Showing posts with label When We Talk About Carver. Show all posts
Showing posts with label When We Talk About Carver. Show all posts

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Carver and Birdman

I don’t see many movies in the theater.  I’ll tape (well, DVR nowadays) an occasional classic on Turner Classic Movies, and see a Woody Allen film, or one of that genre, but I prefer live theatre and reading. However, I made an exception for Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) as central to its story is Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, a short story that resonated so much with me that I  decided several years ago to adapt it into play form along with a couple of other short stores, as part of a larger dramatic work, When We Talk About Carver. 

I had thought the time had come for this little known writer (to the general populace) to be acknowledged, celebrated as one of the finest short story writers of our time.  What better way to do it than by developing a dramatization of some of his works, centered on his masterpiece, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.   This was no small feat for me.  I love the theatre but adapting a short story to the structure of a drama is not for amateurs.  So I loaded up my bookshelves with guides to playwriting and installed some good software, Word.doc templates for dramatic structure and presentation.

Then, when it came to dramatizing the story, there was the conflict of deciding on which version to use, the one Carver originally wrote “The Beginners” and later edited by his editor at Esquire (and later Knopf), Gordon Lish, and then edited again by Lish, under the new title we now know the story. Lish’s version distills the story to the bare essentials, including the dialogue.  It was the better version to work with as part of the collection I envisioned.  The Carver estate had granted permission to do this but after a year of trying to place the work, and not having the right connections, it has languished.

So, given this background, I had to see Birdman as soon as it opened nearby.  Very little of the short story’s dialogue is actually used in the movie, but it anchors the film in many ways.  (It was nice to see the set though, a 1970’s kitchen, exactly the way I envisioned it.) The Carver short story is about love in all its manifestations, from spiritual love to obsessive, violent love, but is set in its time, alcoholism as the primary social lubricant, and in literary realism. Birdman is about love as well, updated for the 21st century, which now includes self-obsessive love strongly influenced by the power and effect of social media along with “magical surrealism” dominating the canvas of the story.

Fascinating for me, the film opens with a quote from Carver, one of the last poems he ever wrote as he was dying of cancer -- his epitaph -- “Late Fragment,” published in a collection A New Path to the Waterfall with an introduction by his wife, also a poet, Tess Gallagher.  .  One thinks of Carver only as a short story writer, but he wrote poetry as well.  As Gallagher put it “…Ray’s new poems blurred the boundaries between poem and story, just as his stories had often taken strength from dramatic and poetic strategies.”


And did you get what

you wanted from this life, even so?

I did.

And what did you want?

To call myself beloved, to feel myself

beloved on the earth.

And that is the theme of this movie – wanting to be beloved on earth.  All the characters are struggling in their own way to find approbation and love. Aren't we all?

The plot in a nutshell involves a has-been superhero (The Birdman) film actor, Riggan Thomson (played brilliantly by Michael Keaton), who seeks “legitimacy” on the Broadway stage by adapting Carver’s short story, and then producing, directing and starring in it.  He is haunted by his alter ego, Birdman (this is where the surrealistic element emerges), who declares him as still having superpowers (he is seen levitating in a yoga pose in the first frame).  His struggle with his past self and what he envisions as his future artistic self is what propels this frenetic film from its beginning to its end.  Also in the cast is his sympathetic former wife, Sylvia (Amy Ryan), their daughter, Sam (Emma Stone) a  recovering addict, and the co-stars in the play, one of which he was recently involved with, Laura (Andrea Riseborough) and Lesley (Naomi Watts) a girlfriend of a well-known Broadway method actor, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton). Riggan’s only friend and business manager, Jake (Zach Galifianakis) persuades Riggan to hire Mike at the last minute for the other male character part in the play.  Mike and Riggan come to blows and yet the show goes on. All the ingredients are here for love relationships in all their variations, good and bad, not unlike the heart of the Carver story.  I’m trying to avoid spoilers here. 

I mentioned that the Carver quote is the central theme of the movie.  There is one exchange between Riggan and his daughter Sam where this resounds loudly.  I remember tapping my wife Ann on the shoulder as Sam was in the middle of delivering her monologue. After that climatic moment, Riggan is on track to shred his “unexpected virtue of ignorance”:

Riggan:  "This is my chance to finally do some work that actually means something."

Sam: "That means something to who? You had a career, Dad, before the third comic book movie, before people started to forget who was inside that bird costume. You are doing a play based on a book that was written 60 years ago for a thousand rich old white people whose only real concern is going to be where they have their cake and coffee when it's over. Nobody gives a shit but you! And let's face it, Dad; you are not doing this for the sake of art. You are doing this because you want to feel relevant again. Well guess what? There is an entire world out there where people fight to be relevant every single day and you act like it doesn't exist. This is happening in a place that you ignore, a place that, by the way, has already forgotten about you. I mean, who the fuck are you? You hate bloggers. You mock Twitter. You don't even have a Facebook page. You're the one who doesn't exist. You're doing this because you're scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don't matter and, you know what, you're right. You don't! It's not important, okay? You're not important! Get used to it."

Where did Riggan get the idea of adapting a Carver short story?  It’s revealed that when he was a young actor, Carver was in the audience and wrote a note to him on a cocktail napkin to say that he admired the performance.  Decades later he still carries the napkin, presents it as his trump card to the New York Times critic who says she’s going to pan the play as she doesn’t admire movie actors who try to cross the line into legitimate theatre. 

And so still another theme unfolds in the film.  Movie actors are celebrities, have fame but do they have the right stuff?  How does live theatre stack up against film? There is no contest as each art form functions on a different plane.  Carver’s short story could make great theatre, but Birdman needs to soar on film, and what a film it is.  Ironically, as Riggan is the writer, producer, and director of the Carver play in the film, Birdman was co-written, produced, and directed by one person as well, Alejandro González Iñárritu.  The only thing he did not do as the main character in the film, was to become a character. 

The movie has the feeling of being filmed as one long continuous take.  It is two hours of breathtaking cinematography perfectly accompanied by music selections, mostly the pulsating drums of Antonio Sánchez who even makes a brief passing appearance in the film.  One can imagine those beating in Riggan’s head.   Nothing is out of bounds for this film and only film could capture the gestalt, the play within the film, the character’s intense relationships, Riggan’s journey, and the alternative universe of the Birdman which, no pun intended, gives this film breathtaking wings. It is also a love poem to the New York City theatre district, something that reverberates with me.

This film is revolutionary and expect to hear it nominated for a host of Academy Awards, best picture, screenplay, directing, not to mention best actor as Michael Keaton gives a once-in-a-lifetime performance, best supporting actor (Edward Norton was outstanding as a foil to Riggan), best supporting actress, Emma Stone (who can forget her mesmerizing eyes as well), best cinematography, best original soundtrack, and I could go on and on.

Come to think of it, except for the protagonist, I’m the only person (to my knowledge) that has completed a dramatization of Carver’s story.  And it’s good.  Maybe it will take” wings” yet. Nonetheless, this is not a movie to be missed.  And if Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is never produced as a play, read the story, and then think about the movie.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012


I have been retrospectively adding "labels" to my posts, a tedious process, and to use blog-speak, a "gadget" that is not as exacting as a proper index. As a former publisher, the inconsistencies of the labeling process bother me. This is partly my own fault as the labeling was done over several months. Consequently, as an example, President Barack Obama is merely labeled "Obama" while most luminaries are labeled by first and last names, an unintentional gaffe and no disrespect intended. I suppose I assumed we all know who he is. And unfortunately, labels are alphabetized as they appear so first names prevail, an affront to any indexer. But one can scroll over the list fairly quickly although there are more than three hundred labels at this point -- they appear on the left side of the page below "Blog Archive" and "About Me."

Reviewing my four plus years of postings in doing this project I see so much of what I wrote is where the winds blew me and some views have changed. But I intended "Lacunae Musing" as an "everyman's" view of the world going by, so the windblown nature is understandable and the mere passage of time explains some changed views. More painful was to see some repetition, not remembering that a year earlier I had made the same point, perhaps in a different way. Nonetheless, I have not edited or deleted any entries. Let some future generation unwrap this as a buried digital time box. It is what it is.

I expected the blog would mostly cover my diverse interests, but I was somewhat surprised by the number of entries that relate to the economy and politics. Sturm und Drang have characterized those topics during the past few years, so that is no wonder as well. Then there was the incredible open heart surgery I went through last year, a difficult procedure complicated by traumatic intubation so one could say I write this blog on borrowed time, although I feel fine now. Amazing having gone from this:

to this "self portrait" taken during our recent cruise:

As an eclectic blog, "Lacunae Musing" does not have the level of page load activity associated by niche oriented blogs with a dedicated readership. But that's OK by me as I write this mostly as a personal journal and as a creative outlet. Sometimes I wonder if I never did this, and concentrated that same energy in other pursuits, such as the piano or even writing a novel or a play, something I've been tempted to do, perhaps that might be a better use of my time. Or maybe this blog is my excuse for not doing something even more challenging. One will never know unless I find the path to an alternative universe.

However, while writing this blog, I did manage to dramatize four Raymond Carver short stories which I entitled When We Talk About Carver. This consists of dramatic readings of "Want to See Something?" and "Gazebo," each preceding a play adaptation, the former with "Put Yourself in My Shoes" and the latter with "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" -- perhaps Carver's best known story. As the production requires only two male and two female actors, I thought it would be ideal for smaller theater companies. This required getting permission from the author's estate and the approval (with revisions) of the author's widow, Tess Gallagher, which was finally successful. But my quest to place the play, even for a reading, has come to naught, and it is a lesson learned about how the system "works" (publishing in my days also had its "system" equally difficult to crack). I had naively believed that Carver, as one of the 20th century's greatest short story writers, and my painstaking attempt to use his exact words in the adaptation, would ensure, at least, a placement with a knowledgeable but small non-profit theatre. That is not how it works, and so I can imagine what the outcome might be if I was the author of a play rather than merely the adapter of a writer of Carver's prominence. It is disheartening, but a learning experience. But learning even with disappointing results is better than standing still.

Also, I've managed to keep up with my musical interests, working on several musical programs as I am a volunteer pianist at a local rehab center as well as at a retirement home. The latter gig is particularly fulfilling as I prepare specific programs, my first being the music made famous by Frank Sinatra, followed by one focused on the works of George Gershwin. The Gershwin program was challenging as it required a solid hour of playing his wonderful melodies, including those from Porgy and Bess which are among my Gershwin favorites. I'm now preparing programs by Rogers and Hammerstein (my next), to be followed by an all Steven Sondheim program, and finally a "British / French Invasion of Broadway" program, works by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Claude-Michel Schönberg.

So, "Lacunae Musing" continues to be one of many pursuits, and managing its time requirements is a constant battle. Consequently ,when I started this, I consciously turned off the comments feature of most blogs. However, an email address is included in the "about me" section, so there is a way for people to contact me and I've received many emails over the years and responded to all.

I integrated a "statcounter" about a year so I have a rough estimate that there have been almost 20,000 "hits" since the beginning, most of those from Google phrase searches but almost an equal number from searches of Google Images as I have hundreds of photos in the blog. Unfortunately, BlogSpot is not very user friendly for photographs. I would have carried more otherwise. And there are mysterious inconsistencies with photographs in the blog. Some can be easily enlarged by clicking onto it, and others cannot, even though I treat all work on photographs the same way.

It's been an interesting journey and now with the label "index" I can see the breadth and the focus (or lack of) more clearly. Whether you are a return visitor, or happened to just land here, I hope you find it useful or interesting. I doubt whether I will be able to keep up the pace of writing as I don't want to repeat much of the family history and I might take a little more time to smell the roses, but with the political season heating up, there will be unavoidable fodder for writing. Then, too, there will be more theater, the books I'll be reading, and future travel, whatever suits my fancy. Truly an eclectic journey, one person's views and experiences. Hopefully, it has some relevancy in the real world.

While writing this entry we had a rare concurrent visit of both our sons, our oldest, Chris, celebrating a birthday and so we went to one of our favorite local restaurants, Captain Charlie's Reef Grill. This is a down to earth, funky, lively restaurant with some of the best and most imaginative fish dishes anywhere. One can make a meal of the appetizers, each a unique creation. Part of the fun is even waiting for a table outside in the balmy Florida night. They don't take reservations. They don't have to. People will eagerly wait. We went on a Saturday night, happily passing the one hour wait time sitting on the outside chairs, while others were waiting in a separate bar they maintain a few doors down in the unassuming Juno Beach strip mall where the restaurant is located. The waiters and waitresses have been there forever and they've become old friends. It is a place to see and be seen and the desserts are fabulous such as their chocolate mousse b-day cake!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Financial Crisis Reaches Out to the Arts

The tentacles of the Great Recession and financial malfeasance run deep, as evidenced by the demise of one of the great theaters in the area, Florida Stage. While their move to the Kravis Center this year was a positive development, everything else seemed to be a negative for this local, but well-established theater company, its revenues shrinking because of declining contributions (partly due to the aftershock of the Madoff scandal which hit this geographic area particularly hard), reduced interest income, and changing demographics as well. When we first began subscribing to Florida Stage, more than ten years ago, I remember remarking about the average age of the audience, wondering whether succeeding generations will appear to take their (now our) place. It seems like great theater has taken a back seat to Twitter and Facebook in that regard, Florida Stage's subscription base declining from a peak of 7,000 to now only 2,000 (including our prepaid subscription for next season which now will not be).

Florida State was daring enough to put on many original plays and musicals, not content to take the "easy way" as many theaters do in Florida, serving up the pabulum of Broadway revivals or touring companies as a staple. Of course, it is one thing to be daring during good economic times and strong subscriptions, and another to steer that course when the tide is running against you. I thought this season's offerings could have been stronger, maybe they should have served up a classic play or two to appeal to its audience. Ghost-Writer, I thought, was their best play of the season, with their opening play, Cane , the weakest.

All in all, there have been stronger seasons at Florida Stage, but it is doubtful whether that would have saved the company in face of all its other macro adversities. A really tragic moment for the arts and for the West Palm Beach area.

And this eliminates, still, another venue for new plays, one that I've learned firsthand from experience is fraught with difficulties to produce. More than a year ago I began an adaption of four Raymond Carver short stories into a theatrical work, When We Talk About Carver. Florida Stage was very much on my mind as a possible venue but it took me most of the year to negotiate and secure a formal permission for non-commercial, non-exclusive stage rights (just to show the work) with the Carver estate.

I had thought the success of "Gatz" which is a six hour acted reading of Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby was an encouraging sign that unabridged adaptations of great literature could make great theatre. As Fitzgerald is to the American novel in the 20th century, Carver is to the American short story, and it is time HIS story and magical power of writing should be dramatically told. Also, interestingly, the new film, Everything Must Go with Will Ferrell was based on Carver's short story “Why Don’t You Dance.” The timing might be right for something more significant by and about Carver.

But without a local theatre that would consider a new work, even one which was essentially written by an established writer of Carver's stature, I now begin a search for a company that is willing to take chances as was Florida Stage.

One can only hope that other such companies can survive these hard economic times, one of the many unintended consequences of putting Wall Street ahead of Main Street (jobs) and failing to address a decade of deficit spending. The closing of Florida Stage is not only a loss for our area, it is a tragedy on a larger scale for the Arts in general.