Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu)

Posted: January 13, 2015 in Uncategorized

“Birdman” looks to examine the state of art today.  That’s a mighty big goal for any film.  Film itself, as a medium, can sometimes be art, but the massive amounts of money needed to fund a film usually prohibit films that aren’t more than entertainment appealing to the largest amount of people possible from getting made.  If those films are made, they likely won’t get much marketing or a release with enough visibility to ensure people actually give it a look-see, and a small non-theatrical release usually robs your film of any chance at gaining prestige.  Because of these monetary hurdles, and film is the world’s most expensive art form at this moment, most films which are made are simply entertainment.  That isn’t to say art can’t be entertaining, or that entertainment cannot rise to the level of art, but for the most part films tend to be one or the other.  Take a look at the top 10 grossing films of any given year.  Now contrast that with the top 10 most well-reviewed films of that same year.  My guess is few years will have heavy overlap between the two categories.

I love a good piece of mindless (or semi-mindless) entertainment as much as the next guy.  Was “Guardians of the Galaxy” a great film with a ton of messages that said something important about our world or the human condition? Hell no!  But I, and most likely you, the reader, liked that film.  It was the highest grossing film of 2014, as of this writing.  Would you say it was the best film of 2014?  If you would, I would advise you to see more films and I’ll ask you again.  I bring up “Guardians” because it is a film based on a comic book, and comic book movies and their ilk are the films making the most money and getting the most acclaim from “average folk”, by which I mean people who go to the movies but don’t live and breathe them like critics, people in the industry, and hardcore film geeks like yours truly.  The Marvel Cinematic Universe alone is raking in billions of dollars from the plebeians who file into their local Cineplex to watch the next “Iron Man” or “Thor” without having the least bit of interest in a film like “Birdman”.  I say this not to hate on comic book movies, which like any genre have their highs and lows, but to simply state that there is a larger audience for entertainment in film than there is for art in film.

“Birdman” is about this and more, much more.  The film questions whether art has a point when it is less popular than junk (and the film certainly views comic book films as junk for mindless, crass simpletons).  It wonders if theater is a more worthwhile medium when ticket prices for Broadway are so prohibitively expensive that only rich white people can see them and are unlikely to care about art’s messages an themes, and are no better than the people who see comic book movies for entertainment, save for their pretentiousness and affectations toward being “cultured”.  It questions whether it is better to be a true actor or just a movie star, and if an actor is really any better in the first place.  It also questions whether criticism is useful any more, or if it’s just become a worthless cacophony of opinion and buzzwords.

Perhaps an overview of the plot is in order. Riggan Thomson (an excellent and sorely missed Michael Keaton) was famous in the early 90s for playing a superhero named Birdman in three films.  Yes, Keaton himself was Batman in two films around the same time, but aside from the stunt casting there’s not much direct metafictional stuff going on about this.  Twenty years have passed, and Riggan wants to recapture the public’s affection and respect by adapting, directing, and starring in a play based on a Raymond Carver short story.  He’s sunk a lot of money into the production, and stands to lose more than just his reputation if it sinks, which it seems like it just may.  His lawyer (Zach Galifianakis) does an admirable job of trying to help him, and his fresh out of rehab daughter (Emma Stone, all big-eyed and husky-voiced) is his assistant who seems to stand above the fray and is perhaps both more and less deep than she seems.  When a lousy actor is injured in a freak accident, he is replaced by Mike (Edward Norton), a method actor who is respected in Broadway circles, and who looks down upon Riggan as some Studio Hack.

The film is comprised of long takes that are edited together to seem like one shot, much the way Hitchcock made “Rope”.  Unlike “Rope”, the film is not meant to take place in real time, and transitions into shadows or with a nice dissolve allow for a passage of time that these faux-continuous take films rarely attempt.  This gives the film an also play-like feel, which helps as we spend so much time in the theater and watching this play-within-a-film go on.  The fluidity of the camera and the behind-the-scene nihilism make for some shallow and cosmetic comparisons to “Black Swan”, but any similarities end there, as “Birdman” is much less concerned with plot than with dealing with issues.  Unlike other “issues” movies, however, “Birdman” doesn’t skimp on giving us fully realized characters that we are interested in.

So to the main question the film brings up: Is art useful?  Regardless of my own opinion, what does the film argue?  Honestly, I don’t know.  The film is pretty pessimistic and nihilistic through its run, as we deal with characters who are largely up their own ass and oblivious to their own flaws even as they think they know what is wrong with themselves.  The play Riggan puts on is ultimately deemed to be accidental art, which I suppose is the closest thing to an argument the film makes about art: it sometimes happens by accident and against all odds.  I suppose this is true.  Hollywood doesn’t try to make good movies, it tries to make movies that will make a profit.  If the finished product happens to be art, all the better.  The subtitle of this film, “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance” seems to speak to that.  Every now and then we get a film that was only meant to be entertainment but rises to the level of art (“The Exorcist” is perhaps a famous example, a horror film that surpasses expectations to be more than the sum of its parts), but you can’t really try to make popular entertainment art.  If you do this, you’ll end up with pretentious dribble that might sort of succeed as entertainment at best (“Avatar” comes to mind).  So if art does exist, even if by accident, does it really cause people to examine things about themselves and the world around them?  Speaking only for myself: yes.  I guess that’s the thing, though.  We all interpret art through our personal lens, and what speaks to one may not speak to another, or to any other.  If art can exist, does it need to be useful to all or most?  “Birdman” seemingly has no opinion.

To a lesser extent, any question “Birdman” asks of film it also asks of theater, but both my non-expertise in that medium’s business model and its ins and outs prohibit my full analysis of what the film may be saying about it in total.  Clearly it looks down on the bourgeois audiences who make up theater’s crowd simply because they are the only ones can afford to do so regularly.  The attempts by “Rent” and other productions to make Broadway’s audience more egalitarian don’t seem to have worked, and a ticket to a live performance remains prohibitively expensive for most people.

“Birdman” is clearly an angry film, though an angry film that channels its emotion through satire and inventiveness.  I suppose any serious filmmaker working Hollywood today is probably upset that hundreds of superhero films and “Transformers” movies can get made, but serious films from serious talents have trouble getting funding and reaching the light of day.  I imagine they hate the very same audiences they want to see and enjoy their films.  I can understand that.  I’d gladly trade nearly every summer blockbuster for one film a year from David Fincher, Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan, or any other true auteur working in or around the Hollywood system.  It sucks that one crappy movie where computer animated robots fight other computer animated robots will make more money than most other films combined and spawn numerous sequels and rip-offs for decades, and idiots will eat them up only to ask for more, when great films will go unremembered and little loved. I long to go back to the Hollywood of the 1970s where films were inventive and took risks and were both entertaining and meant something.

Of course, “Birdman” also argues that withdrawing into pretentiousness is no answer either.  Norton’s character is a parody of every self-serious actor who thinks he’s becoming another person or feels he needs to be drunk to play a drunk character, but is really just an asshole who is no better than the celebrity who has his own demons.  Norton’s Mike may be a better actor than Keaton’s Riggan, but both Mike and Riggan are similarly deluded assholes.  Riggan’s own pretentiousness, to adapt and add to a short story and attempt to give people something he feels they need to see rather than something they want to see, is nearly the height of solipsism, and a solipsistic artist can only every really play to an audience of himself.

Lastly, director Alejandro González Iñárritu clearly views most critics as hacks who cannot truly analyze or deconstruct art, but rather have their own personal axes to grind and lazily resort to easy insults or compliments that sound flowery yet mean nothing.  I don’t necessarily disagree with Iñárritu, as I have read more than my share of bad film reviews, but like Burton’s “Big Eyes”, I think the director is lumping all critics into a bad pile simply out of his own anger.  Iñárritu has made very good films prior to this, including the extremely depressing but excellent “21 Grams”, and the Mexican “Pulp Fiction”, “Amores Perros”, but his ambitious “Babel” was something of a failure, and he may still be smarting from the mixed and bad reviews he got from that film.  It was after that film where he retreated and made another Spanish-language film, “Biutiful” (unseen by me), and has now returned to the American indie scene.  At the very least, he should be happy with the reviews “Birdman” has been getting, and the film is kind of brilliant.  Not many films attempt to deal with whether art (and film) have outlived their usefulness or not.  If he wants to throw in an attack on critics, and also kind of lump in entertainment reporters who ask moronic tabloid questions about pig semen with them, well, his film has earned him that right.

If “Birdman” suffers, it does so in some plotting.  The lesbian kiss between two characters (Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough), and those two characters plot lines in general, are superfluous and add little to the film’s points.  We get some relationship drama and a bit of commentary related to ingénues w/r/t Watts, but ultimately these two characters don’t need to be here.  Perhaps because of the faux-single-take format, we do have individual scenes here and there which seem like filler, but removing or cutting them would have messed up the format and were likely left in the film, in their entirety, for that reason.  The dalliance between Norton and Stone feels like a forced plot point.  Also, the ending of the film is telegraphed pretty damn early, thus undercutting the power of a key scene late in the film (it could be said to be the film’s climax, but one more scene follows it before the end).

Minor quibbles aside, this is a well-acted, well-directed film that attempts to examine the state of art, entertainment, film, drama, and criticism as it exists today.  Not only that, it does so in a way that is often both hilariously funny and heart-crushingly depressing and nihilistic at the same time.  If the film needed some more tweeking, or bites off more than it can chew, we can hardly blame it.  I’d rather see this movie than another “Iron Man” any day of the week. B+


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s