Wednesday, March 7, 2018

2018 Blind Spot Series: Bird

Those of you familiar with the Blind Spot Challenge probably know that it was started some years ago by Ryan and The Matinee as a way to encourage himself and other bloggers to watch movies they think they should have already seen. We're asked to watch one film a month that we deem significant, but haven't watched yet. The idea spread with lots and lots of participating bloggers. In my ignorance, I just assumed everything was the same as it always was and didn't even check with Ryan at the beginning of the year. Lo and behold, I received a DM from Sofia at Returning Videotapes. No, not that kind of DM, silly. She was just letting me know that Ryan had passed the reins of the series over to her. Head over to her blog to see who else is participating and just to check the place out.

As for what I'm doing...well, I'm about a week late for February, but getting at least one early entry in for March by watching 1988's...

Why did I pick it? There were several reasons. The first is Clint Eastwood. Whatever you or I may think of the increasingly grumpy old man as a person, it can't be denied that he's carved out a legendary career on both sides of the camera. Here, he mans the director's chair. The second is star Forest Whitaker. He has also had a remarkable career. However, as great as it has been, I've rarely seen him play the lead role. Bird offers the opportunity to do just that.

There were two more significant reasons for me to watch this. I'm by no means a jazz aficionado, but I have a healthy respect for, and have listened to most of the greats. This includes our subject, saxophonist Charlie "Bird" Parker. I didn't know much about him personally except that he lived an interesting and troubled life. This brings me to my fourth, and perhaps most significant reason. It's a biopic about a black person. They're few and far between, so I track them down when I can. I actually got hold of it years ago when I bought it for a couple bucks at Walmart. Of course, I fully intended to watch it within a day or two. Instead, I sat it on a shelf where it got lost in the bowels of my collection. Since there's no time like the present, I dusted it off and popped it in the DVD player.

The film focuses on the last few years of Charlie Parker's (Whitaker) life beginning with an episode that lands him in a mental institution. He comes home from playing a gig, gets into an argument with his wife Chan (Diane Venora), and tries to kill himself. From there, we learn of his demons. He suffers from depression during a time, the 1950s, when we were less enlightened on the condition. Chan attributes this to the death of his daughter at only two years of age. We also find out that Parker self-medicates with heroin. When he either can't get his hands on any, or worse, when he calls himself weening off the drug he substitutes alcohol. Unsurprisingly, this consistently causes problems in both his personal and professional life. Through it all, however, Chan sticks by his side.

In the lead, Whitaker calls upon every bit of his strength as an actor to deliver a command performance. He runs the full gamut of emotions, touching upon each along the way. He even seems to invent a few along the way. It's a big, showy portrayal filled with some of the most expert scenery chewing you'll ever see. Whitaker is admittedly compelling in a "what will he do next" kind of way. However, his work lacks subtlety. To quote Shakespeare, it's full of sound and fury signifying nothing. Therefore, we're never as fully invested in Parker as the film would like us to be. Instead of developing empathy, we merely ogle him and marvel at his theatricality.

While Whitaker threatens to rip this train right from the rails, his co-star Diane Venora keeps things grounded as Parker's "wife" (the two were never actually married), Chan Parker. Her work is much more nuanced and layered. She does more emotionally as she does less physically. She does get to rant and rave on occasion, but for the most part, she acts with her facial expressions. In her hands, Chan comes off as cold and haughty, yet still deeply affected by Charlie's actions. We sense a deep reservoir of love, even if she never really seems to like him.

That last point is another issue with the film. We have a hard time buying Charlie and Chan as a couple because they never appear to like each other. That's not quite true. Charlie seems very fond of her in the beginning, but Chan fails to be sufficiently enamored with him. His plethora of problems are enough by themselves to make us question why she stays with him. Our curiosity compounds when there is such a clear lack of affection from one of the involved parties. We get his dependence on her, but why Chan ever agreed to share anything beyond niceties with him is a mystery. Indeed, much of her dialogue makes her appear to be trying to convince herself she should be with him. This makes sense given that the real Chan Parker had a huge hand in bringing Bird to the screen. Of course, I'm speculating (wildly?), but it's almost as if she were still trying to justify the relationship in her own head. The result is a film in which the two leads both give excellent performances almost in isolation rather than in service of one another.

The problem between Whitaker and Venora is a consequence of the episodic script. The film purports to chronicle a relationship, but really shows us two people involved in a series of events only linked by Parker's addiction. This also makes the film repetitive. It's the same thing over and over until the film ends with Parker's unfortunate yet inevitable death. However, the pros make the cons worth wading through. I've already mentioned the work turned in by Whitaker and Venora. There are also some great supporting turns by Michael Zelniker and Keith David, as Red Rodney and Buster Franklin, respectively. In a tiny part, Hamilton Camp steals every scene he's in as the "Mayor of 52nd Street." Between lots of the happenings, there is plenty of the real Charlie Parker's music, and that of others, to keep us entertained. Unfortunately, it doesn't get us as emotionally involved as it should and winds up as something less than the sum of its parts.

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  1. I've only seen bits of it but not enough to make a full opinion of it as I do want to see the film as it play into Clint's interest in jazz music. Plus, there's Forest Whitaker who is just incredible.

    1. Whitaker gives it all he's got in this one.

  2. I didn't even know this film existed. I'm kind of disappointed in myself as I love Whitaker. This sounds like something I'd definitely watch if given the chance. Great review!

  3. I have wanted to see this film for a long time to. I know Clint Eastwood loves jazz and composes many songs himself so this is close to his heart. I also love Forrest Whitaker because he is a great actor but under-rated despite his Oscar. I will see this one day for sure

    1. I hope so because I'd love to hear your thoughts on it.