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.
My colleague took the position that Birdman is a Rite of Passage story about Riggan’s struggle to reconcile his embattled ego, tugged between equally powerful feelings of insecurity and extraordinariness. (And, as I was readying this piece for publication, Save the Cat! posted a podcast in which they assert that Birdman is RoP, as well. I recommend hearing them out and deciding for yourself.)
My take? I have reproduced the relevant portion of my e-mail response here:
Sometimes a film’s genre, as Snyder defines them, is evident to me from the first reel—I knew Interstellar was a Golden Fleece (specifically, an “Epic Fleece”) from the trailer—whereas other movies, like Birdman, require a deeper immersion in the story before I can suss out the narrative model. When I struggle to identify it, rather than considering the three prescriptive criteria for each of Snyder’s ten genres, I instead ask myself what the central dramatic question of the story is.
So, for example, Stand by Me and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off look virtually identical: Both movies are about a group of young friends on the eve of a new phase in their scholastic careers (junior high school and college, respectively) who work through their separation anxiety, among other issues, over the course of “one last adventure” together. Both seem like they fit firmly alongside American Graffiti and American Pie in the “Adolescent Passage” subcategory of Rite of Passage, yet only Ferris Bueller does; since the central dramatic question of Stand by Me is Will the boys find the dead body?, it’s a Golden Fleece (“Buddy Fleece”).
So, after thinking Birdman over at length, it seems to me the central dramatic question is, Will Riggan’s bid for renewed relevance—for dramatic legitimacy—pay off? That, by my estimation, makes it a Fool Triumphant (a “Fool Out of Water”):
- Riggan in a “fool” in the sense that he is completely underestimated by everyone. His daughter openly dismisses his efforts, his lead actor publicly embarrasses him at a preview show, a prominent theater critic promises to eviscerate him in her review, and even “Birdman,” his apparitional alter ego, taunts him relentlessly. (Only his producer and best friend, played by Zach Galifianakis, is steadfastly supportive.) Riggan is written off by one and all as the washed-up star of a faded superhero franchise—a “Hollywood clown,” as he’s described, certainly a synonym for “fool”—desperate for another day in the sun.
- Seeking validation, Riggan challenges an establishment: Broadway. How dare a Hollywood actor best known for playing a costumed crimefighter attempt to reestablish his credibility on the New York stage via his own “propaganda piece”? Along the way, success is thwarted by technical snafus, financial pressures, the unchecked egos and insecurities of his cast (himself included), a skeptical press (“Star of Birdman Franchise Tries Not to Lay an Egg on Broadway” reads one advance headline), and an influential critic prepared to hate the show before she’s even seen it—for taking up “space in a theater which otherwise might’ve been used on something worthwhile.”
- Riggan emerges triumphant and experiences transmutation: He not only wins over the snooty critic and elevates, by her appraisal, the art of stage performance to a new evolutionary permutation—“super-realism”—but he reconciles with his own ego in the process, presumably no longer haunted or taunted by it.
I recently watched Jon Favreau’s Chef, which is also about a man who’d at one point achieved an enviable degree of success in his chosen profession, and who takes a radical career step when the old formula just isn’t working anymore. When I started thinking about Chef vis-à-vis Birdman, I couldn’t see the latter as a Rite of Passage. Chef is a “Midlife Passage” story because the central question is, Will Carl put his heart into something again? And, over the course of the story, he learns to put his heart into his work and his family once again, and finds contentment—and renewed professional and marital prosperity—in the process. Carl is a guy who was going the Wrong Way in life—he was in the throes of a midlife crisis (Life Problem)—and had to learn to get past it (Acceptance); he was the one standing in his own way, rather than being the victim of an external force of antagonism.
Riggan, to me, isn’t headed in the wrong direction so much as he is driven by his own ego to find professional respect and relevance again, and he questions if moving on from his superhero franchise twenty years earlier ultimately did his career—and his legacy—more harm than good; it was Riggan, after all, who handed the “keys to the kingdom” to the likes of Robert Downey Jr. and George Clooney, only to watch them reach heights of fame and fortune the likes of which slipped from his own grasp. So, he sets out to prove to the world—and his own ego—that he can mount a successful stage production and find a new mode of legitimacy. He is a Fool Triumphant.
One could certainly take the intricate argument I’ve had to make in order to justify my position on Birdman’s genre and use it as an excuse to dismiss Snyder’s classifications altogether—to assert that any codified system so convoluted that it requires such arduous application must be inherently flawed, and that ignorance of such principles is certainly a virtue insofar as it applies to creative inspiration.
That would be a mistake. I’ve tested these genres time and again, and they not only apply to all successful narratives, but each and every story can be definitively identified by one—and only one—specific model. Ultimately, establishing a movie’s genre isn’t arduous at all—it is as simple as asking: What is the central dramatic question of the narrative?
PUTTING THE TOOLS TO THE TEST
Three of Birdman’s fellow nominees, American Sniper, The Theory of Everything, and The Imitation Game, are based on actual people with revered, one-of-a-kind skill sets. Are those films all “Real-life Superheroes,” then?
That depends. Are each of those stories about a nemesis, envious of the hero’s special power, that seeks to exploit his Achilles’ heel (or “curse”) in an attempt to destroy him? Let’s examine the central dramatic question of each film:
American Sniper: In the battle between Chris Kyle’s incompatible identities, which one will ultimately prevail—legendary sniper abroad or devoted father/husband at home? Genre: Institutionalized (“Military Institution”).
The Theory of Everything: Will Stephen and Jane’s love endure the extreme trials of his debilitating physical condition? Genre: Buddy Love (“Epic Love”).
The Imitation Game: Will preternatural mathematician Alan Turing decrypt the Enigma machine and bring an end to the war before his enemies can exploit his homosexuality to discredit him? Genre: Superhero (“Real-life Superhero”).
Only Imitation Game qualifies as Superhero. Chris Kyle is committed to the cause of his fellow Navy SEALs (Group), but at the urging of his wife to withdraw from active combat (Choice), he returns to civilian life haunted by the lives he subsequently isn’t on the battlefield to save (Sacrifice). The romance between Stephen Hawking (Incomplete hero) and Jane (Counterpart) that’s tested to its limits by his diagnosis of motor neuron disease (Complication) is the A-storyline of The Theory of Everything, his world-renowned research in the field of theoretical physics serving merely as backdrop—as B-story—to that. (Contrast that with Turing and Joan Clarke’s “romance” in Imitation, which is decidedly subordinate to the plot about their efforts to break the German code, and therefore qualifies strictly as B-story. In every genre but Buddy Love, the romantic plotline is B-story; that’s what distinguishes BL from other narrative models: It is the only one in which the love story is the predominant narrative thread.)
There are elements of superheroism to Kyle and Hawking—they are certainly set apart from everyone else in their worlds by their unique gifts—and an alternate treatment of their stories could have very well framed them in the Superhero narrative mold, which only demonstrates how important it is for a writer to consciously choose a specific genre (and subgenre) beforehand so as to avoid the risk of mixing and matching conventions (as 47 Ronin and Winter’s Tale did). Because even though a story can incorporate elements of several genres, it can only, in the end, be faithful to—be fully representative of—a single one. So, when the conventions themselves aren’t making the classification clear—Birdman, after all, seemed even to the “Master Cats” to meet the criteria of an RoP—ask yourself this: What is the central dramatic question of this story?
APPLYING THE TOOLS TO YOUR OWN WORK
Even the most avant-garde pieces of fiction (Birdman is certainly up there as far as studio movies go) are driven by central question, which is indicative of a genre—one of the ten as Blake Snyder defines them. Once a writer zeroes in on his own story’s genre, he makes note of its three conventional requirements—he must honor them or he will not meet his audience’s unconscious expectations—and then he studies antecedents in that genre (preferably the specific subgenre, as well) to learn how those before him got it done. There is method that can be mastered and applied.
Wrapping one’s head around these principles—and learning to practice them effectively—is not always easy, but it would be foolish for an aspiring writer to dismiss them out of hand. Yes, there are a lot of gurus out there preaching theory, and they are to be disregarded in favor those who offer practical tools. As I’ve advised, you can cut through all of that noise by learning structure from Vogler, genre from Snyder, and characterization from Freeman. None of them offer a magic wand—only a set of very powerful tools that can demystify humankind’s oldest pastime: story.
The e-mail exchange that prompted this analysis of Birdman and ensuing examination of narrative classification led to a discussion of the 1984 Oscar winner for Best Picture: Miloš Forman’s Amadeus. Any ideas as to which genre it is? I’ll discuss it in the next post.