15 December 2014

"Birdman" Review

By the end of the film, it's clear that "Birdman" sees itself as a reinvention of current cinema. From the onset Iñárritu makes it known that his enemy are current, popular films specifically the superhero genre and sets forth to attack them. Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) needs a replacement actor for the one he's just lost. His actor friends--whom Iñárritu has no qualms using real actors' names and the films they're actually involved in, giving the film a sense of personal spite--are all busy making superhero films. The information comes to Riggan right after watching a newsreel concerned with the massive amount of money that Robert Downey Jr. is currently raking in from the "Iron Man" franchise and frankly Riggan is quite disgusted, believing himself to be a much more talented actor than Downey or so his dual persona Birdman tells us. Riggan himself was known for playing the role of Birdman in his own superhero franchise but opted out and retired. Out of the spotlight, he's now directing his own stage play in order to not only become famous again but to prove that he also has artistic merit and is more than just another superhero film actor. 

To Riggan and by extension Iñárritu as both the screenwriter and director, the superhero genre is connotative of something "low-class," and the films which occupy it are purely commercial products, commercial being the antithesis of "artistic." Riggan's obsession with making an "artistic" product, one that moves away from the normal conventions of commercial products, is just one of the many ideas that are played both in and out of "Birdman." Michael Keaton himself played the role of Batman in Tim Burton's "Batman" reboot of the 90s and chose to not continue playing the character after two films. Keaton, like Riggan, also largely remained out of the real world spotlight and "Birdman" is a chance for Keaton to prove himself as much as Riggan's directorial, Broadway play is a chance for him to do the same. The actor that Riggan finds to replace the one he's just lost is played by Edward Norton, Norton's character, Mike Shiner, being the only person who is available. Norton himself played the role of Bruce Banner in the 2008 reboot of "The Incredible Hulk," a role that was meant to be reoccurring but saw Norton being dropped out of the role after having a fallout with Marvel's film studios over creative differences. "Birdman" itself is a film that comes in the middle of the superhero genre revival, this year alone seeing the theatrical release of five big-budget Hollywood superhero films.

The reflection between the real world and Iñárritu's own is an attempt to give "Birdman" self-reflexivity and while the film does achieve a sense of being "meta," if what "Birdman" is interested in is being a reinvention of cinema in order to break away from those commercial products, then it doesn't necessarily achieve anything new or radical. "Birdman's" most interesting aspect is its use of digital film and editing in order to give the appearance of being one, singular long-take. The hardcuts are invisible and with the narrative taking place over the course of two days, the use of long-take gives the impression that we as the audience are actually there experiencing the events ourselves. Iñárritu's camera is one that at first remains stationary but as the characters move, so does the camera, gliding through streets, hallways and staircases.

The problem that Iñárritu does run into, is filming the stage itself. Stage acting is far different from its film counterpart, usually calling for more bravado, gusto and emotion because unlike film, there is no editing or camera techniques to help heighten these elements. When the camera does get to the stage is when "Birdman" feels the least powerful. One scene in which the actors are rehearsing a dinner meal has the camera constantly panning around the table during the conversation, giving a sense of unnecessary nausea. Others just seem as if the angles were arbitrarily picked just for the reason of filming what was on stage.

The problem is further heightened by the fact that the actors in "Birdman" themselves just continue playing their roles in Riggan's play as they do in Iñárritu's film. It's clear that they're not actually acting for a stage play but for a film because there's no difference between their stage acting and their film acting. It is not the fault of the actors however. Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, and Emma Stone all bring great performances. When its onstage Iñárritu seems to be at a loss as to how to direct his actors. Scenes in Riggan's play that are meant to come across as moving instead come off as dull when Iñárritu decides to film them from behind. If Iñárritu's use of long-take and gliding camera are meant to put us there, then it fails when he creates a distinction in how we view Riggan's play and how the audience within the film views the play. Critics like André Bazin and directors like Andrei Tarkovsky favored the long-take for its ability to give a film a "realistic" aesthetic and this is an idea that Iñárritu himself nods at. Frustrated with Riggan's inability to direct, one scene has Shiner exclaim over the "fakeness" of Riggan's set and wont over a more "real" set. Once again, "Birdman" achieves being meta yet this comes off as a passing novelty rather than anything revolutionary.

It is not that I interpret "Birdman" as an attempt to reinvigorate or reinvent cinema but that the film does so itself. In creating his film, Iñárritu sets about a number of references to Jean-Luc Godard--a director known for his radical break away from conventional cinema. The credits themselves are done in an manner to that of Godard's own stylized credits. Furthermore, "Birdman's" soundtrack is one that prominently features drums. The drums here don't adhere to a rhythm however and play off-beat, imitating Riggan's own life. The reference to Godard comes in the form of the camera panning over an actual drummer playing the film's soundtrack, a technique used by Godard in his film "Weekend." Unlike "Weekend (a film which simply sees itself as being "adrift in the cosmos")," there is nothing radical with "Birdman," which instead plays it safe by having its opponent be a strawman.

In being a film whose plot involves an artist hovering between the lines of fantasy and reality, "Birdman" also shares similarities with Federico Fellini's own "8½." Both Guido in Fellini's film and Riggan in Iñárritu's occupy a space of mental breakdown. Where Fellini presents Guido's breakdown in a more quiet, subdued manner which in turn comes off as being powerful for its portrayal, Riggan's is one of physical violence, calling for an explosive energy that's dull for its attempt to be powerful. The irony stems from another scene in "Birdman" where Riggan's dual persona lambasts the audience for wanting a violent spectacle of a film rather than an artistic one. While that scene in itself is ironic to prove a point, the one portraying Riggan's breakdown is not.

The final similarity between Fellini's film and Iñárritu's is its use of a critic as a character. "8½." features a film critic who's not only Guido's friend but offers him advice on the film Guido's making. While the film critic's dialogue may at first come off as insulting, as the film goes on the opinion of the critic changes and it is clear that we as the audience are meant to occupy the role of the critic, who slowly comes to understand Guido's work. Fellini portrays the critic as understanding yet Iñárritu's own critic is one that plays into a stereotype. Writing for The New York Times, Tabitha Duncan is a theatre critic whose review can make or break a production. There's a hostility between Riggan and Duncan for no reason other than Riggan's creative past, a reason which comes across as being conveniently written into the script. Duncan then warns Riggan that no matter what she'll write a scathing review of his play out of spite--a move, especially coming from a professional critic for The Times, that doesn't seem very professional at all. Riggan dismisses her, however, stating that it doesn't matter what she thinks.

SPOILER ALERT: After the opening night, however, Duncan is impressed by Riggan's play and writes a glorifying review (her review being the alternate title of the film, "The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance") where she says that Riggan's play breathes new life into the theatre. It is now that Duncan's words aren't ones to be ignored but taken to heart. A critic's word is then only good if they agree with you.The words of Duncan then reflect the ideology of the film as a whole yet Iñárritu is too self-congratulating when his film comes too little, too late.