When the director, cast, and producers of Birdman came to the stage to thank the Academy for its decision to give the film the Best Picture award, Michael Keaton, who plays the central character, took the opportunity to thank Tess Gallagher for releasing the rights to her deceased husband’s story “What We Talk About When We Talk about Love.”
Raymond Carver’s story has been adapted by the Riggan Thompson (Keaton) and the film is about his attempt to bring it to the New York stage. The production is Thompson’s attempt to redeem a career and to reestablish a reputation that was none too great to begin with. He was the star of a series of adventure stories souped-up with special effects. There’s a desperate, manic quality to Thompson’s endeavor as he wrestles not only with his producers, his estranged daughter, his neglected ex-wife, and, literally, with one of his co-stars, Edward Norton.
Most of the shots of the play, both in its late rehearsal and opening night stages, are shot from the wings and only from brief periods of time. All of which de-emphasizes the goal – artistic seriousness – toward which Thompson aspires. And if you are not paying attention closely, you may not pick up the fact that Thompson, whose talk is almost always in over-drive, attributes Carver as the inspiration for his life in the arts.
Given the marginality of the play in the overall arc of the film, it’s unlikely that this Academy Award winner will result in a run on Amazon for Carver’s various collections of short stories. More likely that viewers will be sent back to Bettlejuice (1988), the film that first brought Keaton to our attention. Carver’s reputation as a ground-breaking and much-venerated (and imitated) short story writer began 35 years ago, and it has been undiminished since. If the selection of one of his stories for anthologies of contemporary American fiction is any indication, he’s still being read.
In my Contemporary American Fiction class, we recently took up two Carver stories: “Viewfinder” (from the 1981 “What Do We Talk About…”) and “Cathedral” (from the 1983 collection of the same name). “Viewfinder” is “Cathedral” in a nutshell. Both are first person stories. The narrators are laconic men, defeated by the larger forces of life, and insecure in their domestic fortresses. In both stories, a visitor who disorients the host arrives on the scene. In the first story, a double amputee presents himself at the doorstep of a recently divorced man and offers his photographic services; he wants to take pictures of the house. The defensive narrator is perversely curious about how the man will function and tries to maintain some power over his visitor who is strangely clairvoyant about the host’s past.
In “Cathedral,” the host reluctantly welcomes a blind man. Robert is a friend of his wife; they met many years ago on the West Coast when she read for him and they developed a degree of intimacy, unknown to the married couple, through the exchange of letters and poems. Roberts is everything that his host is not: joyful, curious, open to experience, tolerant, self-deprecating. By the end of the story this mysterious blind stranger has led the husband to a moment of insight about his curmudgeonly, cold self. There’s a hope for renewal. The end of “Viewfinder” is more ambiguous; the host is on his roof, throwing rocks found in the gutters, and challenging the photographer to take his picture.
While these two examples hardly exhaust the range of Carver’s beleaguered protagonists, they do provide a sense of Carver’s efforts to document the lives of his mostly working-class, blue-collar male protagonists. And while it would be easy to ridicule these guys, to see them as wounded and angry white men, Carver treats them with affection. He’s on their side as they try to regain their dignity. He demands that we honor their lives.
I think Carver would approve of director Alejandro Inarritu’s sympathies for Thompson’s inner sweetness and his spirituality, as represented by his flights, the magical realism element in the film. On the other hand, Carver might not be interested in a character like Riggan Thompson given Thompson’s hyperactivity and his quest for a dubious celebrity fame. Also, the visually energetic movie is out of sync with Carver’s patient, Hemingway-lean prose style and a tone that echoes Edward Hopper’s paintings. These accusations of infidelity to the source of inspiration are made by critic Jonathan Leaf in a review in Forbes published prior to Academy Awards night. Chalk it up as another movie that is unfaithful to its source.
Leaf also provides us with a useful backstory on the versions of the “What We Talk About….” Leaf is saddened to see that the version that Thompson brings to the stage is the 1981 version, a story in which editor Gordon Lish has too heavy a hand, a story more melodramatic and vulgar than Carver would write. In 2003 Tess Gallagher insisted that her husband’s original version be restored to the collection. The publisher honored her request.
Here’s a link to Leaf’s article. It contains a link to the better version.