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Clint Eastwood as Director
Remind Me

Bird (1988)

By the time Clint Eastwood made Bird in 1988, he was a box office institution, but hardly an artist. He'd directed a dozen films, ranging from provocative pulp (Play Misty for Me [1971], High Plains Drifter [1973]) to, more prevalently, action trash (Firefox [1982],Sudden Impact [1983],Heartbreak Ridge [1986]), but in contrast to the other movie stars-turned-auteurs of his generation (Beatty, Redford, Newman), he seemed, behind the camera, neither subtle nor Oscar®-bound. Perhaps only a bit more than a Charles Bronson who could read scripts and knew where to put a camera, Eastwood seemed as if he might've been content rapping out Dirty Harry sequels forever, and never try for more.

Little did we realize. Bird is where the Eastwood Era truly begins; since then, he has become a world-class filmmaker, with at least one unalloyed masterpiece, Unforgiven (1992), to mark his place in history for good, and a dozen other serious if less consistent films since (mixed with junk like 2002's Blood Work) that nonetheless peg him as a major American voice. There was no mistaking Bird for anything but a work of rousing ambition and heartfelt wisdom: a darkling biopic of jazz martyr Charlie Parker, which is in a shot as far away from the familiar Eastwood gunslinging scenarios as the filmmaker could get without just making a flat-out musical.

Hardly dramatic or even eventful, Parker's life nonetheless fulfills a standard modern biopic format: the burn-bright-but-half-as-long James Dean paradigm, in which a young cultural icon rises to his or her medium's eminence like an angel and then dies far too soon. It can be a deeply unsatisfying narrative idea, and Eastwood seems to have realized the popular arc's shortcomings, never trying to squeeze our sympathies or milk the tragedy. Instead, his film is like a terrarium of doomed crepuscular creatures struggling in vain to extend their preordained lifespans. It's possible that no Hollywood film since the '50s is as dark as Eastwood's dirge, shot as it is not on real-&-gritty city streets (so it appears) but on shadowy studio sets, giving the film a claustrophobic, bluesy-dreamy airlessness, as if the film's entire world is just one big, smoky, low-ceilinged nightclub. The structure of the story (screenplay by unsung TV vet Joel Oliansky) roves around freely in Parker's adult years, and does not indulge dramatic peaks, but, rather, it sort of drifts, as the heroin-addled Parker does, from city to city, gig to gig, one meeting with his common-law wife Chan to another, a series of goodbyes in which most of the people surrounding Parker worry about where he's going or if they'll ever speak to him again.

It's not only a film for bebop fans or Parker devotees, which is what Eastwood is; if the allure of modern jazz as Parker more or less invented it eludes you, as it does me, then the film becomes a hearty, intense education in the culture to a degree that the music itself may not be (Parker's original recordings are used). Whatever your position, you'll still wither before the movie's uncompromised conviction. Eastwood may never have been as passionate about anything on film in his life.

Bird feels like a horrible waking dream, but its attention to details demands respect, and it might be the best American film about a thoroughly black milieu ever made by a white man. Still, Eastwood doesn't play up the friction, but lets it sneak in, as we notice the generalized vision of midcentury jazz as a black world occasionally invaded by upper-middle-class white women looking for authentic thrills, as well as the unspoken racial tension in every scene involving Parker (Forest Whitaker) and the half-Jewish Chan (born Beverly Berg), played by Diane Venora. The evolution of Red Rodney (Michael Zelniker), a young Jewish trumpet player in awe of Parker, from fresh-faced wannabe to smack-hooked vet is telling - to slip him under the segregation line in the '50s, Parker dubbed him "Albino Red." In a sweetly brief shot, as the band files into a blacks-only motel, Zelniker's Red subtly turns his back to the desk clerk, "passing" for black.

With Bird, Eastwood also turned into a consummate actor's director; Whitaker (a Best Actor award at Cannes) and Venora (a trophy from the New York Film Critics Circle) have never been as immersed and convincing, both of them playing aggressively irritating people with shallows of self-consciousness and egomania, but eventually stripped by pain and addiction down to their shameless, desperate centers. Whitaker, in fact, often limns Parker as a blustery, sweaty, extroverted nuisance, veering perhaps toward Playhouse 90 overacting at times, but by all accounts he has the real Parker down cold. It's a film about self-destruction, after all, and it stands to reason that its textures, personas and flow should provoke unease and discomfort, should we decide to empathize with these poor souls and not stand back as Eastwood does, capturing this lightless, sickened story in a bell jar and admiring it for its melancholy.

Of course Charlie Parker died, his 34-year-old body so riddled with chemical abuse and illnesses that the coroner mistook him for a man in his 60s, and couldn't in the end decipher what exactly caused his heart to stop. Eastwood eulogizes him, but Bird is as unsentimental as a tragic biopic can get.

Producer: Clint Eastwood
Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenplay: Joel Oliansky
Cinematography: Jack N. Green
Music: Lennie Niehaus
Film Editing: Joel Cox
Cast: Forest Whitaker (Charlie 'Bird' Parker), Diane Venora (Chan Parker), Michael Zelniker (Red Rodney), Samuel E. Wright (Dizzy Gillespie), Keith David (Buster Franklin), Michael McGuire (Brewster), James Handy (Esteves), Damon Whitaker (Young Bird), Morgan Nagler (Kim), Arlen Dean Snyder (Dr. Heath).

by Michael Atkinson