and always entertaining and that’s something to be extremely proud of. RIP.

Copyright © 2015 by Ray Morton
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3 thoughts on “MEET THE READER: Birdman OR the Importance of Keeping an Open Mind

  1. donag

    I have not seen the movie. I read the screenplay and agree with you, Ray, I did not like it.

    OTOH, I am disappointed by the franchise frenzy in vogue today. Yes, the first rendition is usually good because it likely won’t be a hit if it is not. Subsequent editions seldom succeed with the same vitality, e.g. The Hunger Games Catching Fire is a knockoff of the first. The originality is gone. All that remains is the action and even that is very similar to the first.

    That is the fate of so many action/adventure films these days. More and more of them are lacking in character development because the objective is to appeal to millions of viewers. To do that is to make them as cinematic as possible. Why? Because a global audience doesn’t speak English or understand western society. A roller coaster ride doesn’t require dialogue or a plot.

  2. DTG

    I found this to be a confusing article… so why was Birdman a bad screenplay? It’s clear you wanted to make an alternative point besides ‘it was bad’ but without saying ‘why’ it was a bad screenplay this article lacks any clarity.

  3. screaminkid

    Sorry but most mainstream films leave me cold! Particularly American ! I find them so lacking in script originality and lazy productions relying on action and csg to appeal to their mostly young, audiences!
    Perhaps its because I am an aspiring scriptwriter myself but it is only the European or Australian films I consider worth actually paying for. The Guard and In Bruge are films I have enjoyed so much I have seen them twice. Sad to say, because of Pay TV there are less and less well scripted and produced shows available as the moguls who own these orgs refuse to take a chance with original material preferring to stick to tired old formulas dressed up as new , over and over again, as a large section of viewers wont watch anything that challenges their intellect!
    This leaves those of us who appreciate the bizarre or well acted films are becoming like the films that challenge , an even rarer species of film goer. In the last eighteen months I have gone to the cinema once!