Without funds, without support, how can our artists fly?
Have you seen Birdman, the Michael Keaton starrer that made noise no fainter than the flutter of a million wings at the 87th Academy Awards, where out of a total of nine nominations, it won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Cinematography? With Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Andrea Riseborough, and Naomi Watts in the film, it also won the Outstanding Cast in a Motion Picture at the Screen Actors Guild Awards in 2015. At the Golden Globes, Keaton won the Best Actor plum that eluded him at the Oscars.
But forget the awards. That’s not what you watch a film for. In Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), Keaton plays a washed-up Hollywood superstar most famous for his role in an old blockbuster about the superhero Birdman. In a desperate attempt to reinvent his career, he writes, directs, and acts in a Broadway play. But while rehearsing for the crucial preview, he is haunted by his alter ego, his young self as Birdman, as well as by his strained relationship with his daughter, the recovering addict Samantha Thompson (Stone), and with his co-actors, particularly acclaimed Broadway actor Mike Shiner (Norton), who proves too unconventional, experimental, self-absorbed, and volatile in his acting methods. On top of these, at his lowest points, he seems endowed with powers he did not know how to use, except destructively, such as telekinesis.
A metaphor for self-doubt, maybe for undiagnosed depression or schizophrenia, or the complexities of time passing, the plunges that follow the peaks of the human experience, Birdman captures in 119 minutes the very depths of how it feels to be afraid that your very best is all behind you. At first, I found the percussions, which dominated the film score, marking the pivotal moments with corresponding or contrasting intensity, a bit vexatious, quite jarring to the senses, like the drumming of a ruffed grouse as heard on full range speakers with a subwoofer. Halfway through the film, however, I decided that the drum work, composed by Mexican jazz musician Antonio Sánchez, was indispensable in creating the pressure cooker atmosphere in which I, the viewer, along with the cast of characters, particularly Keaton’s Riggan Thompson, was trapped like a bird in a cage in the duration of the film.
It’s all very black comedy, but what makes Birdman most effective is its director’s decision to film it as if in a single shot, “just like life, no editing,” as the Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu explained, though he was met with so much opposition that, if the arguments against it, including the cost and difficulty that such a risky approach to filming entailed, were sustained just a bit longer, he would have dropped the idea completely. As a result of his tenacity toward this experiment, from the camera work that captures a continuous shot of the scenes and mimics it in some sequences, Birdman turned out to be a labyrinth of a bird cage, a trap of maze-like proportions through which the audience were to follow the story going in and out doors, passing through dark hallways, emerging into the klieg lights and fading back to black, coming out into crowded streets, and, like the lead character, dreaming to escape, fantasizing to soar high in the open sky, hoping against hope to fly away.
What an experience! That, I think, is the only point of entertainment, a sort of teleportation by which to experience life or the possibility of life in another way, a journey, replete with arrivals and departures and long stretches of standing still, through other worlds.
How I wish we could have this luxury in our own films as well as in our books, in our TV shows, in our music, in our plays in the Philippines! In case you missed out on the nuance, yes I did call it a luxury and only because, while movies and music, theater and literature are important to culture, a basic need in an existence that demands soulful examination, they are a luxury in a country such as ours, where not only the government but also the private sector, the businessmen, the publishers and the producers, and the audience are opposed to the cost of explorations that are needed for cultural development.
The artist is vital, a creative force necessary for nation-building and for a nation’s search for identity. Yet he is often left to his own devices, unsupported, undervalued, and thus unable to fully unfurl his creative wings. For lack of funds, for lack of financial backing, for lack of freedom, for lack of respect for the full range of his capabilities, wasted is much of his potential for making a difference, for doing wonders, for building dreams with words and pictures, for weaving the facts of our life into a tapestry of possibilities, for putting our talent as a collective and not as individuals on the world map. We are proud of our world-class brothers and sisters, who have had the opportunity to shine for us on the world stage, in the world arena, in the international spotlight, but are we proud of ourselves as a nation? Are we proud of our film industry? The current state of our music? The general idea of Philippine television? Are we proud of the Philippines?
The artist is vital, a creative force necessary for nation-building and for a nation’s search for identity. Yet he is often left to his own devices, unsupported, undervalued, and thus unable to fully unfurl his creative wings.
That’s my point. Prior to this pandemic, the Philippines appeared to be on its way to better times as an economy, but as a culture, then as well as now, I’m afraid we are Birdman, whose glory is in the past. Through our daily work, our local movies, our local music, our local theater, our local books, even our local newspapers and magazines, we have to keep reaching for the sky. But the artist alone cannot do it. He needs the support of the financiers, the employers, the investors, the agents, as well as the audience, to fulfill his destiny as an artist of the nation.
Do not wait for a Singaporean publisher—and this is only a wild example—to make a New York Times bestseller of a book written by a Filipino before telling that writer “You do our country proud,” while the writers in your midst are wasting away hoping against hope for the chance to fly that you have never even considered giving them.
Invest in Filipino talent. Yes, like Birdman, in whose telling the director Alejandro González Iñárritu was given the trust, the support, and the wherewithal to experiment, despite the odds against it, Philippine art must fly. But who’s the wind beneath its wings?