Black Swan Meets Louie in the Film of the Year
Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance) combines a story so good it needs no trickery with a visual gimmick so well-executed we’d be talking about it even if the story sucked. I’ll give you a hint: it’s all one shot. Or at least, the cuts are seamless enough that the whole film feels like one long tracking shot, following a washed-up superhero actor (Keaton) as he tries to transition from the quick cuts of film to the extended acting exercise of theater (all designed by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who also gave us the 14-minute opener in Gravity). In an age of Cleatus the Football Robot and the Tupac hologram, where your average CNN segment requires more tech than the first three Star Wars movies, making the construction invisible is ironically one of the few things that can still make people say, “How did they do that?!?” anymore. Birdman will have you searching for the seams, while the narrative constantly drags your eyes back to what it wants you to see like a sleight of hand.
The beauty of Birdman‘s construction is that it’s not just a clever trick. The story is all about artifice and public persona and seeing what you want to see, the seamless tracking shot the perfect device for depicting a zeitgeist defined by never quite knowing where depiction ends and real life begins. It’s a riff on the idea of public identity set in a time when even your shut-in aunt has a kind of virtual “stage persona.” “Where are the seams?” isn’t just a trick, it’s the point. And dammit, I was trying to get through this whole review without using “zeitgeist.” I’m sorry.
But that’s what Birdman is, a film that attempts comment on blogs and Vines and tweets and Amanda Bynes and manages to do it without turning into a fifth grade book report about social media or a Sorkin-esque paean to every angry old white guy who hates hipsters — with their apps and their smart phones and their overpriced brunch restaurants that only serve toast. GRR! DOESN’T ANYONE WRITE LETTERS ANYMORE?!
It’s a pleasure to watch because it’s more about taking what culture offers and using them as playthings than it is about self-flagellating or exposing the shallowness of media. More like Extras or Curb Your Enthusiasm than The Social Network or Men, Women, and Children. A meta-textual, play-about-a-play riff on Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (the story Michael Keaton’s character, Riggan Thomson, is trying to adapt for the stage), Birdman is funny enough to enjoy without understanding the allusions (though they’re certainly added value for future viewings).
It’s clever and artfully constructed, sure, but even better, Birdman is just really goddamned funny. In addition to the Black Swan trick of playing Michael Keaton against his ambiguously imaginary alter ego, it steals from the Louie playbook of constantly playing the mundane against this kind of comedic magical realism or visual hyperbole. Did you ever see that Louie opening where some garbage men are outside Louie’s apartment making a racket, and then the next thing you know, they’re actually inside his bedroom smashing up all his furniture? It’s like that. The mundane is constantly transforming into the absurd and back again, like a climax in which Keaton’s Thomson gets a robe caught in a locked door and ends up running through Time Square in his underwear, people filming him all the while, one yelling “you look so old in person!”
The Carver story, incidentally, consists largely of an argument about whether it’s love when a partner can love you so much he tries to kill you. You’re free to meditate as long as you want on how that dovetails with the idea of fame (“You always confused love with admiration,” Thomson’s ex tells him), but Birdman’s meditative riffs almost always land back in a grounded place, and with a punchline.
“Why don’t I have any self respect?” Naomi Watts’ character asks during a crying jag. “You’re an actress, honey,” says her co-star, played by Andrea Riseborough.
I expected art, and meditations on identity. I did not expect the 21 Grams guy to turn in such a crowd-pleaser. I guess we’ll call that the unexpected virtue of ignorance.
Like Inside Llewyn Davis before it, Birdman depicts the struggle of creating great art as an inherent paradox of having ideas important enough to want to share while constantly having to step outside of yourself to ask, “Why should anyone give a shit?” The struggle of trying to make narcissism and self-awareness coexist. And whereas Inside Llewyn Davis was set in in the 1960s and the artist represented by one embittered folk singer, Birdman is set in 2014 and “artist” includes anyone with a Twitter account. At one point, Emma Stone’s character is drawing dashes on a long roll of toilet paper, where the roll is supposed to represent the age of the universe and one square the entirety of human existence. Riggan absent-mindedly wipes his nose on the human square. Ba-doomp chssssh.
Michael Keaton will probably soak up a lot of the awards attention this fall, because if there’s one thing the Academy loves, it’s patting themselves on the back for bravely recognizing an old workhorse (even though they’re the ones who create sentimental favorites by ignoring them for all those years in the first place), it’s Edward Norton who steals this entire movie†. It’s always funny to me when a good actor has to believably portray a character who’s a bad actor, like Amy Adams does in American Hustle, or Naomi Watts does in Birdman. But Edward Norton’s job is arguably even harder, playing an actor in a play who’s so good he leaves the other characters speechless. It’s many jobs in one — Norton has to play the self-doubting loner, the pretentious, unstable prick he wears as a mask, and the genius he becomes onstage. He crushes them all.
So, write your “Is Michael Keaton Birdman?” thinkpiece if you must, but it’s kind of like asking what’s in the suitcase in Pulp Fiction. The slippery nature of artifice is sort of the point. There’s a reason the subtitle is “the unexpected virtue of ignorance.”
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. You can find more of his work on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, the Portland Mercury, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.
†And Jake Gyllenhaal should take home best actor for Nightcrawler, but that’s a story for another time.