SEASON OF DISAPPOINTMENTS

O'Brien, Tom

Screen BIRDY FLIES SEASON OF DISAPPOINTMENTS WHERE ARE the films of yesteryear? I don't mean the 1930s or 1940s, or even the first wave of European films to seize a wide American audience twenty...

...Mary's, but it still gives us a Hollywood church, after the deluge...
...The deacon has little social sense (he has not yet heard the famous proverb about catching more flies with honey than with vinegar...
...He's miscast, in effect, by being too well cast...
...he's gone, well, birdy, refusing to speak, "walking" in a bent, pigeon-like strut, perching on his bed, and cocking his head to the side like an inquisitive parrot...
...Birdy thus manipulates an old motif: the sane are within the asylums' walls (see, for example, the Vietnam era classic about World War I, King of Hearts...
...But here the worn theme is enforced visually: it's Vermeer inside, van Gogh out...
...The title character is a youth confined to a veterans' hospital after some harrowing combat in Vietnam...
...But what makes Birdy particularly compelling is the sensitive and mostly silent acting of Matthew Modine in the title role and the forceful, at times vulgar, volubility of Nicholas Cage as Al...
...As Al talks on about "outside," you long to come back inside, a refuge from the world's madness...
...TOM O'BRIEN...
...Playwright Bill Davis, who adapted his play to the screen, is so hot after one-liners that he forgets his liturgy: in a comment not meant ironically, Lemmon instructs his deacon, "It's no accident the collection comes after the sermon...
...The strength of the film also derives from its long pedigree: based on a novel by William Wharton, Birdy is part of a whole tradition of mad Quixotes and their roughneck Sancho Panzas, both with beautiful lessons to teach the world...
...As Al reminisces in Birdy's cell, light flows over the pair from a high window covered with wire mesh suggesting a cage, and making outside seem symbolic of freedom...
...Although this makes the close of Birdy something of a muddle, it also accounts for its periodically sublime power...
...The screenplay and editing, under the guidance of director Alan Parker (of Shoot the Moon), are steadily crisp...
...Challenging Lemmon on the issue of women priests, Ivanek mentions the large number of holy women around Jesus, especially Mary Magdalene and her close encounter with Christ at the tomb...
...One terrible example occurs near the close of Mass Appeal, when Lemmon visits Ivanek in his room as he packs to leave, and the deacon forces him to confront the semi-vaudeville that he made of his vocation...
...A coupla crazy Philly kids," Al defensively describes himself and Birdy to a malignant doctor, but then, in flashback, reveals the secret: Birdy always had it in him so to speak, his whole adolescence being devoted to raising birds and fantasies of flight...
...But the greatest disappointment in the film involves Jack Lemmon...
...Al gets hooked into Birdy's adventures despite himself, while Birdy, except for Al, gradually retreats into his avian world, focusing particularly on one cute parakeet, about whom he develops some fond obsessions...
...The deacon, for example, first shows up at one of Lemmon's "dialog sermons" a sort of Phil Donahue does Augustine...
...Mass appeal is supposed to be a pun about a priest who uses Masses to make appeals for love but unfortunately the title also suggests a rhyme with'' crass.'' The film is a long way from The Bells of St...
...The exception is Birdy, a flawed but potent tale of friendship, war, and madness...
...And by "serious," I don't mean the "vehicles" that we can expect from "superstars" like Eddie Murphy, Goldie Hawn, or Dudley Moore, hungry for our money each holiday season...
...Disney Studios would never touch this film, but it says more about animals and reverence for life than reels of simpering cartoons...
...In refusing to look at the heart of struggling mediocrity, Mass Appeal attains it...
...Birdy is tough but inspirational: despite potential for sentimentality, the action and tone rarely wallow...
...Instead, it settles for sexual titillation...
...Lemmon is no longer believable in certain roles because of overexposure...
...In its middle, the film almost enters the animal point of view with some remarkable footage of the parakeet's brood being born, then a cat stalking her and nearly gobbling her up despite Birdy's efforts...
...To his rescue comes fellow veteran and boyhood friend Alphonso Columbata, who tries to penetrate his dementia by re-creating their youthful adventures before the war...
...I don't mean the 1930s or 1940s, or even the first wave of European films to seize a wide American audience twenty years ago the first imports of Bergman, Fellini, Bunuel, or Truffaut...
...the deacon not only defends two other seminarians expelled for suspected homosexuality, but brings suspicions on himself...
...Perhaps after a year at this column, I have merely become constitutionally cautious about canonizations, but this group of three spunky American tales and two classy British imports struck me as distinctively "un-great...
...What gives this grisly business special power, moreover, is the film's production design and vivid re-creation of sixties' time and place...
...I don't come to be preached at...
...they have to be to make the flashbacks between hospital present and Philadelphia past work to advantage...
...Director Parker also found an old veterans' Commonweal: 50 hospital that effectively serves to revitalize what might otherwise be counter-cultural cliches marring the plot...
...Soffel, Birdy, A Passage to India, and 1984 all but one of which left me with a vast ho-ho-hum (or was it bah, humbug...
...Of late, Lemmon has made a career of playing men caught in the middle (The China Syndrome, or Missing): an ordinary guy who likes his comforts but feels the pull of contrary ideals...
...These are two birds who shouldn't flock together but whose cockeyed friendship makes Birdy one of the most believable, unsaccharine films about comradeship and growing up in quite some time...
...Worse, the film won't delve into the serious issues it raises...
...The screenplay is consistently tart, but unfortunately superficial...
...Lemmon does this so well that it's hard to separate actor and role anymore, and therefore hard to accept this as a new story...
...Birdy disdains girls and lifts weights only to learn to fly a project he puts into effect once by hair-raising accident and once by wacko design...
...The older priest, on the other hand, survives not just on honeyed sermons but on wine and roses, too, warming his insides with whiskey while winning his audience's applause...
...For example, when "Catholic guilt" is raised, Lemmon quickly cracks, "It's Catholic all right, but Jews invented it and Protestants perfected it" good for a laugh, but an example of the way Mass Appeal reduces religious themes to the level of TV sitcom...
...No, I am speaking of movies that should mean more Mass Appeal, Mrs...
...Al's narration and presence keep the tone of Birdy honest...
...Briefly, I thought Mass Appeal might cut to the bone and examine something...
...instead of exploring some difficult issues, Mass Appeal settles on Charles Durn-ing's mugging monsignor as a handy villain...
...His gestures have become so predictable the hand-wringing, the nervous cringe, the evasive eyes, a male parallel to Meryl Streep's memorized nervousness...
...Growing up, Al is interested in girls and weightlifting...
...The parishioners love him and forgive his peccadillos...
...The film has a no-name cast but a weirdly beautiful quality: what can you say about a story whose hero thinks he's a bird and, after awhile, has you hooked on his lunatic poetry...
...With half his face bandaged from battle wounds and his jaw wired against dislocation like a phantom from some black comic opera Al recalls not just the war but the environment where he and Birdy matured slums, industrial wastelands, garbage dumps, and, worst, a slaughterhouse where they took stray dogs until they saw the scam...
...Mistakenly, I thought it had something to do with the Offertory...
...Lemmon sits on a bed and starts to weep at his shallow, empty life, and for a moment we view the grand canyon of loneliness in his heart...
...No, the films I longfor are the releases of Christmas 1982, when, within the space of a few short weeks, Tootsie, Das Boot, Sophie's Choice, The Verdict, and Gandhi all hit the screen...
...Each of these films was flawed, to be sure, but each towers in intellectual caliber and emotional intensity above the "serious" releases this last December...
...But gradually the window becomes ambiguous: inside seems calmer, the window like that of a gothic cathedral, the pair like holy statues...
...The story is simple, but might have been compelling: a young troublesome seminarian deacon (Zeljko Ivanek), filled with ideals and restless energy, is apprenticed to an older priest (Jack Lemmon) to give him some down-to-earth, on-the-job training in a rich suburban parish...
...What follows is mostly soap opera: Ivanek's intelligence gives way to shrill petulance...
...It's like a Nielsen rating...
...as one comments to the pastor after the seminarian's first harsh, hectoring sermon,' 'I come to this church because of you...
...The screenplay's refusal to delve also hinders him in his role...
...But the filmmakers won't let the emotion rest: some horseplay follows to distract us from the depths...
...It's a sad refusal to look, not only at failure or fakery, but at the fortitude, that gift of the Spirit, that must hearten priests in their moments of doubt...

Vol. 112 • January 1985 • No. 2


 
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