BEVERLY HILLS – Fox Searchlight's “Birdman” flew into limited release this weekend with a fantastic $103,750-per-screen average and plenty of Oscar potential. This comes on the heels of a New York press blitz built around a closing night New York Film Festival berth for the film and with the expectation for limited availability from the ensemble and key crew members during the upcoming awards season (and in lieu of a proper Los Angeles premiere, to boot). At the film's official Academy screening Sunday afternoon, Alejandro González Iñárritu's thematically rich, formally inventive opus drew a sizable turnout (800 or so people in the 1,000-seat venue) and a warm reception that seemed to indicate this one will do well with voters.
Nevertheless, I'm mostly against taking reportage from Academy screenings to heart. So take any or all of this with a grain of salt. Generally this kind of thing is only an element of the equation and not necessarily indicative of a whole lot; just last year we saw reports of the sky falling on films like “12 Years a Slave” (drawing a considerably smaller crowd than “Gravity” the week before it) and “The Wolf of Wall Street” (Martin Scorsese being heckled for the hedonism of his film). But without an LA premiere and with, frankly, a burning desire to take in the film for a third time, it seemed worth it to head down to the Samuel Goldwyn Theater and see how it played to an industry crowd.
It played well. Lots of laughter in the right places, plenty of applause in the credits (with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki getting a considerable pop, natch). “Birdman” is a film that has sort of a built-in advantage when it comes to appealing to the entertainment industry: it's about these people. Moreover, it's about actors – you know, the largest branch of the Academy. And not unlike “The Artist,” it's about second chances in that industry. But it's about way more than that and each new look peels back another layer for me.
The handling of arts and criticism, for instance. This one stuck in some critics' craws but it's not as simple as a filmmaker lashing out at the fraternity with cliched barbs like “those who can't, critique.” It's about perceived value in an age when things are overtly judged by likes and dislikes and followers, etc. “We have empowered people to tell us who we are,” González Iñárritu said in the post-screening Q&A. It's a sentiment echoed in the film, too, in a little note taped to Riggan Thompson's (Michael Keaton) mirror: “A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing.”
(Spoilers in this graph.) But then, maybe that notion is arguable. You have to consider things like legacy and belonging to the ages and how intention only goes so far. Which is where I think the film's conflict between high brow and low brow is so interesting. Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) snaps that “popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige. “Hollywood” desecrating the theatre with a movie star's artsy vanity project is plainly too much for Broadway critic Tabitha Dickenson (Lindsay Duncan) to swallow. Meanwhile, some genuinely profound beats are almost giddily undercut by crass swerves. Riggan's emotional confession about Raymond Carver's alcoholism recalling his own nasty father's is quickly revealed as an in-the-moment ruse to prove a point, while his own attempted on-stage suicide basically becomes fodder for a plastic surgery joke.
Hell, it's even right there in the full title – “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” – broad concept and stuffy pretension doing battle in seven little words. This idea is all over the movie, and it's a theme I personally just lap up with a spoon. It's also acutely reflective of the business of show (ever balanced between art and commerce).
On top of all of that, yes, it's about identity. It's about ego. It's about mattering, and understanding what “mattering” even means. And if after all of that you still want to talk about how neat and meta it is that Keaton once played Batman, well, you can go there, too.
The film's star was apparently unable to pull away from the Toronto shoot of Tom McCarthy's “Spotlight” for the Q&A, but Norton was on hand along with co-star Andrea Riseborough. And before he really dives into shooting “The Revenant” up in Calgary, González Iñárritu was able to take part as well. Still, whenever Keaton's name came up, he drew more than respectful applause.
Riseborough – who said González Iñárritu has a “lion's heart” – again told the story of meeting with the director and offering to crawl across hot coals to be in the film. “It's funny that you offered to do things for him,” Norton quipped in return. “I said that I would kill him in the cafe if he didn't put me in the movie. It was equal passion, just a different sense of whose obligation it was!”
Norton also talked about the high wire act of the film's multiple long, drawn-out takes, and how talking about the film in terms of risk only really makes sense when evaluating González Iñárritu's efforts rather than the actors hitting all their marks like acrobats in front of Lubezki's swirling camera.
“He was really the person taking a risk because films are made with all kinds of air bags built into them,” Norton said. “On a normal film, you're really building this enormous insurance package; films are made to be able to be manipulated later and there's an enormous amount of discovery assumed in the editorial process. He really threw that away. He threw away optionality later. That created a very strange effect, which was a sensation that he couldn't settle for less than a very large piece that was absolute magic. That's an unusual goal on an average film set and I thought it created a sense of, 'Is each and every bit going to levitate and sustain? Is it going to be worthy of being an unexpurgated, un-manipulated film later?' That was thrilling.”
The movie will continue to platform throughout this month and next along a similar path to last year's Best Picture winner “12 Years a Slave” (also Searchlight). But obviously, this is a very different movie that appeals on very different levels. Will the other 5,200 or so souls who weren't at the Samuel Goldwyn dig it, too? My guess is yes, yes they will.
“Birdman” is now playing in limited release.