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Bird (Clint Eastwood, 1988)

 

    Bird, Clint Eastwoodís ambitious treatment of the life of Jazz improvisationalist Charlie ďBirdĒ Parker, uses a fragmented time structure in a seeming attempt to replicate the construction of its subjectís music. Eastwood edits the film not in any chronological sense, but instead in a way that suggests its subjectís life is to be taken as a whole; that the artist is inseparable from the art. There is no ďpresentĒ time period in the movie, and everything that occurs after the titular artistís awakening gets treated with the same importance. Itís a bold approach that mostly works, but comes with some inherent pitfalls. For example, the first forty minutes or so of the movie are tough to bear. The murky, depressing tone of the first act eschews the usual rise to fame that most biopics present, and it requires a definite period of adjustment for the viewer to sink into its setting. At other times, the sequencing of the scenes feels a bit off. The movie plays like a greatest hits album, in that it occasionally features scenes that are dynamite on their own, but not exactly emotionally contiguous with whatís preceded them. Still, cumulatively, Eastwood delivers a compelling and richly layered portrait of the artist. So much so, in fact, that when the director finally gets around to showing Birdís inevitable death, the montage of people flashing before his lives feels completely extraneous. The entire movie, from its rambling asides to its quiet interludes, fills that role quite nicely.

 

    Bird wouldnít be half the film it is if not for the sensational performances by Forest Whitaker and Diane Venora, as the influential jazz musician and his wife. The scenes the two share encapsulate the filmís frustrated, yet grudgingly tolerant, attitude toward Birdís self-destructive tendencies. As the script moves through episodic scenes of Birdís life itís that tension that remains a constant. Always, weíre reminded that the synapses that allow him to create his art and those that make him turn to drugs are intertwined, and as played by Whittaker, the musician has a self-awareness that makes his actions tragic. Where the movie comes up slightly short is in its reticence to demonstrate Birdís creative process. Though, by definition, the end result and artistic creation are one in improvised jazz, there is only one scene, nestled over two hours into the film, where Bird explains the sensations and excitement that he feels while practicing his art. Its arrival is a relief, but for some it might be too little, too late. This determinedly dark picture with a nearly three-hour run time, is the sort that exasperates viewers not ready to meet it on its own terms. Nonetheless, Birdís focus on the bleaker aspects of its story is a sign of its remarkable integrity. Eastwood clearly is committed to presenting Bird to his audience with all of his complexities and contradictions intact. It becomes apparent by the end of the film that anything less would have been an unfair whitewashing of the manís image.

 

71 

Jeremy Heilman 

01-03-04