Tuesday, December 9, 2014

'Birdman' (2014) directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu

In Birdman Michael Keaton, an actor who achieved superstardom by playing a rubber-clad superhero in the early 90s and whose career has since faltered, plays an actor who achieved superstardom by playing a rubber-clad superhero in the early 90s and whose career has since faltered.  Yup, it's going to be one of those movies.  

Iñárritu's first foray into comedy turns out to be a feature length debate about the worth of creative endeavour.  Various questions jostle for attention; the cultural worth of cinema v theatre, the notion of the 'death of the author', what comprises truth in art and the relative value of criticism.  It's densely intellectual but not cold; very quickly you sense that Iñárritu's passion for his artistic philosophy.

We first meet Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) floating serenely in midair.  He sways and bobs as he meditates, coolly observing that his dressing room "smells like balls".  He's nestled within a Broadway theatre that's staging Thomson's own adaptation of Raymond Carver's short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.  This play is Thomson's last throw of the dice, betting his fortune, his reputation and his health on its success.  After a career in shallow blockbusters and shitty comedies he craves the artistic respect that only legitimate theatre can apparently provide.  Thomson has a lot on his mind; financial, production and performance worries, not to mention the sinister voices in his head.

Thomson thus finds himself as the volatile sun at the centre of a theatrical solar system. Caught in his orbit are Jake (Zach Galifianakis), his best friend and producer of the play; Sam (Emma Stone), his fresh out of rehab daughter; Laura (Andrea Riseborough) his girlfriend and co-star, Lesley (Naomi Watts) a nervy first time Broadway actress; and Mike (Edward Norton), a method-actor prima donna.  These characters run like rats around labyrinthine backstage corridors, their egos and neuroses clashing to hilarious effect.

Their interactions are beautifully observed but, refreshingly, Birdman is as much about form as it is about narrative.  Save for two brief opening and closing scenes the film is structured to appear as if it's one single shot.  The lens glides smoothly through the building as if viewing it from the perspective of a curious ghost.  We follow characters around the corridors and onto the stage, swooping around time and space in ways obviously impossible for a physical camera.

You can almost taste the tang of the blood and sweat that's gone into making a movie like this; I'm getting a headache just thinking about the technical logistics and what you're demanding of your cast. Fortunately it pays off gangbusters.  Aided by Emmanuel Lubezki (one of the best DPs in the business) this style quickly creates a tense, appropriately theatrical, atmosphere.  The performances are shot through with electricity as we subconsciously understand that there can be no second-take, that what we're seeing is somehow realer than typical cinema.

Of course this is an illusion: perversely the naturalistic atmosphere is the result of digitally knitting together a huge number of elements.  But importantly it's an illusion that's easy to overlook.  Iñárritu's quest for some heightened state of acting truth is reflected in his character's compulsions; nearly all actors striving to inject genuine feeling in their performances.  Birdman approaches this primarily through Keaton's Thomson, who frets throughout that he just doesn't have the chops to pull off the role. 

With such a rigorous examination of  technique the film would come completely unravelled in the presence of a single iffy performance.  But everyone is great; so great that there's a decent argument this represents a career best for everyone involved.  An  obvious highlight is Edward Norton, who transmutes being a massive prick into vulnerability while simultaneously being hilarious.  But this is unquestionably Keaton's film.  Every one of his distinctive performative tics becomes a method of communicating inner turmoil to us. Much of the story is told on his expressive face, every sling and arrow hurled at him cranking up pressure which is released in increasingly bizarre (and visually fantastical) ways.

The only place the film truly comes unstuck is Iñárritu's bitter fixation on critics as instruments of destruction.  He creates a pretty flimsy strawman in a demon badguy critic who promises to destroy Thomson's play purely on the basis that she doesn't like him.  She explains that her review is the one thing that decides any New York theatrical success; a dramatic device that feels ripped more from 1930s Broadway musicals like 42nd Street or Footlight Parade than anything relevant to 2014.  Her presence gives rise to a drunken tirade in which Keaton's character lets loose his views on critics, views so strongly expressed that I can only assume they're Iñárritu's own.  

The whole sequence stinks of sour grapes, of Iñárritu is getting revenge on some critic who's disparaged him.  Brad Bird's Ratatouille trod similar ground thematic ground to Birdman and similarly featured a ferocious critic as antagonist.  Yet whereas Ratatouille's Anton Ego finds happiness through an artistic rekindling of why he enjoys food so much, Iñárritu's critic ends up having to eat her words in an unlikely front-page article where she's forced to admit that Birdman's hero (and by extension, Iñárritu) is a genius.

Maybe Iñárritu is a genius, but even so there's something nauseatingly vain about creating flimsy characters that exist only to grudgingly praise you.  Thankfully Birdman is so performatively and structurally excellent that it's easy to overlook this.  There's an embarrassment of cinematic riches tucked away in here; from the spine-tinglingly good moments of magical realism, to the emotional intensity, to the gobsmacking technical accomplishments, right through to the jazz drum solo score.

It's not quite perfect, but it comes painfully close. If you have any interest in cinema, performance and culture in general it's a hands down must see.


Birdman is released January 1st.

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