Five brief thoughts about a recent film. This week, Birdman…..or to give it it’s full title, Birdman: The Overwheming Sin of Pretentiousness. Yeah, didn’t even get into point one before I got that zinger out. As you’ll read, I have mixed feelings about this film.
But hey, why hold fire? This is a movie that is obessed with reviewers and put basically the whole New York Times review on one of it’s posters. This is a film where critics are mocked as vile vultures feeding off others’ talents (two rants about them, the critic herself has no response dialogue of note) rather than audience members, fans and creators of their own content (the preferred audience presumably being an empty black box, a balloon with a face on it, an applause track and no thoughts of its own).
Well, have I got a hatchet job* for you!
1) Is this a good film? Yes, it is. There is no argument that this is a bad film. The film looks good, the acting is universally great (perhaps ironically considering the theme of the movie) and the film is certainly interesting and to an extent pretty different to everything else that’s out there at the moment. However, having said that I feel somewhat conflicted. I have never left the cinema during a film (even a really shit one that brought me to tears of rage at it’s vileness) but sometimes when doing so I get a pang, a certain urge to just get up and leave. An urgent “fuck it” thought that has you looking at the people besides you wondering if they’ll get up for you. Sometimes I noiselessly bury myself deep down into my seat and cover my eyes for a few seconds to give at least some respite before allowing myself to look back at the screen and soldier on with an internal sigh. I felt this way during the screening of Birdman I went to, and not just once. It’s a weird feeling because there are good moments and good scenes and I can’t say it’s a bad film. The closest comparison is something like the Occulus Rift. Some honest people tried to make something for others to enjoy but by god, it’s just going to make some of them want to throw up (and hey, with that reference I guess this is now officially a nerd culture blog).
So what made me feel like this? There are four elements. First is subject matter, second is tone, third is plotting and fourth is the visual style.
2) Let’s start with the subject matter. When Hollywood makes films about making films (The Artist, Ed Wood, Argo, even arguably Inception) the results are usually good. Vanity leads to making films about yourself but thankfully with the skill to do it well. When Shakespeare says that all the world is a stage, it reaffirms our decision to go to the theatre and compliments us on our wise choice of trying to understand the world better through drama. The trouble is when Hollywood makes film about acting.
Actors talking about acting is a small shift sends the whole film spiralling up it’s own behind. Actors do the heavy lifting of taking something from the page to the stage or screen but that doesn’t make their lives and their personal problems more important than the stage director’s or the set designer’s. Actors play their part in a more important way than many others but doing what they do doesn’t necessarily make them wonderful, amazing precious sparks of humanity…..especially when they are very very rich people with those problems that seem more important when rich people have them.
The film wants to have it both ways. Edward Norton’s Mike is a horrible person; egotistical, self interested, glib, womanising, unprofessional and even arguably an attempted rapist. Nevertheless, he’s consistently shown as a genius at reading and living texts with a superhuman ability to perform like he has a magical connection to people’s souls. He even insults an important critic to her face because he knows that his performances are so dazzling that she won’t dare write a negative review. Mike is shown to be a misunderstood spark burning brightly, and he gets his girl.
The same is true of Michael Keaton’s Riggan who is essentially a drunk, burned out hack, depressive egotist who ignores his family, cheats on his wife and is taunted by the nightmare that he is a film celebrity, not a real actor. Nevertheless, on stage he is an incredible actor. He produces a wonderful performance in a play that he wrote and directed. Many characters including Mike and several passers by complement him thus and the harpy critic who promises to bury his play cannot help but write a positive review.
The pattern is the same. Acting is a magical redemptive spell. If you act well, we have to care about you. We have to side with you and not root against you. We have to care about you because of your precious, precious gift (and damn those horrid horrid harpy reviewers).
The trouble is that if you try to have your cake AND eat it, the story doesn’t matter. If you try to show a seedy horrible side to egotism and fame and how empty it can be being a celebrity scared of showing a lack of talent, showing how utterly wonderful and successful your characters are really does show a lack of bravery. Don’t be surprised when you want us to care about a character’s problems and instead we don’t go with it because you’re talking about a complete shit of a human being who has had a Rockstar lifestyle, a family and a house in Malibu.
The idea of showing how utterly destroying to the self performing can be and how addictive fame and adulation is has been perfectly nailed before by a frankly better filmmaker in Aronofsky’s The Wrestler and later in Black Swan. When Mickey Rourke’s Randy is shown to have been a not very nice person, we want him to find redemption to become the person that he could be for (among other things) his estranged daughter. We aren’t asked to care about him purely because he’s a good wrestler and he’s on a career downer. Remove the gloss of the glittery sheen the subject of acting gives to this film and you really don’t have the same pathos.
3) Staying with that comparison, another way the film saps away a dark look into its main character is the tone. The Wrestler is bleak and real, a stark contrast to the colourful fictions of the ring. Black Swan is awash with hallucination and madness but is anchored by an emotionally real central performance. In contrast, this film is a little all over the place. It’s been described as a black comedy, which really means that it doesn’t have internal realism, yet isn’t as funny as comedy.
When the film describes a situation concerning the main character that should really draw emotion, the air is immediately let out of the bag by frankly ridiculous scenes
The most notable example is when two actresses in the middle of a quite amazing scene discussing the failures in their lives suddenly start making out. The scene is ridiculous and with no prior reasoning, no meaning and no follow up completely destroys the pathos the film is making. It’s just stupid and titilating in the most 1970s chauvenist way because you know that no Keaton-Norton hook up was ever planned (everyone know that Lesbianism is the good gay and Homosexual men are the bad gays that can never be seen), that way more screen time is given to the pointless Norton-Emma Stone romance and all the more a slap in the face considering that it’s the only scene that even gets close to passing the Bechdel test**. It’s just one example of a lack of realism and subtlety – in another Edward Norton starts a hissy fit on stage in front of a live audience just because they didn’t let him drink. Later on, the film plays much straighter. As the camera stays with a sad Michael Keaton face for minutes at a time, we’re supposed to be emotionally invested in his fate in a very real way. We’re asked to ignore the stupidity and ridiculousness of earlier on and treat this like it is all real, not a ridiculous circus of a show. It’s too late. The pathos is dead. This has nothing to do with the Birdman hallucinations but much more to do with the slapstick of other scenes populated by supposedly real individuals.
Drama is often represented by a comedy mask and a tragedy mask. You can’t wear both at the same time and expect the audience to have the doublethink to ignore it. Comedy can have heart-breaking pathos and tragedy can be very funny and those things can be done in the same scene but you can’t undermine the very thing you want the audience to care about later. The film neither stuck with the heightened reality, nor made the characters real enough to care.
Get a piece of paper and write down everything you know about Edward Norton’s Mike apart from the fact that he is a vain actor. Considering his lengthy screen time, you really can’t write down anything. He doesn’t really seem to have an internal reality at all. He admits that he is horrible to everyone on purpose but there’s no inclination why. There’s no real investigation of why this actor’s actor enjoys acting. What’s his story arc in the film? He is a difficult actor and womaniser, he seduces someone and then the plot forgets about him. Only the most macho of meatheads would consider getting laid the end of a story arc.
There’s no real psychology at all here for this character in a film that totally hinges on you wanting to understand Riggan’s (Michael Keaton’s) psychology. The film just does not earn its pathos and dies without it.
An aged actor who is famous for playing a superhero but wants to be taken seriously playing an aged actor who is famous for playing a superhero but wants to be taken seriously would be an edgy thing to do if the world had any reality. But it doesn’t, so it’s not.
I’m really getting into my next point…..
4) …which is that the plotting is baggy. It’s really really really baggy. I’ve already mentioned that the sub plot between Norton and Emma Stone starts nowhere and goes nowhere (no character depth, no character progress, boy meets girl and has sex) but what’s more is that it’s obviously derrivative (Mike can’t get it up unless he’s onstage, which definitely isn’t stolen from that other Birdman in the most famous graphic novel there is…..) and their lines of dialogue are tedious drippy pick-up lines like a high school student’s hack version of Tarantino. Why this subplot is even there is bewildering (perhaps trying to pretend the film isn’t all about Riggan) and it should have been cut. There’s a lot else besides that should have been on the editing floor, probably because if a farce is a situational mess, it’s hard to decide which bumbling accidents stay in and which leave.
Here’s a tip. If there’s more than one scene where a younger person is explaining twitter to an older person, you haven’t cut enough from the film.
The most startling “check your watch” moments are at the end, which I’m going to spoil now. Riggan climbs a building overcome with the spirit of Birdman (his former role and egotistical alter ego) and leaps off a building. He does not fall but soars and gets a cab to act in his play. The film could have ended with the fall being an ambivalent end (he flies, which hides the more likely truth that he dies) but I didn’t mind that this wasn’t the end. Riggan goes into the play with a real gun (Checkov’s gun is alive and well in this film, and in its original form) and his character commits suicide, which is obviously for real (i.e. his Black Swan/The Wrestler dieing on stage bit). This surely should be the end of the film. No, actually he doesn’t kill himself and we have the end of the Lord of the Rings with Riggan in bed and everyone cooing around him. The play reviews were good. We should end the film on that then. No, we don’t. Riggan jumps out the window and we end on an ambivalent scene where he’s maybe flying and maybe dead.
In fact, there is no mystery. This isn’t the movie Brazil or Pan’s Labyrinth. The filmmaker is really clumsy with his magical realism. What should be the interpretation is that the magical stuff could be hallucination or could be real or that it doesn’t matter. However, Inarritu goes out of his way to show that it is not real. He constantly shows us something magical and then shows us how fake it is (Riggan’s telepathy is just throwing stuff when others see it, his flight was just a taxi cab because the guy is chasing him wanting to be paid). It’s a real downer. This means that he jumps of the roof and he is dead, no argument.
In other words, we just took way too much time to get from jumping off the roof back around to jumping off the roof.
Somewhere an unused Script Editor’s Red Pen is silently crying itself to sleep. How’s that for magical realism?
5) And no, I didn’t like the vaunted cinematography either (impressive though it is). The film is supposed to be one continuous shot but actually isn’t. And that last bit is the kicker. You KNOW that the movie is not one continuous shot and it doesn’t need to be. It’s completely obvious that the audience is being tricked that it just saps the life out of the illusion. If you trick the audience into thinking that a non-continuous shot is continuous then you pull of cinema’s magic trick. If you do the same trick in every scene, all the auidence can see is the stitch marks. Instead, every single damn scene is filmed the same. We follow someone going down a street or corridor with the camera tracking over their shoulder while they talk and when they stand still, we don’t get to see the distant background. It’s so uniform, it’s the opposite of artistic. Putting CGI dinosaurs in every scene would have been technically impressive but would have been just as fake and pointless. Filming every scene with the dutch tilt wouldn’t have done any to communicate how “lopsided” Riggan’s view of the world is.
And that’s really all I can bring myself to say.
Sometimes all the ingredients are top class but all the chef can cook up is a mud pie.
* By which I mean honest review.
** I know you only come here for liberal politics really. Just admit it.