BIRDMAN (or ‘The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance’)
How do I make my case here… My initial reaction on BIRDMAN was the same as 2013’s American Hustle. Both were critically-acclaimed, flashy comedic ensembles which in my opinion are hyped than what they’re worth. Succeeding the ostentatious 70’s costume party of bluffers, an egoistic troupe of praise-thirsty theater actors pressure themselves to be more authentic than what their craft requires, and get caught up in their self-proclaimed genius. Maybe it’s Hollywood guffawing at the absurdities of its industry who are more eager to please themselves than the viewers. Maybe it’s the black comedy’s pseudo-surrealist take of an aging actor’s ‘existential crisis’ (which is the candid alternate to the melodrama of Black Swan’s similar sadistic fate) that make it so epic. Or maybe it’s show business hurrahing its fondness for big comebacks in the likes of Michael Keaton and Edward Norton. The satirical swag and star power blasted off BIRDMAN since its Venice International Film Festival debut. But to be honest, there isn’t really too much to brag in Director Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu’s latest film. The deprecating humor is touché but BIRDMAN is a crazed tableau, too engrossed on its stage presence and is nothing more once the curtains are closed. Plainly put, it’s Hollywood irrelevantly, not irreverently, making fun of itself – which makes it (somewhere between) a fool or a genius. You tell me.
Behind the scenes of Birdman
Brushing the hostility aside, BIRDMAN is a unique exhibition of film-making, or in kinder words, a trail-blazer in its field. The film’s technical team succeeds in pulling off a different feel of its unflattering setting. It doesn’t digitally alter the dull insides of the theater building; rather, it plays with the viewer’s perception by shooting BIRDMAN to appear as if it’s a 119-minute long, single-take movie. Such meticulousness behind the camera (credits to cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki who won the Oscar for Gravity, e.g. the breathtaking 10-minute exospheric shot of planet Earth) is itself commendable. The beguiling visual design and unconventional drum score parading Riggan Thomson’s restlessness effectively conjures a surrealist view in a modern setting that adds to the film’s spatial ‘hook’. There’s something about how the camera tracks the cast (and linger at them during climatic monologues) that the viewers are kept fixated. Thematically, this is how BIRDMAN works: it is nestled on the characters’ constant need and want of attention. From the external adoration of huge ticket sales and positive theater reviews, to the varying degrees of narcissism, the film is flamboyant at its finest. But that doesn’t excuse itself from its polarizing self-consciousness.
Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) backstage
BIRDMAN’s so-called brilliance comes from its uncanny execution of ‘life imitating art imitating life’. In that case, each of the characters is a mild/exaggerated representation of the stereotypes in Hollywood: the aging actor pining for a comeback (Keaton), the in-demand and audacious performer (Norton), the struggling actress aiming for her career break (Naomi Watts), the tolerant yet pressured producer (Zach Galifianakis) and the top critic whom everyone tries to please (Lindsay Duncan). But in its cheeky attempt to recreate the business of show business in Riggan’s eyes, what the audience can only perceive is the one-dimensional importance BIRDMAN parades around. I try to understand the reasoning behind the film’s universal acclaim. Sure it’s showy in terms of the acting (Norton > Emma Stone > Keaton) and the cinematography. But contrary the visual treat, what message does BIRDMAN want to send? (Warning: bird puns) It’s not exactly a raven that delivers a context that could fall among the following: (a) the cautionary tale of making a comeback; (b) the existential crisis of living in a world where one’s relevance is at stake; and (c) the unspoken trauma and dangerous ambition of working in Hollywood in the form of the nagging Birdman. Rather, I see a parrot that doesn’t say anything coherent and new to make itself matter thematically.
There are many other films that address the quest and consequences of stardom (or a comeback that’s not limited to Hollywood) which greatly benefit from a deeper characterization; whereas BIRDMAN only flies around with vanity written in varying degrees among its characters. The last scene, which ponders on Riggan’s myth, is most guilty of intolerable narcissism on film. Instead of challenging Sam’s blistering honesty, Director Innaritu ignores this most important sentiment and proceeds with Riggan’s self-styled artistic genius. The more the film prods on its alleged relevance, the more it becomes ineffective and unconvincing of its aspirations. BIRDMAN’s isn’t a story of reinvention but self-preservation born out of conceit. It clamors for import through its satirical depiction of Hollywood but unfortunately becomes too self-important in the process. (Spoiler) To brand its flawed lead as ‘compelling’, Riggan throws himself out of the window and let viewers bask on his irrational method of validation. All I’m saddled with is a glamorized gimmick that talks too much but tells little to justify on why it should matter.
Sam (Emma Stone) confronting her father, Riggan
I, too, was excited to see the ‘greatness’ of BIRDMAN. The restiveness among the characters was a thrill to watch (a cathartic combustion of 2014’s best ensemble) while the cinematography was, at first, a strange experience but it eventually won me over. However, with so much focus on the obvious, it forgot to be subtle; the movie’s overall message went lost in its ego. Worse, it’s criminally overlooked.
Since this post wraps up my reviews of the Best Picture nominees, here’s my “official” ranking: (linked to my Letterboxd account): 1. The Grand Budapest Hotel 2. Whiplash 3. Boyhood 4. Selma 5. The Imitation Game 6. Birdman 7. The Theory of Everything 8. American Sniper
Photos grabbed from Eclipse Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, The Wrap