Trailer for the film here. Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight.
We've all seen children walk out of a movie convinced it's their new favorite of all time. You sense their heady excitement as they rhapsodize their favorite scenes and wallow in the glory of newfound exhilaration. Then, a week later, they'll have forgotten all about it.
I tend to hesitate before canonizing a new film, because I don't want to confuse such euphoria with a thoughtful appraisal of quality. Usually, only time separates the grain from the chaff. Those who went around ten years ago saying Lord of the Rings were the best films ever made are probably biting their tongues now, just as the Academy doesn't like to trumpet that it voted How Green Was My Valley over Citizen Kane for Best Picture 1941.
But there have been a few times when, backed up by all your film knowledge, and by the undeniability of what you're looking at, you know this is a film which will be talked about in twenty years' time. Many great films are being made now, but there's a different feeling between watching those and watching a masterpiece like the great American films of the seventies or Western European films of the sixties. It's rare, but sometimes that feeling will surface while watching a new movie: you're sitting in the theatre, and you feel awed by a presence, an entity that is slightly beyond your understanding, and you know you're witnessing something particularly special.
It takes some serious confidence (maybe hubris is more accurate) as a critic to place a new release alongside the sacred cows. Remember when, in 1962, L'Avventura was voted by Sight and Sound as one of the ten best films of all time, only two years after it was made? And how right they turned out to be. Can you imagine a serious publication doing that now?
I'm here to argue that Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Birdman is just such a piece. It's the new 8 1/2. It is a crowning achievement not just of the year, but of this quarter-century. I think it's an easy argument to make.
Birdman follows a washed-up actor (Michael Keaton) whose fading career was built on playing a superhero (the birdman of the title) over and over again. Now, seeking to restore some credibility to his name, he's mounting a Broadway play based on a Raymond Carver story. He's plagued by self-doubt, a lead actor who threatens to destroy the production through sheer force of attitude, a critic determined to end the play's run, and a daughter who doesn't believe in him. And every now and then, he floats in the air, or causes things to move by themselves. Also starring are Ed Norton, Naomi Watts, Zach Galafianakis, Emma Stone, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, and others.
What's so great about that story, you would do well to ask. I'll respond by quoting Roger Ebert: it's not what the movie's about, it's how it's about it. It's all impeccably acted and written, but when we're talking about film of the decade, you expect that. Two things elevate it.
Birdman taps into something universal. It's not really about the "inside baseball" of actors and the stage and the New York theatre scene, although it traffics realistically in that milieu. It's about the universal human urge to be loved, and it's about a man who, like almost all of us, confuses love with admiration. He yearns for the affirmation of respect, and his craving for that vastly supercedes the love he could have in his life. He wants to prove his own self-worth to himself, but his desires are such that he needs the involvement and confirmation from others... and in that path danger lies.
Milan Kundera wrote that we all wish to "leave a mark," as it were, to defy mortality in our own small way by offering a contribution that will outlast our physical lives. For many people, this means having children. For others, it means making art. Some do both, but in any event, there is the need to create, to alter the course of the stream a little, prove that at one time, you really existed. Riggan Thomson (the Keaton character) feels this need in desperation, and the concentrated form of his trying to realize it with this one play allows for much rich dramatic exploration.
Inarritu considers these dilemmas in a way that feels immediate. One feels very little separation from the screen and ourselves; he's captured the zeitgeist (allow me that overused phrase just once, as it's entirely justified here) on a level that is uncanny. The film explores so many aspects of how we live today– the trappings, the thought patterns, the change, the shifts in language and perspective– and does so with a weary smile, a tone that manages to be both existential and comedic. I'm struggling with the words here. The film, with images and sounds, conveys what I cannot with mere words. If I could capture it all, well, the film wouldn't be so special. There is the moment between Ed Norton and Emma Stone on the rooftop; Emma Stone's diatribe against her dad; the indelible conversation between Keaton and the theatre critic, and the one with his ex-wife.
Inarritu has spoken of the film having much to do with his turning fifty, and the resulting rethinking and reorientation of his priorities. He also speaks of wanting to confront these issues not with cynicism, but with humor. It's worth quoting a short interview passage at length:
"I was particularly interested in — two things. One, never be ironic or cynical. I'm so fucking tired of the irony and cynicism that rules the fucking culture and world now. Everything has to be cool. Everything has to be detached emotionally. Everything has to be a little bit too smart. Nothing is really truthful or honest or emotional. There's always this ironic take on everything. And I didn't really want to be a smartass laughing about these characters or pointing or preaching at the industry, because everyone knows where we are. I was always careful that everything would come from the point of view of Riggan, not me commenting on it. Because there were a lot of comments I could have done, but we had to be restrained, because that would have been the "smartass writer." So everything comes from the truth of Michael. With the theater critic, we didn't want to portray bad or good. From the point of view of the critic, she's absolutely right. From the point of view of Riggan, he's absolutely right."
This lack of irony in the film's perspective seems to be a common element I'm noticing in films being made now that I think will stand the test of time. "We've reached the peak of fake," a friend recently told me, and it will be outdated in the years to come like we wouldn't believe. In the way that realism and naturalistic acting will never go out of style, truth and sincerity have a currency that cuts through the passing fads. Variety's Peter Debruge writes that like The Great Beauty, Birdman "never allow[s] its justifiable cynicism to drown out what idealism remains." How refreshing.
This, as well as the non-judging warmth Inarritu has for his imperfect characters, have a palpable effect on the film's tone, and make it quite unlike many other movies. Regular readers will know how much I delight in these two perspectives.
The other element that elevates Birdman is Inarritu's decision to have the entire film appear to be shot in a single, continuous take. I cannot stress what a big deal this is. Birdman isn't actually shot in a single take– like Alfred Hitchcock's Rope, there are a few spots where the camera slides behind someone's back or somesuch, allowing for an invisible cut– but that's not the point.
The point is that (save for one scene) we never see the camera cut from one image to another image. We've been watching a century's worth of films that do this, and have intuitively learned the grammar by which films communicate. Editing is what allows film to be its own art form. All its other elements– acting, photography, writing, music, sets– those all stem from other disciplines. Only in film can you juxtapose moving images, and achieve the magic of, by placing two images after each other, cause a third element (a thought in the viewer's head) to manifest. By watching hundreds of films that do this, we've learned the language of cinema whether we know it or not, in much the same way we've learned English.
Birdman has none of that.
To watch amounts to experiencing a new art form, much like filmmaking but strangely different. The camera glides down hallways and around people with dazzling high-wire grace. There is the visual idea that life flows together. It's not a fragmentation of time and space, but an ongoing mobius strip of connected moments. We subconsciously know that a cut can hide truth; imagine a scene of two people at a table, with the camera cutting between them, showing first one person, than the other. Because of that cutting, we know there's a possibility the two were never actually seated at the table together. Now imagine the camera not cutting, but panning back and forth between the two people– you know now, with confidence, that the two people are really there together, at the same time. The continuous, unbroken shot is one of the last hallmarks of truth in cinema. We know the monsters are fake; we know the backgrounds might be computer-animated; but a moving, unbroken shot is very hard to fabricate. Because of this, Birdman feels startlingly real.
Aside from the effect the single take has on us (and the aesthetic joy of watching how and where it will drift to next), there is also the effect it has on the film's production. Film scholar Kristin Thomson once wrote of her love of animated movies. She began to notice many of her favorite films at years' end were animated, and she concluded that it wasn't because they were animated, but because of how good they were. She theorized this was because unlike live-action filmmaking, animation leaves absolutely no room for improvisation or quick (or lazy) decisions. Every single thing must be meticulously planned and considered before the money is invested on animating it. All this thought, she argued, tended to result in superior quality.
The same can be said of Birdman. Because the film isn't a series of a few hundred shots, but perhaps just five or so, it can't be "edited." Inarritu speaks of feeling "totally naked" in the making of it– you couldn't make a single mistake on set, or the entire elaborate shot would have to be redone. Everything had to be thought about and planned out. He couldn't spend six months in the editing room intellectualizing everything and rethinking the film and fixing mistakes, no; all of that thought had to be done beforehand, and synthesized into the moment of shooting. Rather than just shooting a handful of standard setups and figuring it out later, where the camera is at any given time was given tremendous consideration– what does it mean for both characters to be in the frame right now? Should he be in the corner, or in the center, in relation to whom? Whose point of view is this scene to be told from?
There you have it. I won't wrap up this review with a string of superlatives. Instead I'll repeat a line from the film, in which Keaton takes the theatre critic to task for her reviews, and so succinctly states everything wrong with film criticism today: "there's nothing in here about technique, or structure, or intention...it's just a bunch of opinions backed up by a bunch of other comparisons!"
I hope I have offered a review that does the former, and offers some insight and analysis into something you might really love. Give it a chance.