It was one thing when Birdman was the scrappy little indie that could. (Never mind that it was an indie with a budget of $22 million and an A-list cast.) Then it was just a snooty pretentious film with an arty gimmick that hardly anyone had seen. But now it has been crowned as the very best movie of 2014 by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science. The people who are the most Hollywood that people can be have officially spoken. And what they have said is, “We hate superhero movies. We hate the fans who make superhero movies huge. But we love your money, so thanks for that.” Which is basically what Birdman — I think we can all agree that its subtitle with the misplaced parens really is pretentious and unnecessary — says.
I like Birdman. I sympathize with creative people who are frustrated with getting pigeonholed, as is Michael Keaton’s Riggan Thomson, erstwhile star of the late 80s/early 90s Birdman comic-book movie franchise, and hence a barely disguised version of Keaton himself, probably. (Or maybe not. Keaton [Need for Speed, RoboCop] seems to embrace his Batman legacy. Maybe Riggan is an alterna-Keaton who’s less happy and less well-adjusted.) But it’s tough to feel too sympathetic with people who moan about being too rich and too famous for what they perceive are the wrong reasons; being beloved of millions of people around the world for playing a noble and valiant character ain’t exactly serial-killer or even sad-sex-tape notoriety or anything. Ah, but the money has run out for Riggan — we don’t know why, except that that does tend to happen — and now he is desperate to be seen as something more than Birdman; he is desperate for a reimagining of his fame; in short, comeback. Which he is attempting to manufacture by adapting a Raymond Carver story for the Broadway stage, directing it himself, and starring in it to boot. (Oh, and he has pledged money to this. Even though he’s broke. Somehow, rich people are never broke even when they’re broke.) Despite, we are driven to presume, having no experience on the stage whatsoever. Hell, even the gravelly voice of Birdman himself, emanating from somewhere within his alcohol-addled brain, is telling him to give it up and embrace cape-ed (or, in this case, wing-ed) infamy.
It’s all a bit satirical, sending up the disaffected global movie star putting on artistic airs. (A theater critic — aka “that old bat from The New York Times,” played by the spectacular Lindsay Duncan [Le Week-end, About Time], berates Riggan for his unearned ambitiousness. The first time I saw this film, I thought it was an unfair attack on criticism. The second time, she seemed like the hero of the piece.) Or maybe it’s a matter of truth being said in jest. The gimmick director and screenwriter Alejandro González Iñárritu employs to tell the story of Riggan and his cast and crew — mostly also friends, though some are just barely tolerated — preparing for their first preview and and then opening night is one far more theatrical than cinematic, though it requires cinematic trickery to pull it off: the film is made of a series of very, very long uncut sequences in which the few edits are disguised, so that the entire film plays as if it is a single uncut two-hour shot. But what makes it theatrical is that what we witness is not happening in real time, as it would have to be if the camera were actually tracking events as they happen. Instead, for instance, the camera might do a 360-degree pan around the room, and it’s hours later when it reaches its starting point again. Or there might be someone walking down a corridor with a camera at their back, and then he passes through a door, and it’s the next day on the other side of the door. That can happen on stage — in fact, it almost has to; the stage doesn’t have a lot of options for indicating a passing of time — but film never does that. So for a film to go to such extremes — this cannot have been easy to shoot — is it suggesting that maybe stagey stuff is better than filmic stuff? (Or maybe not: The comic-book action sequence that breaks out on the streets of Times Square in the middle of one of Riggan’s little nervous breakdowns is unironically awesome… although maybe its awesomeness makes it ironic!) I dunno… It didn’t seem as cynical before its Oscar win. (I first saw Birdman when it was the Surprise Film at London Film Festival in October, before it had been released anywhere. And I watched it again on an awards screener after its Oscar win. So I’ve come at it from both ends of its extremes.)
Sneaky Iñárritu. He knew people like me — and even more particularly, the legions of fanboy sites that thrive on click-baiting posts speculating on who might be cast in that comic-book movie that will be Studio X’s tentpole three summers from now — would be saying all sorts of things, some complimentary and probably some not, about his adventurous little movie, and that maybe those things would overshadow the movie itself. (This is no longer possible, since the Oscar win.) Because right there, taped to the mirror in Riggan’s dressing room in the theater, is a laser-printed quote that reads “A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing.” It appears to be an entirely invented bit of wisdom, but still: This is a movie about which many Things have been said (such as that Oscar stamp of approval from AMPAS) but also about which many things remain to be said. This is a movie we will be talking about for many years… certainly long past the inevitable collapse of superhero movies. And it’s a movie that deserves to be seen so you can debate what it means (if you’re the sort of person who is into that sort of fun). So maybe that does make it the Best Movie of the Year… though Oscar has not always been good about accurately forecasting the movies that will endure.
I like Birdman, but I have not found it the transcendent experience that some others have found it to be. It did make me wonder if perhaps Edward Norton’s (The Bourne Legacy, The Dictator) reputation as a big ol’ pain-in-the-ass pompous jerk perhaps isn’t entirely deserved, because here he plays an actor (a last-minute replacement in Riggan’s play) who is a big ol’ pain-in-the-ass pompous jerk, and no one who has that kind of sense of humor about himself can be all bad. It did make me marvel at how Zach Galifianakis (Muppets Most Wanted, The Hangover Part III), as Riggan’s best friend and professional one-man support team, can actually act and can actually be handsome onscreen when he wants to be. It did make me want to imagine that it was actually Miles Teller-in-Whiplash playing drums on the very drummy soundtrack. It did make me despair that the awesomeness that is both Naomi Watts (Diana, Movie 43) and Andrea Riseborough (Oblivion, Shadow Dancer), as actors in Riggan’s play, was mostly wasted here — why couldn’t the movie have been about them? — and then console myself with the fact that at least Emma Stone (Magic in the Moonlight, The Amazing Spider-Man 2), as Riggan’s daughter and personal assistant, at least gets to dish out a little bit of the smackdown he deserves.
There’s a bit here where Riggan is wandering the streets of Times Square and passes by a crazy person shouting out a soliloquy fromMacbeth. Which at least lets us dismiss Birdman, if we want to, as a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.
first viewed during the 58th BFI London Film Festival
See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of Birdman for its representation of girls and women.