Like birds on the wing, the flutter of opinions stirs the air we breathe. Try as we might to still our minds and think pure thoughts, currents of rage and sorrow and desire carry us far from the places we thought we were going, and we may wind up asking ourselves, as the Talking Heads so eloquently put it: “How did I get here?”
Recently I watched two very different films, each of which addresses the way humans struggle to control the direction of their own lives, and how they cope with the loss of it.
In “Birdman,” the Oscar-winning darkly funny study of egos clashing onstage and off, Michael Keaton delivers a riveting portrayal of a man whose dreams of artistic achievement were swept away by the hurricane force of his early commercial success in a movie franchise of a comic book superhero.
As a former Batman himself, Keaton’s credibility in the role of Riggan Thomson is never in question. Less certain is the artistic integrity of the character played by Edward Norton (a former Hulk, another irony-laden casting choice) who gives a vivid portrayal of the sort of actor who is most alive when pretending to be someone else.
It’s a fascinating movie about the human need to feel relevant. However, as Riggan’s damaged daughter, Emma Stone sums up the futility of the effort in a few passionate lines about how it feels to grow up in the age of Twitter and You-Tube, when anyone may suddenly acquire a million followers in the blink of an eye, yet still be profoundly lost.
I enjoyed “Birdman” in part because it’s the sort of film that allows viewers to feel compassion, while remaining comfortably detached from the problems of these self-obsessed characters. They’re all actors, after all. They’re not saving the world. They’re desperately seeking validation through applause and critical acclaim.
A totally different sort of the cinematic experience is presented in “Shun-li and The Poet,” an award-winning Italian film from 2011 about the struggle of a Chinese woman trying to reunite with her eight-year-old son. The story takes place near Venice, but it’s not the postcard-perfect Venice tourists flock to see. In a small tavern Shun-li waits on the fishermen who work the lagoons surrounding Venice. Most of them harbor deep distrust of foreigners. Shun-li tries to keep her head down and her hopes up that eventually she will pay off the debt she owes to her Chinese bosses. We feel for her, especially when she develops an innocent friendship with Bepi, a Yugoslavian, known to his fisher pals as “the poet” for his habit of rhyming. Alone among the other patrons of the cafe, Bepi shows Shun-li some kindness.
The film moves slowly, revealing the way lonely people find solace in their shared humanity. Poetry, spoken and visual, flows through the film. It left me feeling both sad and hopeful.
Much as I enjoy happy explosion movies where quippy heroes make the world safer for us all, at the end of the reel there’s the real to be faced. Still gritty, sometimes beautiful, often heartbreaking. A little poetry eases the transition.