Birdman, or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (2014)

Michael Keaton amongst fairy lights in Birdman (2014)Birdman, or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance is a divisive film, leading this year’s Golden Globe nominees and attracting a suite of five star reviews on one hand and repulsed pans on the other. It’s the sort of film that invites – nay, demands – hyperbole. The screenplay even presents the viewer with two distinct critical responses to the film: the well-worn Shakespeare quote delivered by a streetside bum – “A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” – or a theatre critic’s astounded rave – “a new form that can only be described as super-realism.”

Yet I find myself divided in my response to the film, even after a second viewing. I’m drawn to its intricacy, its ambition, its excess and the way it blurs between reality and fiction. Yet I’m underwhelmed by Iñárritu’s preference for a density of ideas rather than an intellectual investigation of same. What follows, then, isn’t so much an argument for or against the film than an argument with myself about the film’s merits and defects. (Given that the film itself is more interested in carpetbombing the audience with different perspectives on art and fame than collating them into a coherent argument, I don’t have a problem doing pretty much the same with my review. If I really want to do stick to Alejandro Gonsalez Iñárritu’s style, though, I’d avoid paragraph breaks altogether. Let’s not, though.)

Michael Keaton, Naomi Watts and Zach Galifianakis in Birdman (2014)Popularity and Prestige

So what’s Birdman about? Well, it’s about a lot of stuff, but most of it revolves around the central question of what it means to be an artist nowadays. Once upon a time, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) was Birdman – the lead actor in a wildly successfully Hollywood superhero franchise – but today he’s a weathered has-been grasping for relevance by directing, writing and starring in a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. The film revolves around a week or so leading up to the play’s premiere, surveying the tensions weighing upon artists – is it about popularity, prestige or simply making great art? (It’s perhaps telling that the latter point is given far less emphasis.)

How should an artist’s worth be measured? In “two million, five hundred thousand YouTube views in two hours”? Birdman and its cast seem conflicted on the role of the internet when it comes to fame; Riggan sneers to his daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), about her “cynical friends whose only ambition is to ‘go viral’,” while his pompous co-star, Mike (Edward Norton) rants at the play’s audience “Stop looking at the world through your cell phones! Have a real experience!” Yet Mike and Riggan alike take some solace from ‘going viral’ – the former bragging about the views his “massive hard-on” got on YouTube, the latter almost imperceptibly satisfied by his hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers. Riggan is similarly conflicted when it comes to his past life as a movie star; a disembodied (and occasionally embodied) Birdman voice is ever-present, snarling to him about billion dollar grosses and thousands of cinema screenings.

But Iñárritu is equally interested in the notion of prestige, the idea of respect. Per Riggan’s stage manager Jake (Zach Galifianakis): “This is about being respected and validated, remember?” Again and again the film returns to the idea of self-respect. Every major character in the film is desperately needy for affection and validation, often together (Riggan’s ex-wife (Amy Ryan) tells him that he “confuse[s] love for admiration.”). And every major character in the film is an exaggerated archetype – whether it’s Mike as an obsessive method actor who pretends everywhere but on the stage, Sam as the clichéd neglected, druggy daughter or the conga line of journalist caricatures that populate the film (chief among them Lindsay Duncan’s snide theatre critic).

The net result of these archetypes roaming through deep questions about art is that of a loose video-essay that never quite draws its distinct threads together into a coherent argument. It’s certainly not uninteresting to question what motivates artists, but I couldn’t help but wish that the film had something to say about all this, rather than merely tossing the ideas up into the air and seeing where they land.

Perhaps this is an unrealistic expectation on my part – after all, I can hardly ask Iñárritu to wrap up such profound questions in a neat bow over the course of two hours. But combined with blunt writing that goes straight from subtext to text (Norton’s character being told “In the real world, you’re a fucking fraud,” as though that idea hadn’t been bashed into our skulls many times over), Birdman strikes me as the kind of film that’s not so much smart as “smart.” It’s filled with literary references and big ideas but doesn’t have the heft of the texts it references or the capacity to cope with the ideas it raises. It’s likely to prompt passionate post-film discussion – a good thing! – but these conversations are as much impelled by the emptiness of the film as its density.

Edward Norton in Birdman (2014)All The World’s A Stage

Something that I do love about Birdman pretty much unreservedly is its deeply metatextual construction. Just take the casting. The significance of choosing Michael Keaton as the lead in a film about a washed-up actor who dominated the box office in ‘90s superhero films that precede today’s superhero explosion is impossible to miss. They’re not trying to be subtle. There’s also Edward Norton – who infamously departed Marvel Studios’ stable after starring in The Incredible Hulk – playing a notoriously difficult yet exceptionally talented actor (though there was a missed opportunity mid-film when he suggests Ryan Gosling as a replacement rather than Mark Ruffalo). Emma Stone is given a minor role on the fringes of Birdman – much as she did in The Amazing Spider-Man.

My only reservation here is that the film occasionally overemphasises its satire of the satire of the modern superhero genre. For example, it’s clever enough that Riggan, searching for a replacement for an injured actor, rattles through a list of actors – Woody Harrelson, Michael Fassbender and Jeremy Renner (“They put him in a cape too?”) – contracted to big budget blockbusters. But do we really need to follow that with the television news talking about Robert Downey Jr’s billion dollar superhero franchises? (Also, since when are Iron Man and The Avengers different franchises?) Equally, I’m totally down with some obligatory CGI in the third act, but it is really necessary to address the audience and sneer at their love for explosions over “this talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit”?

More successful is the way the film blurs the line between Riggan’s play (which, as far as I can tell, has nothing to do with Carver’s collection of short stories it’s supposed to be adapting) and the film that surrounds it. This isn’t especially subtle either, but for whatever reason it worked for me when, say, Riggan’s newly-pregnant actress girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough) delivers a soliloquy which includes lines like “I didn’t want that baby.” Or when the Riggan’s climactic dialogue in the play – “I don’t exist. I’m not even here. None of this really matters.” – both syncs up with his film dialogue (“I’m fucking disappearing.”) and has a pseudo-Brechtian effect of reminding the audience we’re watching fiction.

I’m less clear on we’re supposed to regard the play itself. Sometimes I got the impression that, much like Barton Fink, we were expected to regard our hero as an essentially talentless writer. There’s a scene set around a domestic kitchen that particularly supports this interpretation, with Riggan clumsily paraphrasing the title of the play not once, but twice, in the one scene (and, the dialogue, as Mike observes, is especially repetitive). But late developments suggest that it is, in fact, to be regarded as a minor masterpiece; I’m not sure if this is supposed to be indicative of the shallowness of Broadway audiences or if this is just another example of fictional art that can’t live up to its reputation.

I’m similarly conflicted when it comes to the film’s magical realism gimmick. It opens with Riggan levitating in his dressing room, and throughout the film he demonstrates an unexplained knack for telekinesis …provided no-one else is around. For most of the film, you’re welcome to believe that Riggan is hallucinating/fantasising or that he genuinely has powers – which is just how I like it. While there is some ambiguity towards the end, the unnecessary inclusion of an irate taxi driver suggests we’re supposed to interpret his powers as imagined only. It’s a frustrating moment of over-simplification that’s consistent with how often the film smothers its own potential.

Despite such niggly complaints, Birdman is largely successful in treading the line between fiction and reality, with the kind of experimentation that’s generally left to arthouse cinema.

Michael Keaton in dressing room in Birdman (2014)The Single-Shot Experiment

That experimentation extends to the film’s much-discussed formal approach which – outside of its introduction and a brief climactic interlude – eschews (well, conceals) cuts altogether, operating as an extended long shot. It’s not a new approach, per se – Hitchcock did it back in 1948 with Rope, and 2013 Iranian film Fish & Cat was an astonishing example of the form. It is, undeniably, technically impressive. It’s impossible not to notice, or to ruminate how difficult it must have made life for shooting, lighting and editing the film.

Is there more to this single-shot conceit than a gimmick, however? It’s easy to dismiss it as such, but I think there’s some artistic justification for the choice. First of all, if we posit Riggan’s anxious artist as an avatar for Iñárritu as much as Keaton himself, then there’s some synchronicity between Riggan’s play as an attempt to win the respect of his audience and Iñárritu’s film. Making the film in this way is showy, it’s attention-grabbing: much like Riggan’s choice to adapt Carver for the stage.

More interesting, I’d argue, is the way that the single-shot technique serves to emphasise the artificiality of the film. This isn’t necessarily intuitive. Single-shots tend to be associated with verisimilitude: this is what is happening in real-time. But Birdman consciously draws attention to the seams in its construction. It doesn’t happen in real-time like Hitchcock’s thriller, but over the course of a number of days.

As an audience we know that there are concealed cuts in the film because the construction draws attention to them. Even if you don’t notice, say, the difference in the film texture between the interior and exterior scenes, you’re certainly going to notice when the camera pans towards the wall, then pans back to reveal that it’s a day later (if “every cut is a lie,” then these are particularly sneaky lies). It’s engaging in its proximity – as the spiralling camera draws into the action as an intimate spectator – and distancing at the same time.

I like all this! It’s interesting both thematically and technically. But I think the approach is ultimately harmful. The biggest negative effect of shooting the film without cuts is that the pacing suffers. Editing – the whole Soviet montage thing – is an incredibly powerful cinematic technique. Iñárritu’s attempts to control the rhythm of the film (that’s mostly a succession of people walking through corridors and talking in dressing rooms) are only intermittently successful, powered by rapid-fire conversations and Antonio Sánchez’s furtive, drum-heavy score (a non-diegetic score that becomes diegetic with the appearance of the drummer on two separate occasions: more blurring of the line between reality and fiction).

There are some scenes that really work. The blocking and framing of a scene where Riggan’s big monologue is interrupted by a drunken outburst from Mike is fantastic. I loved a late scene with Riggan atop a New York apartment building was shot (especially the subtle Man of Steel cameo in the background). But too many scenes are handicapped by boring sets (white stucco walls, red wallpaper, endless corridors) or an over-emphasis on carefully choreographed movement to work around the film’s inability to simply shoot a two-person conversation by cutting back and forth between the participants. The giddy highs are counterbalanced by an exhausting aesthetic and a frustrating restlessness (which, admittedly, some people seem to love).

Edward Norton and Emma Stone in Birdman (2014)“Acting.”

A major consequence of the long takes that I haven’t yet mentioned is how it exaggerates the theatricality of the actors’ performances. This is thematically apropos, what with the whole Broadway setting. It’s much showier to watch a conversation that occurs throughout multiple rooms and across multiple characters without a single break reminds us of the difficulty of acting – and, at the same time, reminds us of the inherent artificiality of performing. It makes the actor’s efforts more obvious – and Oscar nominations will surely follow – but can blunt the impact of their craft.

Keaton is great, and deserves to be in contention for Best Actor. He’s essentially just playing Grumpy White Rich Dude, sure, but there’s so much real-life heft behind it that his raw, ragged humanity shines through. It’s a role that flirts with cliché – especially with his pseudo-alcoholic fondness for whiskey and Stella Artois – but thankfully transcends it.

The other two certain to get nominated for Oscars are Norton and Stone. Norton does a spectacular job in his first scene, an audition of sorts for a role in the play. It must be difficult to portray a character who’s an amazing actor, but Norton hits out of the park while simultaneously and subtly jockeying for power with Riggan. I wasn’t as impressed by the remainder of his work, though, but I feel like it’s partly the fault of the writing which allows his character to drift into the background. His deep-and-meaningfuls with Stone above the streets of New York should flesh out the two characters, but instead serve to emphasize the thinness of their characterisation.

Stone disappointed me on first viewing, but I think that was a more consequence of the sloppiness of her character arc – from angry New Yawker junkie (lots of head thrusting and goggle eyes) to a “nice girl” (Marvel! as her clothes become less torn and tattered as the film progresses!). I noticed some subtler elements to the performance the second time around, but I remain unconvinced that she’s delivered one of the top five supporting actresses performances of the year. Zach Galifianakis was the surprise highlight for me, elevating his minor role by supplying needed comic energy while inhabiting a believable character (but only Jonah Hill gets Academy Award nominations for that sort of role, so).

This is about the point in the review where I’m supposed to tie my ramblings together into an articulate conclusion, but despite having written over two thousands words about the damn film, I remain divided: there’s a lot I like about the film, a lot I dislike about the film, and unfortunately I can’t reconcile these contradictions into one hyperbolic tagline. Besides, when the film itself ends on a moment of ambiguity (actually the same moment of ambiguity three times over, drawing repeated links between suicide and ascendance), why should I tie things up in a neat bow?

3.5 stars

9 thoughts on “Birdman, or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (2014)

  1. Excellent review. While I was writing mine, which is only due out next Friday I realised there was so much going on that I was struggling to pull it all together but you’ve done a great job!

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