What Birdman Starring Michael Keaton Says about Short Story Writing

Raymond Carver, what we talk about when we talk about love

The new film, Birdman, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, centers around a theater adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Michael Keaton’s character, Riggan Thomson, writes, stars in, and directs the play. The movies have seen their share of short story adaptations (including several of Carver’s, from nine of his stories in Robert Altman’s Short Cuts to “Why Don’t You Dance?” as Everything Must Go starring Will Ferrell), but these tight, knowing globes often become both bloated and oversimplified when stretched to feature-length. Alice Munro’s “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship” had to drop the Friendship and Courtship to fit on the silver screen. The short story thrillingly convinces readers they’re in for extreme disappointment before veering into happily every-after, and in so doing, allows both the good (achieved) and bad (narrowly avoided) outcomes to co-exist as alternate realities. The film, on the other hand, is a sweet and enjoyable story of an unlikely romance, with an unsettling emphasis on the virtues of vacuuming.

So why then, does Birdman yoke itself to Carver? Mike Shiner, a balls-out stage actor played by Edward Norton, asks his director the same thing. In response, Riggan produces from his wallet a folded cocktail napkin, with a note from the gin-soaked man himself: “Thanks for an honest performance — Ray Carver.” It’s a tidy origin story — this was the moment when Riggan knew he wanted to be an actor — but Mike scoffs. “It’s on a cocktail napkin,” he says. “He was drunk.” Well, if words Ray Carver wrote while drunk intrinsically had less value, we might as well throw out his entire collected works. But still, Mike is on to something, and his question, “Why Carver?” remains.

My theory is that Riggan chose a Carver story for his play for the same reason Iñárritu chose a Carver story for his movie. Carver’s work is literary — prestigious enough to impress — but still working class. He’s the contemporary short-story writer who’s okay for men to like, even though his themes are, at times, not all that different from Alice Munro (of whom, I have heard at least one man say, “writes too much about women”). If you knew neither story, could you guess which title — “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship” or “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” — was written by a nice Canadian lady and which was written blue-collar manly man?

I can’t speak to the quality of “What We Talk About…” the play; we are only shown snippets, though I suspect it too is bloated (there are dancing reindeer). But I can speak to the quality of the screenwriting (by Iñárritu, with two others), which is excellent. A single camera, giving the illusion of one long shot, follows the characters through backstage corridors, staying close to their bodies and even occupying their lines of sight. The last line in “What We Talk About…” is as close as Birdman’s camera, physically, if not emotionally, near: “I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone’s heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not of us moving, not even then the room went dark.”

As in Carver’s stories, the dialogue is crisp and the characters are efficiently complex. But what most impressed me was the way the story moved through its own narrative, stealthily yet unexpectedly, like the camera through a narrow space. Carefully chosen excursions onto rooftops of the Majestic and into the streets of Times Square give relief from tight spaces, in the same way Carver uses anecdotes of car accidents and ex-husbands to relieve a claustrophobic conversation had around a kitchen table.

Birdman is about a short story adapted for theater, but it’s also a movie that could be adapted into a short story. Many issues that short story writers struggle with regularly are deftly handled here. Take this POV problem, for example: Riggan is haunted by his Birdman alter-ego, a macho, gravelly voice that tells him what to do. Some of Birdman’s powers — flight, telekinesis — may or may not have stayed with Riggan post-shoot. Which raises the question, in a close-third story, how does one indicate to the reader a character’s delusion when he is not capable of indicating it himself? (Birdman’s answer: use a taxi-driver.) Other, more basic craft questions are also addressed: How does one deliver backstory in an organic way? How can one write three-dimensional, secondary characters without allowing them to dominate a story? (I can’t help but mention that, also like many short stories, the last couple of “lines” in Birdman become sentimental and should be cut.)

That Birdman has answers to all these questions indicates to me that it’s of a piece with short fiction that’s currently popular: blurring genre (I’m looking at you, George Saunders), fantasy delivered in service of character (of which Karen Russell is queen), and blending of the real and unreal. That last one is particularly on trend — how many novels and stories have you read lately in which the fiction borrows overtly from the author’s life? Perhaps the main character even shares a name with the author. (Ben Lerner’s wonderful novels Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04 come first to mind.) In Birdman, Riggan Thomson shares a similar story to Michael Keaton’s: they are both former stars of multi-million dollar superhero franchises, who turned down a late sequel. There hasn’t been a term coined for this cross-referencing between fact and fiction yet, but it’s the postmodernism of the internet age. It’s hyper-realism, fictionalized. We might call it hyper-fiction.

In Birdman, the vilified theater critic for the Times calls it “the unexpected virtue of ignorance,” giving the film its clunky alternate title. She’s referring to moments on stage that would be pretend but aren’t: real sex, real blood. It’s Borges’ life-size map (Ed Norton reads Labyrinth in a tanning bed, by the way, so the allusion is there); it’s life influencing art and art influencing life interchangeably.

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