Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Bird Brained Idea of Making Portrayal a Competitive Commodity


Having now watched the movie Birdman, it sure has got me thinking about some, perhaps, not so obvious connections.

There is a two sided consideration that sticks out for me in this story. Something beyond the usual aspects of an actor who, even though is suggest as being something more than nominally human, is struggling with the relative values of what he has, and has not achieved, throughout his career; juxtaposed, of course, with a personal life that is a shambles. That is not only the consideration of what makes for excellence in the craft of acting itself, but what gives this endeavor value in the first place.

This idea takes prominence not only because the main character (played by Michael Keaton) wants to be taken seriously, after having gained financial success for portraying a super hero, but also because of the tension that arises between him and another actor brought in as a last minute replacement for someone Keaton's character found lacking.

The new player (played by Edward Norton), is a fairly established Broadway name with some serious street cred. An actor who quickly demonstrates that he can act. The problem, however, quickly becomes clear that this guy is a “Method” actor at the essence of extreme. He makes becoming the person portrayed the only real aspect of his otherwise pathetic life. And, as the rest of the cast that Keaton's character has employed to make this play happen, recoils at the Norton's characters behavior, both on and off the stage, you start to wonder about what this says concerning the craft of acting.

What has happened to such a time honored, creative endeavor, over the centuries, to have brought it to the point where the story, and the themes of that story, pale in importance to the fidelity of how it is presented. And more to the point, that it is, as much as anything else, a competition to see who is best at being someone else. A competition that evolved the competitors to the point of no longer seeing themselves as people working a craft as professionals, but as just rewritable wetware waiting for the next persona to assume completely.

The answer to that question is, it seems to me, quite obvious. This is so because portrayal is a commodity now pure and simple. Story may still have a place to one degree or another, but the simple fact of the matter is that fidelity, and the quick fix impact that multi sensory fidelity can bring to the table of commodity, and the inherent competition that surrounds all aspects of commodity, makes this absolutely mandatory. A fact that the movie “The Congress” made only too depressingly clear.

What resonates for me now, however, in this context is how this example of commodity and competition demonstrates another facet of what those two elements do the human condition. Not only do we all now behave in everyday interaction as actors on a state of a sort (secretly wishing we had real-time monitors to keep track of how we were coming across—which I'm sure that Google and their ilk will provide us with shortly), but we consume ourselves with the competition of who is the most admired; a thing quite apart from the relative notion of what is the best.

In this context views are the primary thing that matters as far as admiration is concerned. Big view numbers can may times automatically equate to admiration whether the reaction to the content is good or bad on the whole. Being the best in one fashion or another still carries weight of course, but total numbers, and the all important demographic, are what most concern the purveyors of commodity.

The problem, though, is that having a “most admired,” as well as the “the best” in a more general sense of demonstrable skill, plays so well into branding. Attaching by association an implied aspect of one to the other. And because this has become an all encompassing, immersive aspect of everyday life, we hardly notice anymore how much of an effect it can have on the choices we make. That being the case, those being so crowned, however briefly, give us our main sense of what truly being valued is; of what is the bottom line for being relevant. The rest of us, toiling away in whatever small part of the machine that constitutes production, commodity, and consumption, are left to try and convince ourselves that, whatever goals those singular tasks allow us to achieve, it has to be enough to continue treading along; working, screwing, consuming, defecating, and just showing up so as to keep it all going.

Is it any wonder that people have resorted to doing the dumbest, or cruelest, or most destructive things simply to be noticed? Is it any wonder that, even if you get paid enormous sums for doing whatever, you can still feel completely irrelevant? Not really appreciated because, in the sense that it now has become understood as all that matters, you are not at all real. That this sense can be, supposedly, satiated only by having a place to stage really big view numbers.

And thus do we see the advantages of becoming a brand that everyone recognizes. With that kind of labeling you can be anywhere without having to act at all. You can assume the validation of whatever audience you might find yourself in front of because the persona has been established. You can relax. Just go through the motions and the lines already scripted and bask in the new real.

The bottom line for me is this: A day will have to come when we recognize the relativity of being marginally better at any given point in time, at what ever ability you might care to consider. Testing ourselves against each other can be a very useful, and healthy thing, certainly as it helps to encourage aspiring to be better. Saying that, however, does not in any way preclude the acceptance that there can always be too much of any good thing. In this context it has always seemed to me that the most courageous of us are exactly the “also rans.” For never let us never forget that without them there can be no winner in the first place; a fact that we lose sight of at our collective peril.


A society, or a culture for that matter, doesn't live or die by its “winners.” It survives and prospers by the quality of grit in its foundation. The kind of grain of its granules in other words. We get a good grain in that sense when we work the best balance of giving each individual a chance to achieve not only personal goals, but locally recognized goals important to the community. And it seems to me that the best way to do that is to set things up so that absolutely clear that everyone is needed to keep the community going. Once you have that as a basis to work from you can then add on layers of additional recognition for useful areas of ability competition (as in local, regional and above). Recognition that has nothing to do with branding or the market mentality that goes with it. The kind of friendly competition that would emphasize the creation of items, or methods, to help the home community, as well as others, live more effective and enjoyable lives. A real “win-win” for everyone.