Sunday, January 18, 2015

Less Islamophobia, More Theophobia, Please

Public Enemy number one.
The first side effect of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris has been an orgy of analysis and commentary by politicians and the press, many of whom are advancing agendas (more power to the police and secret services) or grinding axes (all Muslims are crazy mofos). After reading far too many opinion pieces and analyses over the last few days, I can no longer resist adding my two cents to the glittering mountain of coins that's already out there. So here goes.

A common theme voiced by many people is that Muslims needs to be, well, less religious, or at least less fanatical. How this is to be done isn't usually defined, but one gets the sense that what people mean is that Muslims should do what most Christians do; pay nominal attention to the tenets and ceremonies of their religion but ignore all the barbaric and nonsensical stuff. Advising Muslims to dial down their religiosity is something I can get behind as long as it's part of broader theophobic movement. It seems monstrously hypocritical to ask Muslims to be chill about depictions of Mohammed when in the US creationism is being taught in schools; no US president can get elected unless they loudly proclaim that they are a practicing Christian; TV networks routinely bleep the use of "goddamn" or "Christ" when it's used as an expletive; women's reproductive rights are being eroded in the name of Christian religion; the military has become a hotbed of Christian fundamentalism; and a wide variety of pressure groups and politicians are constantly attempting to erode or end the constitutional separation of church and state. In sum, any attempts by non-Muslims to lecture Muslims on religious tolerance ring hollow unless it's matched by equal fervour in putting all religions in their place, which, in my view, is out on the street with their brethren operating the three-card monte games.

Are the Hebdo cartoons offensive? If you're looking and hoping to be offended, yes. Charlie Hebdo has a meage circulation of 60k in a nation of more than sixty million, and I doubt many French Muslims, or any one of a conservative bent, would be on their subscription list. Like the people who used to rail against Playboy magazine, Hebdo's detractors don't read the magazine themselves, but they're mortally offended that other people do. Those who argue that the cartoon images shouldn't be disseminated further because they might upset Muslims are falling into a dangerous logical trap. If a cartoon, an act of ephemeral humour, is too daunting for the sensitivities of some people, where do we draw the line in criticism and commentary? If a newspaper columnist does a piece in favour of atheism should there be a warning on the front of the paper about it lest a religious person come across the column? And why should religious sensitivities count for anything? Why should people of faith be protected from criticism or satire or a contrary opinion? We don't expect politicians, their parties, or their ideologies to be shielded from scorn or commentary (unless you're living in a totalitarian state), but somehow in the early 21st century it's not seemly to ridicule religion and its adherents.

The Paris killings have also produced the usual spate of right-wing chaff that attempts to disassociate Islamic terrorism from recent political and military history in the Middle East. The usual line taken in these arguments is that Islam is existentially committed to overthrowing the West (just read what it says in the Koran!) and what's gone on in Iraq and Israel has little or nothing to do with attacks on Western targets. Since the signing of the Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916, the major Western powers, Israel, the USSR and, later, Russia, have terraformed, as it were, the Middle East, North Africa and AfPak into the hot messes that they are today. This does not make ISIL less of a horror show or excuse what happened in Paris, but to pretend that monsters won't arise from the toxic ecosystem that much of the Arab world has become seems ingenuous in the extreme. And if Islam is existentially obliged to attack unbelievers and spread the one faith by the sword, why wasn't the West facing Islamic terrorism in, say, the 1950s? Or the '20s? Why not the 1860s, for that matter? Nothing in the Koran has changed over the centuries, so it seems odd, unless you factor in politics and foreign policy, that the West hasn't been under siege from the Muslim world for the past thousand years.

And now for the big picture stuff. I'd argue that Islamic fundamentalism is merely one branch of a conservative counter-revolution that's been going on across the world since the late 1970s. Bear with me here. The post-war era (for argument's sake I'm going to say this extends to 1979) was marked by greater social welfare spending, the growth and influence of unions, a bigger role for government in social and industrial policies, and the political, economic and social emancipation of visible minorities and women. In simple terms, power and wealth was flowing from the top of society to the bottom. With the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 that flow began to reverse itself. The conservative counter-revolution had begun. This counter-revolution wasn't just about dollars and cents. The '60s and '70s had seen the growth of counter-cultural movements, alternative lifestyles, feminism, and gay rights. As these cultural changes gained momentum, the opposite and equal reaction was the rise of evangelical Christianity in the US and right-wing racist/nationalist parties in Europe. In broad cultural terms, what the counter-revolution was, and is, trying to do is re-establish a rigidly hierarchical, patriarchal  and mono-cultural society.

Although the West was where this struggle began, the rest of the world was not immune. The combined effects of globalization, immigration from the developing to the developed world, and the Internet have unsettled traditional societies all over world. Liberalism, in the cultural sense, has backwashed into countries and cultures that were anywhere from Victorian to medieval in their social outlook. Since the 1970s developing nations have been invaded by liberal Western values. These values have been carried there by Western businesses, immigrants returning to/communicating with their home countries, and the spread of the Internet. One sure sign of this cultural counter-revolution is the increase in misogyny just about everywhere. Women are always at the bottom of the pecking order in any kind of conservative culture, and because of this we've seen the spread of sharia law; gang sexual assaults on women in India; rampant cyber-bullying of women as seen in the Gamergate scandal; a mostly successful effort by rightists to turn the word "feminist" into a pejorative; and an epidemic of sexual abuse of women in the US military and colleges. Click here for a longer piece I did on women and religious oppression called Jim Crow is a Transvestite.

So even without the impetus of Western military incursions in the Muslim world, it's quite likely Islamic fundamentalism would have been on the rise as a reaction to liberal and progressive values arriving from the the West. But take this counter-revolution, combine with real and imagined political/religious grievances and young men who are desperate, alienated, mentally unbalanced, and you get killers like Anders Breivik in Norway and the Charlie Hebdo assassins.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Book Review: Europe in Autumn (2014) by Dave Hutchinson

Dave Hutchinson needs to network more. I've read any number of mediocre and crap SF novels that are covered in enthusiastic blurbs from other authors, bloggers, and online fanzines. Europe in Autumn has one measly blurb from someone named Eric Brown, who may well be Dave's downstairs neighbour for all I know. This novel deserves a raft of accolades, so for his next novel (which will surely be a sequel to this one) Dave needs to start hitting the fan conventions and standing rounds for his fellow SF writers down at the pub.

One of the chief pleasures of this novel is its unpredictable ambition. The setting is Europe in the near future and the region has spawned dozens and dozens of new states, some as small as a few city blocks. All these polities, as they are called in the book, have thrown up new borders and travel restrictions to go with them. There are always people who want to move themselves or contraband across borders unnoticed, and a shadowy organization called Les Coureurs des Bois has sprung up to serve their needs. Rudi, a young Estonian working as a cook in Krakow, joins the Coureurs and begins a career that becomes more dangerous and mysterious with each mission he takes on. The novel ends with Rudi discovering that there is, quite literally, more to Europe than meets the eye.

Europe in Autumn is shelved in the SF section of the bookstore, but it mostly reads like a great espionage novel, perhaps a forgotten title by Len Deighton. All the tropes and flavour of the spy novels of the 1960s are here: tense encounters with border guards; middle of the night frontier crossings under the glare of searchlights; double and triple crosses; dead drops; passwords and false identities; and sudden, shocking violence. One sequence in particular, set on a snowy night in the state of Potsdam, stands out as a brilliant blend of SF and old school John Le Carre-style tension as Rudi tries to smuggle a man across the border. The first half of the novel is picaresque in structure as we follow Rudi around Europe in his job as a Coureur. His various adventures are entertaining in their own right, but Hutchinson's portrait of a divided and sub-divided Europe is rich and endlessly inventive. He smartly pays attention to the small details of life, which gives his imagined Europe greater verisimilitude than is usual in these kinds of alternate reality stories.

Rudi is an excellent guide to this new Europe. He's witty, cynical, clever, but motivated by a quiet idealism to see Europe once again become borderless. Rudi more or less stumbles into his job with the Coureurs, and in this regard he's very much like one of the heroes of Eric Ambler's spy novels, many of whom are men with ordinary lives and jobs who suddenly find themselves having to cope with terrors and realities that are far outside their experience.

Although Europe in Autumn starts out as an alternate reality spy novel, by the end it's begun a seamless transition to something far stranger and more in keeping with its SF designation. There's clever future tech on display throughout, but it's always kept in the background. What's most remarkable about this novel is that Hutchinson's prose is fully the equal of his imagination. All those SF writers with big, bombastic ideas (and blurbs) rarely have the writing skills to back up their glitzy concepts. Hutchinson's writing is so good it he'd be worth reading no matter what genre he tackled. And if he doesn't use some part of this review as a blurb then he's just being difficult.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Film Review: Sorcerer (1977)

According to popular legend (or possibly revisionist history) the box office failure of William Friedkin's Sorcerer can be blamed on Star Wars, which opened at roughly the same time and sucked, as it were, all the commercial and critical air out of the room. I saw Sorcerer when it first came out and didn't think much of it, and now, nearly forty years later, I saw it again on DVD and had my original opinion confirmed: this is a poor film. I didn't like Star Wars very much, but it turns out that it was the better film.

The belated critical recognition that Sorcerer has received seems to be more about nostalgia for that brief period in the 1970s when American cinema, led by directors such as Friedkin, Martin Scorsese and Peter Bogdanovich, seemed to be on the verge of a golden age of auteur filmmaking. Heavily marketed, big budget, populist films like Star Wars and Jaws ended up setting the template for Hollywood in the decades to come, and for a lot of film critics and fans that represents the death of artistic American cinema. Be that as it may, nostalgia shouldn't blind any one to the fact that Sorcerer is a bloated, incoherent, and unnecessary remake of the brilliant The Wages of Fear (1953) by Henri-Georges Clouzot.

In case you haven't seen either film: four men, all from different parts of the world, are on the run from the law (with one exception) and have ended up in a hellish Central American town where the only employment is with an oil company. In order to get enough money to escape from the town the four agree to drive a load of nitroglycerine in two trucks to an oil well site that's burning out of control.  Sorcerer stumbles right from the start by giving us four vignettes to introduce the four desperate men. The original film began in the town and we learned their back stories as the story progressed through their interactions with each other. Friedkin takes the more obvious approach by showing the various crimes that caused these men to flee their homelands. So we get sequences set in Jerusalem, New Jersey, Paris and Vera Cruz. This lengthy introductory portion of the film doesn't tell us anything we couldn't have learned from the men themselves in the town; it all feels like an excuse to mount action scenes in various international locations. A terrorist bombing in Jerusalem shows some visual flair, but the New Jersey intro involving Roy Scheider's character is clumsily choreographed. The Paris sequence is dull and overlong, and the Vera Cruz episode turns out to be confusing because the character it introduces, Nilo, is given no reason to go on the run. We have no idea why he turns up in the town or why he volunteers to drive one of the trucks.

Another problem with the introductory vignettes is that once the men get to the town, no character development takes place. Friedkin seems to think the vignettes did all that work, so that means the final two-thirds of the film is virtually dialogue-free, at least when it comes to our four leads. This kills almost all the tension in the film because we aren't invested in these characters in any way. They're ciphers. Scenes that might otherwise be nail-biting become inert because it's hard to care if these anonymous characters live or die.

Some of the Central American locations are visually arresting, and a sequence involving the trucks crossing a rope bridge is impressive, but on the whole Sorcerer doesn't hold a candle to the original. The Wages of Fear, despite its vastly lower budget, is far more inventive both visually and in terms of storytelling. Sorcerer puts its big budget up on the screen, but it feels like the work of a B-movie director who doesn't quite know what to do with all that money.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Best Books of 2014

Yes, it's that time of year again: time to look back through my blogged book reviews and pick the winners. In 2014 I didn't read much non-fiction, which is unusual for me, and I read a lot more SF, which is very unusual; in fact, Annihilation, an SF novel by Jeff Vandermeer, would have have been on this list but it's the first part of a trilogy so it will have to wait for 2015. As usual, just click on the titles to go to my original reviews.

The People in the Trees (2013) by Hanya Yanagihara

The main character in this novel about scientific discovery and the exploitation of the Third World starts out as an ass and ends up a monster. That the author holds our fascinated attention with this horrible person is amazing, as is her prose and the twists and turns of the plot. Not for the faint of heart.

The Sun is God (2014) by Adrian McKinty

McKinty, a fine writer of hardboiled Celtic Noir crime fiction, makes a detour into historical mystery fiction with this tale of a cult of German sun worshipers in New Guinea. The story, as bizarre as it seems, is based on a real crime, and McKinty uses it as a framework for looking at the birth of alternative lifestyles (kooks and cranks division) in the early 1900s. Excellent wrting that comes in a very small package by the standards of historical fiction.

Alone in Berlin (1947) by Hans Fallada

Easily the best novel about totalitarianism and World War Two I've ever read. A Berlin couple mount a small-scale and futile propaganda war against Hitler in 1941, and the novel charts their pursuit and capture by the Gestapo. There's a large cast of characters, almost all of whom meet sticky ends, and despite the unrelenting grimness of the story, Fallada is such an energetic, entertaining writer it becomes hard to put the book down. It's also published under the title Every Man Dies Alone.

Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel (2013) by Max Blumenthal

In the aftermath of Israel's recent assault on Gaza, this journalistic look at Israel's headlong rush towards becoming a fascist apartheid state provides an insight into why Palestinian lives are held so cheaply by Israel. This isn't a picture of Israel that's usually allowed into the mainstream media, and that makes it essential reading.

The Confession of Sultana Daku (2009) by Sujit Saraf

Daku was a famous bandit who terrorized the United Provinces of India in the 1920s. This novel brings that period to vivid life, but also examines the pernicious caste system that produced a bandit like Daku. Saraf is one of those great writers you've never heard of, and it'll take some work to find this novel--I had to order it from a used bookstore in New Delhi.

The Great Night (2011) by Chris Adrian

The fantasy genre is full of mashups, and this might be the most well-mashed I've come across. It's Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream plopped down in contemporary San Francisco, and it works because Adrian handles the fantasy elements masterfully while at the same time writing a deadly serious novel about the high cost of love. Be warned: these fairies are dangerous to be around, and the novel begins with a devastating description of a child's illness.

My Home is Far Away (1944) by Dawn Powell

To Kill a Mockingbird is rightly proclaimed as the Great American coming-of-age novel, but I'd place this novel a very, very close second. Powell was a literary star of post-war New York City, and this is her lightly fictionalized memoir of growing up in small town Ohio. Where Harper Lee's novel is warm and sentimental in its depiction of family life, Powell is brutal in describing the dysfunctional Willard family. A nice touch is that Powell didn't bother to change the name of her actual wicked stepmother when it came time to write the fictional version. Take that, stepmom.

Hard Rain Falling (1966) by Don Carpenter

A great, existential novel that follows a thuggish personality from orphanage to street hustler to prison and finally to a ramshackle kind of redemption. It's easy to see the connections between this novel and Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude, including the fact that both novels go off the rails in the last act. Hard Rain Falling is so powerful and sharply written that despite its tire fire finale it still manages to make this list. The opening chapter by itself is a master class in tough, efficient, hardboiled prose.

The Centurions (1960) by Jean Larteguy

High-ranking officers in the US Army were being encouraged to read this book during the most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's easy to see why. Larteguy was a war correspondent and soldier who had first-hand experience of France's conflicts in Vietnam and Algeria. His novel is both a paean to the martial spirit, but also a savage and comprehensive look at why colonial powers are foiled by guerilla armies. It's a sprawling, exuberant novel that's comparable to Zola's La Debacle; in fact, this is probably the novel Zola would have written if he were alive in 1960.

The Son (2013) by Philipp Meyer

I've saved the best for last. This saga covering the lives of the McCullough family of Texas from the 1840s to the present day is a ripping yarn and a serious meditation on the central role of violence in American history. Meyer paints a big canvas with ferocious energy, and is unflinching in showing the worst in his American and Native American characters. Not quite the Great American Novel, but certainly a great American novel.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Film Review: Daughters of Darkness (1971)

If you're a horror film aficionado, Daughters of Darkness is one of the seminal films of the 1970s. I'd always been vaguely aware of it, but never made a point of seeing until I saw it featured in a 3-part documentary series on horror films done by Mark Gatiss, the co-creator and co-writer of Sherlock.

It's a contemporary vampire film about a young, attractive couple, Stefan and Valerie, who fetch up in a grand, Victorian-era beachfront hotel in Ostend, Belgium. They seem to be the only occupants of the hotel until a Countess Bathory appears with a beautiful female companion in tow. Bathory, played with languid elegance by Delphine Seyrig, is a centuries-old vampire, albeit one who seems as interested in haute couture as much as hemoglobin. The newlywed couple are supposed to be taking a ferry to England, but Bathory and her companion, Ilona, encourage the pair to stay, and it becomes clear that the Countess has her eye on Valerie as a possible replacement for Ilona. The plot has few surprises, and things end with Bathory reborn in Valerie's body.

Viewed from 2014, Daughters earns marks for moody cinematography (particularly its use of colour), nice costumes, and its creation of a suffocating atmosphere. But in the final analysis that doesn't come close to balancing out some dreadful acting, ESL dialogue, a sluggish pace, and some jagged plot holes (wait, does Stefan have a gay lover waiting for him in England?). From a 1971 perspective this film had it all: a stylish European look, a sharp break with genre conventions, and, most importantly, lots of nudity and sex, some of it lesbian! Yes, Daughters easily fulfills its early '70s transgression quota. Like so many films from that period that are remembered fondly or have achieved posthumous, as it were, critical regard, they are, at heart, exploitation films that have a patina of art and sophistication. As someone who grew up in that era, let me tell you that the appeal of these films lay entirely with the amount of violence and sex they offered.

What's increasingly forgotten about genre filmmaking in the late '60s and early '70s is that it was all about the R-rating (X for you in the UK). Film companies, especially the B-level ones like Hammer Films or Roger Corman's American International Pictures, but also, on occasion, the Hollywood studios, could make and market films purely on the basis that they offered t & a and/or guns and mayhem, and filmmakers were happy to push the then limits of what was acceptable to show on film. So on the one hand you have a film like Streetfighter (1974) banned in some quarters because it showed Sonny Chiba ripping an enemy's throat out with his bare hand in gory, Technicolor detail, and on the other there was Big Bad Mama (1974), a Bonnie and Clyde ripoff, that's actually about showing fading '60s star Angie Dickinson in the buff.

Filmmaking in the '70s was the culmination of a trend that began about ten years before. Films of the '30s, '40s and 50s were fairly democratic in their approach to audiences. Most Hollywood films were designed to appeal to all genders and ages, and even the B-movies of the '50s would mix in some romance to appeal to women, and nothing they put on the screen was graphic enough to keep kids out of the theatres. The release of Dr. No (1962) marks the beginning of a crucial change in how films were made. Lots of films were now being made to appeal exclusively to male tastes and fantasies. This testosterone-based cinema gained traction throughout the '60s as producers took advantage of relaxed censorship rules to bring in more graphic sex and violence. It was a pleasingly simple formula for them; no matter if the script was ramshackle, the director mostly drunk, and the actors more used to modeling clothes than reading lines, as long as enough blood was splashed around and some breasts were bared, profits were guaranteed.

Testosterone cinema was often good, crazy, dirty fun, but what's often glossed over is how enthusiastically misogynist it was, and Daughters doesn't miss out on this trend. The Valerie character is brutally beaten by her husband in one scene, and that's par for the course in a lot of the films of that era. Whether it was a counter-revolutionary reaction to Women's Liberation, or simply an effort to be transgressive, films of this period were filled with violence against women, particularly scenes of rape. In fact, rape may be the defining image of these types of films; from schlockmeisters like Russ Meyer to auteurs such as Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone, and Stanley Kubrick, rapes and the threat of rape were a recurring theme in dozens of films. Rape was even played for laughs in films such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and There Was a Crooked Man.

The spate of testosterone films that started in 1962 began to peter out (slowly) with the release of Star Wars and Jaws. The studios suddenly found (or realized once again) that films which appealed to the widest possible demographic produced massive profits. Films aimed at a male audience continued to be made, but their toxic levels of sexism and misogyny began to decline. The game-changing film in this regard was probably Alien, in which a beautiful woman gets to take charge, kick ass, show her smarts, and doesn't have to get naked. It's success made even B-movie producers realize that having a female character doing something, rather than just take her clothes off, made economic sense. Manly films made for manly men are still being made, but largely they've dispensed with the casual and comic brutality against women. The Expendables films, for example, are made for men, but there's nothing anti-feminist about them.

One unfortunate side effect from the testosterone era is that filmmaking and film criticism became entrenched as an all-male activity. The film industry was so relentlessly focused on satisfying male tastes and fantasies it sent a strong message to women that this art form was for men and men only. In the decades since then, women have slowly made inroads into the directing ranks, but film critics for major papers and magazines are still overwhelmingly male. This means that it's male opinions and tastes that largely define what's regarded as notable or worthy in films of the past and, to a large degree, in the here and now. And that brings us back to Mark Gatiss. Like most fanboys of '70s films (and I'm guilty of this as well), he glosses over the fact that this era, as much as it was filled with bold, innovative films, also represented the nadir of how women were depicted in films, both mainstream and otherwise. The occasional artistry of films like Daughters of Darkness shouldn't blind us to the fact that women became the collateral damage in films that were really all about pleasing male tastes.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Book Review: How I Stopped Being a Jew (2014) by Shlomo Sand

This long-form essay or opinion piece can be added to other recent works by Jewish writers such as Max Blumenthal, Ilan Pappe and Gideon Levy that deconstruct the self-aggrandizing myths spun around the state of Israel by Israeli Zionists and their (mostly) American backers. Shlomo Sand (a history professor at Tel Aviv University) would prefer it if you no longer referred to him as a Jewish writer. With passion and logic, Sand argues that there is no such thing as being Jewish outside of following the Jewish faith. There is no Jewish race, and, he argues further, there isn't even a Jewish culture.

Sand's main point is that unlike followers of other religions, a Jew is regarded as a Jew even if he's an atheist. An atheist whose grandparents were Baptists isn't currently a Baptist who also happens to be an atheist. A secular Jew, however, is still called a Jew even if they and their parents have never followed the Jewish faith. This double standard has been useful to both anti-Semites and Zionists. From medieval pogroms to Nazi death camps, anti-Semites have needed the idea of a distinctive and unique race of people to justify their terror. For Zionists, the alleged uniqueness of the Jews provided a justification for the creation of Israel. Sand shows that both groups created the idea of a Jewish race and culture out of whole cloth.

When it comes to Jewish "culture", Sand shows that those wishing to perpetuate this particular myth usually ignore the fact that those they have defined as being part of Jewish culture are simply part of their respective national cultures. This obsessive labeling of secular, creative minds from Karl Marx to Harold Pinter as somehow being part of a collective Jewish outlook or culture is sheer nonsense. It seems particularly ridiculous when, as Sand points out, the founding Zionist fathers of Israel showed such contempt for the culture and character of Jews from the Arab world, Eastern Europe, or, bizarrely enough, those who had survived the Holocaust. To cite one example, the use of Yiddish, a dialect most people would regard as being inextricably bound up with Jewish culture, was frowned upon, even banned, in Israel until fairly recently. Now that Yiddish is virtually extinct, it 's acquired a nostalgic glamour in Israel.

What this book achieves is make it more plain that Zionism is a cult that clumsily cherry-picks elements from politics, culture, history, and even archaeology, then weaves them into an argument for a regime underpinned by racism and colonialism. As much as Sand may not want to be called Jewish, it's the work of Jewish writers, who can't be be tarred with the brush of anti-Semitism (although some try), that brings insight and honesty to any discussion of Israel.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Film Review: Birdman (2014)

Birdman is a cheap box of chocolates; the kind that has too many pieces with squishy, oozy, fruity centres and no nutty ones and the chocolate tastes like it might have been recycled from last year's unsold Easter bunnies. But you eat the whole box because it's chocolate and it's sweet and it's right there in front of you on the coffee table. What makes Birdman more enjoyable than it has a right to be is that it absolutely stuffs you with the empty calories of stylish cinematography, panto levels of overacting, and some waspish comments about fame and celebrities.

Michael Keaton plays an actor, Riggan, who was once famous as Birdman, the star of a superhero franchise a la Batman. But that was a long time ago and now he wants to make his artistic mark by writing, directing and starring in a stage version of a Raymond Carver novel, and on Broadway, no less. His extremely Method-y co-star, Mike, is played by Edward Norton. Almost all the action takes place backstage and onstage as Riggan tries to keep his vanity production on the rails. He has money worries, the Norton character is temperamental, his personal relationships are rocky, and his biggest problem is that he's suffering from delusions. Riggan has come to believe (when he's alone) that he has superpowers. He also gets visits from his Birdman alter ego who badgers him to take up the role again.

There's always something compelling about tales of backstage life and conflict, and Birdman mines that vein quite effectively. This side of the story is helped even more by its visual style, which is made up of almost constant tracking shots that transition seamlessly from one location in the theatre to another, and even across time gaps of hours and days. The claustrophobic, rabbit warren character of a large theatre has probably never been captured so beautifully. There are also a lot of closeups, which is a bold move since the camera probably risked being damaged in the frenzy of scenery-chewing that goes on by Keaton and Norton. They don't give great performances, they give loud, busy, twitchy, theatrical performances that are demented but quite entertaining. As a bonus there are some sharp jabs at celebrities such as Meg Ryan and Ryan Gosling.

Where Birdman stumbles is when it's characters talk about Art, Life and Acting. The characters have nothing original or interesting to say on these subjects, although they do it with a lot of spittle-flecked energy. What's more annoying is that only Keaton and Norton are allowed these deep thoughts; the female characters are left to talk about their relationships with men. So that's a score of 0 on the Bechdel test. The one woman who's not confined to relationship chatter is a vicious drama critic, and it's clear she's only allowed this privilege because she's of a certain age. Naturally enough, Riggin and Mike loathe her.

Birdman is scatter-brained, clumsily sexist, and more than a bit pretentious, but the look of it, its frantic energy, and some very amusing bits (Riggin speed-walking through Times Square in his underwear) at least make it better than most actual superhero films.