Raymond Carver

Submitted by on Sep 14, 2015

Raymond Carver: the baleful star of Birdman

How the director of Birdman drew inspiration from the short story writer Raymond Carver

There is a sadness and bewilderment at the heart of the excellent film Birdman that the late Raymond Carver would have identified with. "This is awful," Carver once wrote, "I don’t know what’s going to happen to me or to anyone else in the world.”

Carver’s baleful words run through the body of the film, from the opening poem excerpt to the production within the film of his short story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love ", in which the main character, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), directs and acts.

Thomson is a confused and unhappy man, stalked by the giant feathered superhero he used to play in blockbuster films. Thomson’s character could have flown right in from a 21st-century Carver story.

Birdman’s Mexican director, Alejandro González Iñárritu, used four screenwriters – Alexander Dinelaris (in New York), Nico Giacobone and Armando Bo (in Buenos Aires) and Iñárritu himself in Los Angeles – and co-ordinated their script efforts via Skype calls. Dinelaris told biogrophile.com. "Alejandro had a strong reaction to the [Carver] story and the various ideas and themes revolving around love: love of another, love of self, love of ideas, et cetera. He thought it would be a good foundation for the play that Michael Keaton’s character, Riggan Thomson, produces in the film. Riggan is searching for love in many ways. Once we had the main thrust, the desire of this character ‘to feel loved on this earth,’ to be remembered and respected, we knew that we could pit his alter ego Birdman in direct opposition to his quixotic quest."

Throw into the mix characters who suddenly sense their own limitations, whose lives are taking on water just as they are taking on alcohol, and you have some of the comedy and pathos of the gin-soaked short story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love", which Birdman’s thespians are staging.

The author Raymond Carver Credit: Rex Features

Edward Norton  is excellent as Mike Shiner, a Broadway actor with a wild streak and a taste for booze. Carver knew that territory well. His own father (Raymond Sr) was an alcoholic, whose wife, in desperation, used to pour his whiskey down the sink. Carver’s father had electroshock treatment at county hospital and in a sad poem called "Photograph of my Father in his Twenty-second year", Carver wrote:

"All his life my father wanted to be bold.

But the eyes give him away."

Raymond Jr drank, too. "I who can’t hold my liquor either."

Carver grew up ashamed of the family’s poverty. They were the last house on their street to have an outdoor toilet. When his third-grade teacher drove him home from school one day, Carver said in his book Fires, "I asked him to stop at the house just before ours, claiming I lived there".

When he told his then ailing father that he wanted to be a writer, "I might as well have told him I wanted to become a plastic surgeon," Carver recalled laconically.

Carver was a fan of Ernest Hemingway, Flannery O’Connor and John Cheever and admitted he liked it "when there is some feeling of threat or sense of menace".

A feeling of menace runs throughout Birdman but what raises it above many films is that Riggan’s self obsession is leavened by a search for the truth, however thwarted. The film is subtitled "The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance" and living in a state of ignorance about the world was something that haunted Carver. One of his favourite statements comes in a story by Anton Chekhov, who says of a character that "suddenly everything became clear to him". Carver, who was married twice, said he found these words "filled with wonder and possibility".

Birdman may win several Oscars but if there is one lasting effect of the film then I hope it is that there is a resurgence of interest in the stories, essays and poems of Oregon-born Carver, who died from lung cancer on August 2, 1988, aged only 50. His bleak, mordant and sardonic stories are superb.

Carver is buried at Ocean View Cemetery in Port Angeles, and Birdman opens with the words that are inscribed on his tombstone, which is a fragment of a poem called A New Path to the Waterfall:

"And did you get what

you wanted from this life, even so?

And what did you want?

To call myself beloved, to feel myself

beloved on the earth."

Birdman is out on Digital HD, Blu-ray and DVD now

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