Doing something a bit different this week. Rather than simply recap everything I watched this week, I’ve decided to devote the whole article to a single film. I think I’ll do this for a few weeks and see how it goes.
Alejandro González Iñárritu and his newest film Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) won all kinds of awards from the Academy this weekend, but no one seemed to have told him that the Or in the title should probably go inside the parentheses. Regardless, this is a fantastic film that deserves the recognition it received, though in certain ways it’s very insular. The story of an ageing white man who no longer feels significant and his last fight that will either turn this around or collapse in on him. I mean, it’s kind of exactly what you expect the Academy to love, and is a perfect example of why people hate the Academy.
That doesn’t make it less of a film, but it narrows its scope a great deal.
Anyrate, I won’t lie: I am not a fan of Iñárritu. In fact, I think this is the first decent film he’s made since Amores Perros, and the only film of his that I’d actually recommend to anyone.
Amorres Perros showed us a new director with a very interesting eye and perspective. 21 Grams and Babel showed that same awesome eye and off-kilter perspective, but those films are sort of aggravating to watch. Especially Babel, which is very much like Crash, which won a few awards from the Academy ten years ago. Both of those films, and dozens more made in that time period, confuse coincidence and juxtaposition with meaning. It was like this big sprawling mess of films based on the structure of Love, Actually, and they were all equally as stupid with how they handled their characters and plots.
But those aren’t the films we’re talking about. But I skipped his film before this one, Biutiful. It didn’t seem to offer me anything more than the previous films did, but I decided to give Birdman a chance, mostly because of the rave reviews it’s been receiving for months, and I’m glad I did.
By focusing on one character, we get a lot more out of Iñárritu’s direction. With a narrowed perspective he’s able to really dig into the characters, which, incidentally, is why Amores Perros is better than his other films. He’s able to really get us inside the characters and we move through life with them. His other films are full of shells and shades that resemble humanity and try to say a lot about it, in a Greek Chorus kind of way.
But I keep getting sidetracked by my dislike for his output.
Birdman, though, stands above his other films. Or at least, I actually enjoyed watching it.
Let’s start with the score, which demanded an Oscar but was snubbed in the way that Johnny Greenwood’s been snubbed. Those drums, man. I can’t even think of a score that’s more instrumental (ha!) to the plot and characters than those drums. Antonio Sánchez’ drums give rhythm and shape to so much of the film. It’s the lifeblood, the heartbeat, and it keeps us moving, pulling us in and pushing us deeper into Keaton’s Riggan. I mean, I can’t think of a film more connected to its score or a score that’s so perfectly made for a film.
It’s truly remarkable.
And then the camera work. I’m a huge fan of the long take. In fact, it’s probably my favorite element in film. If there’s a shot that takes longer than five minutes, you’re turning me into a fan. That alone made me love Birdman. The film’s not completely one take, but it appears to mostly be. You don’t see this kind of thing in US cinema but, then again, Iñárritu’s not from the US. He took a bold risk, especially in a world that demands everything become short to match our short attention spans (this, of course, is absurd, mind, but it’s the kind of thing pundits are always saying, screaming, and they do it so often and so loud that we begin to believe them–I mean, just look at how blockbuster films and books are getting progressively longer). This fits the material very well, as this is both a stream of consciousness film as well as a bit of a satire about fame and communication in the technomodern world. Everything needs to be boiled down to a tweet, and yet the film gives us about 110 minutes of uninterrupted movement.
Those are just the technical elements that blow you away, that make you fall in love with this insular film about an old formerly wealthy and famous white guy trying to salvage the remnants of his ruined career. It’s a fitting film for Keaton to star in. That’s not to say his career is ruined or anything like that. He’s just been largely absent from mainstream cinema since ending his term as Batman. It’s sort of a meta-concept and certainly no accident that Keaton was perfect for this role, since so many moviegoers still see him, mostly, as Burton’s Batman. I honestly can’t name a film he’s been in since then, though I know he’s been in many. I’ve even seen some of them, but, for me, and probably many others, he’ll always be Bruce Wayne in a way that Christian Bale will never have to worry about.
So Keaton was probably perfect for the role as Riggan but he also does an amazing job here. He’s perfect, really. He captures the dissolution of the character so well. He inhabits Riggan and the performance is so natural. So natural it stops feeling like film.
The same can be said of all the actors.
This is an incredibly structured film. Every element fits so perfectly together and every actor hits everything so well that it stops feeling like film. The long take, the drums, the characters: we don’t so much give ourselves to the film as it takes us and we fall inside it.
Edward Norton is genuinely deranged in the best ways here. It’s maybe my favorite performance by him. Or at least the most powerful performance of his since Primal Fear. That he pulls out something so deeply strange and powerful in something that’s sort of a comedy is pretty great. Though the same could be said of Keaton, Watts, and even Emma Stone, who looks remarkably different from how I remember her. She looks like someone who left a rehab center. I don’t know how much weight she lost for the film, but it works really well with this character.
Though maybe she didn’t lose it for the film and she just actually lost weight. I don’t know. I just remember her having a healthier look to her. Here, she kind of resembles Lindsay Lohan at her most strung out, which is kind of exactly what you want.
What else is there to say about this film? It’s funny and technically awesome. It also gives genuine shocks and my adrenaline was so jacked during a three minute sequence that I could barely even handle it.
And so, yeah, this is a brilliant film for what it is. I’ve mentioned its limitations, and those are worth discussing, but that’s a different kind of discussion. It doesn’t deal with the film we have–it deals with what the film should have been.
I mean, it’s strange, yeah? To make a film that takes place in New York and have every character be white? It reminds me of Friends in that way.
Do we need another film about the metaphorical impotence of an old white guy? It’s like every Woody Allen film ever made.
There is, of course, the criticism of criticism itself, reminding me of Balzac’s Lost Illusions, and to go along with that, it’s not the art itself that catches the world’s attention. It’s Riggan’s slide into madness. He causes a sensation across social media and mainstream media, drowning the play itself in his own ego.
But unceremoniously brushing that aside, Birdman is an achievement. It’s one of those rare films where everything works on every level, and they work together, creating something more than the sum of the many individual parts.
Probably you’ve seen it, but if you haven’t, go see it now.