In a recent podcast, the custodians of Save the Cat! offered a very thin and unconvincing assessment of Birdman’s genre classification, the essence of which was this: “Look—Michael Keaton’s got a Life Problem! He goes about fixing it the Wrong Way! Clearly this is a Rite of Passage!”
In a serendipitously timed blog post, I argued that Birdman is, in fact, a Fool Triumphant, and even held it up for comparison, like two perfectly aligned sketches on tracing paper backlit against a lamp, with a recent (and accurate) example of RoP, Jon Favreau’s Chef, as proof that those stories don’t share fundamental commonality with respect to their genre conventions.
Because that’s ultimately what distinguishes the codified narrative models of the late Blake Snyder from one another: their conventional criteria—the requirements each particular genre is expected to deliver upon. A golf cart and a city bus both have wheels and seats and a motor (i.e., a similar fundamental underlying structure), but you’d never mistake one for the other; you’d never expect one to perform the function of the other.
I recently engaged in a friendly e-mail debate with a fellow Save the Cat! practitioner over which genre to classify this year’s Academy Award Best Picture recipient, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).
It’s a tough one. Is it a Superhero story? Protagonist Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton in a welcome return to leading-man stature) seems to display secret superpowers. (And the film is called Birdman, which sounds vaguely superheroic—certainly no conceptually sillier than, say, Ant-Man.)
Is it an Institutionalized—a story about an accomplished actor transitioning from one institution (Hollywood stardom) to another (Broadway credibility)?
Maybe it’s a Golden Fleece, with the prize being a successful stage production of “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”? Riggan has a lot invested in the show, after all, and Birdman details the tumultuous backstage events leading up to its anticipated premiere.
You could certainly make arguments for any of those, which only demonstrates just how tricky mastering Blake Snyder’s genre principles can be.