A word on being a critic, by a critic, after 'Birdman'

 'Birdman'

Michael Keaton and Amy Ryan on "Birdman." (Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures / August 8, 2014)

In the Alejandro Gonzalez movie "Birdman," a formidably expansive, admirably unstinting yet deeply affectionate portrait of the many layers of neuroses and insecurities common to the artist, a washed-up movie actor named Riggan Thomson finds himself doing a show on Broadway. It's a forlorn attempt to remain relevant to a cultural conversation that he worries — heck, that he knows — has left him behind. In a bar one evening, prior to the show's opening, the actor, played by Michael Keaton, runs into a nasty, fictionalized version of the theater critic from The New York Times.

Now, everything about the expressionistic "Birdman" is heightened and a tad over-ripe. But the film speaks some fundamental truths about how artistic lives, even those that seem to reach great heights, are constantly in danger of collapse, time marching on and all that, and it does so with great warmth for the imperfect souls who must bare their vulnerabilities on a naked stage. It does not apply that same sensitivity to the critic, played here by Lindsay Duncan from deep in the refrigerator.

A shocker! She and her noble profession are being used! Call up the American Theatre Critics Association for comment!

The critic, named Tabitha, a name that retains its witchlike associations, is there merely to serve a twin narrative purpose. The first is the purpose that critics in plays and movies have served as long as there have been movies about the creative process: the need for a credible someone to render a verdict so the plot actually can end. You can see this play out, for example, on Broadway in Terrence McNally's "It's Only a Play," the main point of which is to note that, for those doing it, it is not only a play. That show cannot end without the critical verdict, even though the characters spend most of the play complaining about the critic. And in the 2007 animated movie "Ratatouille," Remy, the rat chef, must impress Anton Ego, the imperial food critic, as the ultimate test of a chef-rodent's skills.

Only when Remy has sent the tough-to-please Anton back on a sense-memory excursion deep into the crevices of his childhood can the movie establish Remy's unimpeachable success. After that, it's all an ordinary Monday night at Remy's place, and thus the film can end.

You can also see that device at work in this past summer's Jon Favreau movie "Chef," a moralistic fable about a bighearted chef who must learn that happiness can never come to the artist if he is subordinate to those who will control him. Well, the movie sees it as control. The wider world might think of it as funding — or doing good business or serving the people.

No matter. Like Mark Rothko, who, in the John Logan play "Red," made the sellout mistake of hanging anti-digestive paintings in the Four Seasons restaurant in New York, then taking the check, Favreau's Chef Casper must learn to cook for himself, not trot out the classics for conservative diners who can never appreciate him.

We know he's won this mostly internal battle — which comes with the side benefit of rediscovering his own kid — when the all-powerful critic, played by Oliver Platt in the new-media guise of a food blogger, offers up his approval and, in this case, even his partnership and cash. The quality of the character's food — his art — is enough to make the critic hang up the metaphorical pen altogether and get in line behind the artist.

It's funny. For a hip movie that is all about artistry having nothing to do with financial success, Favreau still cannot uncouple his story from the need for mainstream approval. That's because critics are not as easily dismissed as financiers, producers, owners or other impediments to the artist who wants only a check, and not instructions or creative guidance. They loom in the artistic psyche because they have the power to support radical art if they have the heart — which, in movies and plays, they almost never do.

The second purpose of the critic is to serve as a convenient antagonist. And that means that if the artist is to be a lovable if flawed soul, then the critic has to embody such qualities as imperviousness, dismissiveness, cruelty, defensiveness, callousness, conservatism, ignorance, and, in the case of Tabitha in "Birdman," being as she has apparently decided on a lousy review in advance, evil incarnate.

Both "Chef" and "Birdman" contain an almost identical scene of artistic fantasy — the one where the artist confronts the critic and tells her to go to hell. The two scenes, both very entertaining, follow the same, familiar you're-a-eunuch-in-a-harem, you-don't know-our-pain, you-just-label-everything argument.

But the core of the anger is expressed is this line from Keaton's Thomson: "None of it costs you anything. You risk nothing." Or from Favreau's Carl: "And what do you do? You sit, you eat and vomit those words back." Vomit. In a movie about a love of food, that's an insult that lands.

Some writers — most notably Kevin O'Keefe in The Atlantic — have viewed the scene in "Birdman" as a serious statement about the current state of dramatic criticism in New York and the rise of labels at the expense of full conversations about the work itself. Perhaps. Those are old complaints. More likely, Tabitha is just the latest in the long line of nasty celluloid critics dating back far beyond "All About Eve." It is just too juicy a chance to miss. If you want to show a neurotic in full flight and you want to have him go after the woman who will judge him, she can't be a reasonable person. Not when the actor is a stand-in for you, the filmmaker. Until critics make movies, it will ever be thus.

But, in the spirit of Thanksgiving unity, a word about cost. This meme, ever more common, that it costs critics nothing to do what they do, deserves some rebuttal. It costs critics plenty to dislike artistic work: Contrary to popular perception, most of us do know something about the price artists pay and the depth of their feeling and vulnerability. It's just that we know honesty serves them best in the end.

And, for the record, it also costs plenty — more — to really like someone's show, meal, movie. At such moments, the critic hangs out there with the artist, her loves exposed, his superlatives maxed out, waiting for the judgment of the marketplace and, more importantly, the verdict of history. And when wrong? Yeah, that extracts its price, especially when rendering judgment is all you do.

cjones5@tribpub.com

Twitter @ChrisJonesTrib

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