Bob Birdnow's Remarkable Tale of Human Survival and the Transcendence of Self is a work of fiction that puts TED Talks to shame. Local filmmaker and playwright Eric Steele completed his five-year project The Midwestern Trilogy in 2013 with an absolute gem, adapting this one-man show into a film that burns slowly and even more powerfully toward a stunningly profound conclusion: Being alive is heroic.
One man is still at the center of the story and he is on a stage, but he is also being filmed by one of the employees and the footage is occasionally from this point of view, creating a film within a film. In the play, the audience was treated as the sales team, but there is a sales team in the film. At first we see tables full of suits, but as the film progresses we start seeing close-ups of their faces until they disappear and the viewer becomes them.
The action is set in Dubuque, Iowa, when Bob's old friend Jerry asks him to give a motivational speech to his struggling sales team at a conference. The film starts slowly, with the room being set up for the staff and Bob, who is missing an arm and has a prosthetic leg, getting out of bed and struggling to tie his shoes. He sits in a restaurant, deep in thought, and forgets his notecards on the table when he leaves. As Freud would say, there are no accidents.
Jerry serves as the opening act, addressing his subordinates in a fashion similar to Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross. The film’s title not only mocks your expectations of a motivational speech, but also hints at Jerry’s intention to put his old friend forward as a circus freak. Steele has a background in corporate America and came up with the idea while wondering what it would take for him to be truly inspired by a team meeting or motivational speech:
“I was definitely impacted by the kinds of meetings we would attend,” says Steele. “I think anyone in corporate America has been in a situation where they’ve had a team meeting or a conference or something of that ilk and can relate to Birdnow in that sense. I wanted to play with the idea that we go to these events a lot, but what if you went to one of these events and it wasn’t just platitudes or how you make that sales number? What if that person really got to the heart of the truth and was honest and authentic about life?”
Steele was on a flight over Iowa when he began pondering the meaning of life and what would happen if his plane went down. What he came up with is an existential story that addresses the state of our survival instincts in the modern age, given how removed we are from our struggles with nature. During Jerry’s rant, one of his top performers chastises the others by saying they aren't making money because they don’t want to. It’s an example of how our survival instincts have been replaced with social rivalries.
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But Bob’s speech gets at something much deeper — the importance of survival. “The fact that you are alive and that you have survived,” says Steele. “Wherever you are in your life, however much money you are making, whatever station you find yourself in, be thankful. Be extremely grateful that you are here.” Without his notecards, Bob initially stumbles through his speech, tries to makes a few jokes and veers way off subject. By the time he pauses for a cup of coffee, the sales team is perplexed and Jerry is ready for it to end.
But Bob has arrived at a place of honesty and he continues. Barry Nash starred in the one-man show and he reprises his role as Bob here, giving a stunning performance. He has mastered the accent and mannerisms of a middle-aged Midwestern man. Bob’s speech takes up the bulk of the film and there are scenes that run as long as 12 minutes in one take, but Nash manages to relate a story of survival that is more harrowing and riveting than films packed with dozens of characters and special effects.
Bob was expected to show up and inspire the sales team with a quick story about how he was in a tough spot but managed to overcome it. Instead he essentially relives a traumatic experience and explains, in graphic detail, just what he had to go through to arrive at an understanding of life's significance. Steele’s experimental approach to filmmaking and Nash’s virtuosic performance in Bob Birdnow convey that understanding magnificently.
Bob Birdnow's Remarkable Tale of Human Survival and the Transcendence of Self screens with cast and crew in attendance for a Q&A at 6 p.m. Sunday, at Texas Theatre, 231. W. Jefferson Blvd. Admission is free. More info at thetexastheatre.com.