Like The Grand Budapest Hotel, the script of the Oscar-winning movie Birdman (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) has a literary underpinning.

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Washed-up Hollywood actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) attempts to resurrect his acting career by starring in and directing a “serious” Broadway production: What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, an adaptation of a short story (also the title of a collection of short stories) by Raymond Carver.

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The movie is shot as a series of long takes,  roaming camera shots stitched together to create the illusion of one continuous take. It was a risk for the director and the cast, but a risk that paid off since it effectively conveyed the pressure-cooker atmosphere of a theatre production in last-minute rehearsals, on the brink of financial collapse, and in danger of being taken down by a leading man/director on the brink of a schizophrenic breakdown as he battles with the voices inside his head (specifically that of his feathery alter-ego Birdman). As Riggan says himself: “It’s scary, but at the same time, exciting to have him around.”

What inspires Riggan to keep going, what inspired writer-director Alejandro González Iñárritu to make the movie (in addition to drawing upon his own experience) is his faith in the quality of Raymond Carver’s writing.

“Carver is a master of the clear, sharp, resonant detail.”

“He is alert to the unique, inconspicuous incident, when a life or a marriage may change course decisively.”

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Raymond Carver Jr. was born in Clatskanie, Oregon May N 1938 and grew up in Yakima, Washington.

In 1955, Carver met his future wife Maryann Burk when she was just 14. She was 17 and pregnant when they married in 1957.  The couple had two children: a daughter, Christine La Rae, born in December 1957, and a son, Vance Lindsay, born the following year.

Carver supported his family by working as a delivery man, janitor, library assistant, and as a sawmill labourer. After moving to Sacramento, California, in the mid-1960s, Carver became interested in writing and attended a creative writing course taught by the novelist John Gardner, a mentor and major influence on Carver’s writing career.

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“I like to mess around with my stories. I’d rather tinker with a story after writing it, and then tinker some more, changing this, changing that, than have to write the story in the first place… Rewriting for me is not a chore—it’s something I like to do… Maybe I revise because it gradually takes me into the heart of what the story is about. I have to keep trying to see if I can find that out. It’s a process more than a fixed position.” (Fires: Essays, Poems & Stories 1989, p 218)

Carver also struck up a friendship with the novelist John Cheever (The Wapshot Chronicle, The Wapshot Scandal, Bullet Park, Falconer, Oh What a Paradise It Seems).

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John Cheever

Carver and Cheever were visiting lecturers in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, but Carver stated that they did less teaching than drinking and almost no writing. The next year, after leaving Iowa City, Carver went to a treatment centre to attempt to overcome his alcoholism, but continued drinking for three years, finally quitting with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous on June 2, 1977.

Carver published eight collections of poetry and three collections of short stories (Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (1976) which was shortlisted for the National Book Award, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981), and Cathedral (1983) also nominated for an award and the volume generally considered to be Carver’s best.

Included in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is the story “Why Don’t You Dance”, which was adapted as a 2010 movie Everything Must Go starring Will Ferrell and written and directed by Dan Rush.

Included in Cathedral are the award-winning stories “A Small, Good Thing”, and “Where I’m Calling From”. John Updike selected the latter for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories of the Century. The short story “Cathedral” was included in Best American Short Stories, 1982.

Carver died of lung cancer at the age of 50 in 1988. The inscription on his headstone was quoted in the movie Birdman …

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

More typewriter-related nonsense next year. 🙂 Enjoy the movie. Enjoy the Christmas bird. Just don’t let it go to your head!

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