I'm not a really big Alan Parker fan. His films are usually marred by the fact that he doesn't really seem to care about his material. Birdy is the first of his movies free of this defect. Parker appears to care deeply about this story, which allows his talents to make the film come to life, whereas in previous films they were engaged in pro forma exercises which suggested ability without benefiting the film much.
I'm not sure why Parker cared about this story while his earlier material failed to move him. Filmmakers are particularly, but not exclusively, susceptible to this artistic pitfall. Films cost so much to make that it's much easier to do what you can sell rather than what you love. Moreover, filmmakers do not usually have the choice of starving for their art, an intellectually comforting course available to authors and painters. If you don't have film, and a camera, and lighting equipment, and sound equipment, and editing equipment, and people to run all of the above, you can't make any movie, period, and these are expensive. (The French New Wave got a little boost from the fact that Louis Malle was the heir to a tremendous fortune, so he could help his friends get some financing for their films.)
So, you must make what you can sell or make nothing at all. Some filmmakers get enough clout to sell almost anything. Some are fast enough talkers to convince others that their vision is marketable. Some are fortunate enough to have tastes conforming to those of the bulk of their days' filmgoers. Some are able to accommodate their abilities to almost anything. Some find a sympathetic patron who is either wealthy or in charge of a studio. Those who don't fit into these categories may never get to show how good they are. Parker has had enough influence to do what he wants (within reason; currently, only Steven Speilberg and George Lucas have the kind of clout necessary to do whatever they want, without reason) for some time now. Perhaps he didn't know what he really wanted to do. At any rate, now he's found out.
Birdy, based on a novel by William Wharton, is an unlikely subject for a film. It tells the story of two friends, one of whom is obsessed by birds and flight to the exclusion of all else except their friendship. Birdy starts off raising pigeons, then moves on to an attempt to fly in a homemade ornithopter, then falls in love with his canary. Meanwhile, his friend Al watches him move further and further away from reality and their friendship. Finally, after they separately go off to war (World War II in the book, here updated to the Vietnam War), Al returns with serious wounds to his face and Birdy comes back so traumatized that he sits in the corner of a room, silently imitating a perching bird. Al must try to bring him back from insanity before the Army writes him off as hopelessly insane. Besides the unusual subject matter, the book contained many highly poetic passages, integral to its theme, which were obviously unfilmable. Parker and his screenwriters (Sandy Kroopf and Jack Behr) were thus faced with the challenge of reshaping the material to a cinematic form without losing what was important in the book.
Not having read the book, I cannot say how well they succeeded in this task. Parker has, however, produced a very fine film, particularly distinguished for the performances of Nicholas Cage and Matthew Modine. Parker integrates these performances into his film, supporting them with a good script, fine production values, and some very inventive camera work.
Matthew Modine, as Birdy, has the showier of the two roles. Insanity, even in a relatively gentle form, has a certain fascination, especially when it manifests itself in bizarre behavior. Modine gets to persuade his friend to dress up in a pigeon costume, attempt to fly off a garbage dump, and generally show off his character's peculiarities. He does this very well. Birdy is clearly a career-making role for Modine. None the less, I think I was more impressed with Nicholas Cage's performance as his best friend. Al is frequently no more than an observer, so it is a much harder part to play. Cage deploys his considerable charm to get us to identify with him, but also reaches much deeper than in his previous roles. We never understand why Al and Birdy are friends, but Cage makes it clear that Al doesn't understand either. Cage's ability to integrate Al's rage and bitterness at his war experiences into the character of a normal American boy is also impressive. (I have heard that Cage had two teeth pulled to play this part, presumably after his war injuries. If true, the sacrifice certainly doesn't show directly. A British actor commented on this saying, "That's the trouble with American actors: they can't make believe.")
Performances cannot exist at all without a script, and are not likely to be very good without a strong screenplay to bolster them. Cage and Modine are well supported by Birdy's script. Birdy uses a plot method now becoming almost a cliche: it starts out in the middle of the story, presenting a mystery, in this case Birdy's catatonia. Flashbacks and scenes in the script's present are alternated; the past gradually sheds light on the present. Finally, a last, usually traumatic flashback reveals the heart of the mystery, allowing the film to return to its present to wrap things up. A Soldier's Story is just one example of recent films which have used this device. It can be effective when well-used, and Alan Parker cuts back and forth between the two time lines in an intelligent way which allows the experiences of the past to reflect on the problems of the present.
Parker's attempt to express the poetry of flight is fairly successful. The flight sequence is an impressive and imaginative bit of camerawork which gives a plausible visual account of what it is like to be a bird. It certainly works better than any attempt to render poetic prose directly on screen would have. That this device is not completely convincing is related to the script's major failing. We do not understand Birdy and his problems well enough. Parker, Kroopf, and Behr needed to give more explanation or to tilt their interpretation so that the lack of explanation was an integral part of the story. Since we don't understand Birdy, we don't get a good handle on what is behind the flight sequence. Other than this problem, and the minor but irritating flaw of the too thoroughly unsympathetic treatment of the Army doctor, Birdy's script is very satisfying.
I liked Birdy quite a lot. An interesting story, fine performances, and good direction make it one of the best films I've seen in the past year. Peter Gabriel contributes a good score and Michael Seresin's photography is well up to today's standards. Seresin deserves particular credit for his excellent work on the flight sequence.
Birdy bodes well for Alan Parker's future as a director, and Nicholas Cage's and Matthew Modine's careers in acting.
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