Dir. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, 2014
When I heard about this movie, I loved the idea of the Riggan/Birdman character and the referential casting of Michael Keaton. But going into it, Birdman also had two things that already annoyed me: it is shot in one long take* (I’ll explain the asterisks later), and second, it has a subtitle (something that perhaps only Dr. Strangelove has ever pulled off). Both of those scream pretension: the use of a showy or artificial, ostentatious technique just to show off. Not that there isn’t a place for ostentatious technique, it can be fun, and occasionally works with the right concept. However, the single-take appears to be employed here solely to hide the fact that there is nothing new or honest about this film. Russian Ark, as one single long take, had the motivation to conceptualize the progression of history and time; an edit would have suggested ellipsis, interruption, or condensation. The single take in Birdman does not seem to have any such motivation. It could have been psychologically tied to Riggan/Birdman, but then the camera becomes omnipresent, leaving Riggan to check in on various sub-plots. The claustrophobia of the backstage set, the blurried concept of time, could easily have been achieved using any other film techniques. But what’s so bad about using a single take in this film? It’s cool right? In Birdman such a technique robs the film of its credibility . In relying on a this single take it reveals itself as a terribly disingenuous movie. Thematically, the film is a rather simplistic diatribe (about as nuanced as the way this season of The Newsroom feels about new media) against social media and the proliferation of CGI driven Superhero films, even going so far at it’s most ridiculous point to break the fourth wall and chew out the audience for wishing the film had more action (while also providing more action, somehow showing us something and then yelling at us for watching it), but shoots the film in a digitally enabled faux single take (that’s the asterisk), made possible by the very same digital technologies as Superhero film effects.
The backstage farce is a tried and true formula. There are dozens of plays about it, as well as a number of similarly behind the scenes films. The basic idea is to juxtapose the artificial nature of the characters with the foibles of the actors who play those parts, or the idealism of the theme of the play with the messy real life of those involved in producing such an ideal narrative. This happens once again in Birdman, but the characters behind the characters, the actors playing the characters in the play, are as one-dimensional as the characters they portray. We’ve got the washed up actor who has an estranged but kindly ex-wife, a troubled teen daughter, a drunk but diva actor, a comically stressed producer, the crusty and powerful theater critic; within the film this feels like a checklist more than conceptualized cast of characters. And Innaritu only seems to allow his actors, who really do try in this movie (they’re what saved the film for me [thus the 2 stars] and Galifianakis [yeah, I spelled his name right on the first try!] and Naomi Watts aren’t getting enough praise for their performances), only two registers from which to act (loud and louder). He seems to confuse scorn with wit, as if the only thing he has picked up from farce is the violent act of slamming doors.
All of this adds a feeling of toxicity to this film. Nearly all backstage farces, a play like Fryan’s Noises Off or a movie Truffout’s like Day for Night, are ultimately valentines to the mediums they depict as created by broken or kooky people. By the end, Birdman decides that movies are crass commercials and that plays are dishonest attempts at art using an outdated tradition to appeal to legitimacy. At one point, Riggan encounters a homeless man screaming a monologue from Macbeth . In another version of this film this would have been used as a raissoneur, the voice of reason that perhaps honest expression can be found somewhere in performance. But it turns out he’s really just looking for a job and is willing to change his performance to whatever Riggan wants. As if the film isn’t nihilistic enough about performance, in the final development of the film (one that if it’s supposed to be unexpected is obviously set up in some screenwriting 101 methods), actual violence is seen, or misconstrued, as the only true art left. This has been done before…lot (for a better version of this idea see the “15 Million Credits” episode of Black Mirror. It’s streaming on Netflix and is one of the best episodes of TV I’ve ever seen). But I have no idea what position Inarritu takes on it because at the last, vital moment he flinches and lets Riggan just float away. If he agrees with Gang of Four that “the corpse is the new personality,” that his act was an expression of despair mistaken as art, we don’t see Riggan become Howard Beale or Kafka’s Hunger Artist, where he’s now stuck in some deeper level of hell where expression is coopted by the mainstream. If he agrees with the NY Times critic that violence is the only true art left, we don’t see if Riggan venturing into a GG Allin or Abramovic-esque career. And if this was Inarritu’s take, with its CGI, familiar storyline, and gimmicky long take this is the wrong movie to make that argument. Instead, he just gives us another sweeping crane shot.
But maybe that homeless actor is the voice of Inarritu. Maybe his use of Macbeth’s final soliloquy wasn’t because a comment of Riggan’s character, mortality, or attempts to make art, but about the very film he was making. Inarritu is far from Macbeth’s “idiot” (as much as I also hated Babel), he’s talented; but after “fretting and strutting” its two hours on the screen this movie, with its long take and drum-driven score, felt like it was (and this is such an obvious and lazy way to end this review, but seriously, you left me no other option) “full of sound and fury/signifying nothing.”