He was the essence of cool.
In "Bird," the new movie Clint Eastwood directed on the life of Charlie (Bird) Parker, the image of the great young actor Forest Whitaker standing dead still on the bandstand, with only his fingers moving over the buttons of his horn, is hauntingly definitive, yet somehow shadowy and enigmatic, like a figure drawn in smoke.
Images, not ideas or a cohesive narrative, are what we take away from "Bird." Though it's a Hollywood studio picture, the film has a calculated art-house look. Beginning with Parker's attempt to kill himself by drinking iodine after a squabble he's had with his wife Chan (Diane Venora), Eastwood and scriptwriter Joel Oliansky present us with nearly three hours worth of fragments from the revolutionary alto saxophonist's life. And by the time we reach the artist's death at the age of 34, these fragments have collected into a sizable, though inconclusive, mountain of impressions.
"Bird" isn't the great movie about jazz that some jazz writers are proclaiming it to be. Structurally, it's too scrambled, and ultimately we're too frustrated by the leaping around to feel we understand its subject or even what the filmmakers want us to know about him. But even though, thematically, the movie won't come clear, Eastwood has succeeded so thoroughly in communicating his love of his subject, and there's such vitality in the performances, that we walk out elated, juiced on the actors and the music.
Forest Whitaker's brilliance is the force that holds the scattered pieces of "Bird" together. Only rarely in movies do characters achieve this sort of palpability, and then only when presented to us by a remarkable performer. And this is a remarkable performer giving a gentle, exuberant, charismatic performance.
Whitaker's work here has an enormous weight and authority. Watching him, we feel we can gauge exactly how many late nights Parker has logged or how much he's had to drink by the slope of his shoulders or the angle of his gait.
Yet what Whitaker emphasizes in his performance is Bird's courtliness and grace. He plays him as a kind of humbled aristocrat. There's tremendous delicacy and quiet -- a sweetness -- in what Whitaker does. This comes out especially in his scenes with Venora. An ex-dancer, Chan Richardson was a white, middle-class jazz devotee who haunted Parker's gigs, and Venora plays her as prickly and defiant -- a boho princess.
The scenes these actors play together are like duets danced on slippery ice. Venora's style is sharper than Whitaker's, and her presence adds a sexual tension; and that's important because, without it, Whitaker might seem too easygoing to convey the lady-killing potency Parker was known for.
In "Bird," Eastwood shows talents that were never even hinted at in his earlier pictures. He's particularly good at capturing the crisscrossing emotional rhythms of two people -- Bird and Chan -- who aren't quite sure what to do with each other.
Some of the director's choices, though, are far from fortunate. The film -- which was shot by Jack Green -- is composed in velvety shades of black. But in places it's so murky that you have to strain to see what's going on. And this is particularly frustrating in the more intimate scenes where we want to see what's happening in the actors' faces.
Still, there's a lot to like. In a lovely grace note, Bird, while on a swing through California, rings Stravinsky's doorbell to pay homage -- and, when the composer opens the door, just stands there. Eastwood does a good job of showing how the musicians of Bird's era lived, and he's good, too, at showing the tension in Parker's life between the part of him that longed for stability and the part of him that couldn't tolerate it.
Living on the edge was more than a spur to Parker's creativity. It's possible that Eastwood sees "Bird" as an antidrug movie, but he isn't evasive about Parker's drug abuse and alcoholism. And he doesn't try to obscure how much Parker's life revolved around scoring and shooting. But Eastwood doesn't attempt to provide any pat psychological explanations for Bird's vices. We can thank the filmmakers for resisting the impulse to reduce these characters to easy types.
The only exception is the portrayal of Estevez (James Handy), the vice cop who hounds Bird mercilessly, without any sense of the man's gift, causing him to lose his cabaret license and, in effect, making it impossible for him to earn a living. The filmmakers are conscious, though, that Parker didn't need an Estevez to captain his boat onto rocky shoals; from the beginning, Bird set a shipwreck course.
With its rainy imagery, "Bird" is a romantic vision of the jazz life, but it's a dark romance, and if it weren't for this jazz lover's fond regard the film might be unrelentingly bleak -- another junkie's crackup. This affection shows itself clearly in the pains Eastwood has taken to give a faithful presentation of Bird's music by isolating Parker's solos from vintage recordings and remixing them with new tracks laid down by contemporary sidemen.
Something like the same method, though, has been used to isolate Bird from the social forces around him. But then Eastwood hasn't conceived the film in historical -- even jazz historical -- terms. And if we weren't familiar with Bird's career, we might not realize that after the war he took jazz away from the squares and reinvented it. There's something touching, in fact, in the matter-of-fact way the birth of bop has been presented here, with a blitzed and defeated Bird sitting on a bed in his undershirt telling how he learned how to extend the chord changes and play "inside the melody." For a instant, he looks his age and, for an instant, the tragedy overwhelms us.
Bird, at area theaters, is rated R and contains frank references to drug and alcohol use and adult situations.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company