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Review: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

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Birdman_posterCapsule Reviews
Erin: superreal magical real and hyperreal
Michael: you can’t make a statement about breaking a few walls

Erin’s Take:

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is so metaphorical and metafictional, a direct analogy can be drawn from film to title. In it we have a title-subtitle set-up, like in Dr. Stranglelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Immediately there is either a playfulness or pretention to the double title–and audiences will likely fall into seeing it as one or the other. But unlike Strangelove’s title, Birdman’s is given completely unnecessary, misplaced, and/or absurd parenthetical marks. If they made sense grammatically, they would start before “or.” If they were necessary, we could cut the “or” altogether. Instead we have this oddity that either strikes one as amusing through the eccentricity or annoying for the attention-drawing nature of that same eccentricity. Playful or pretentious and gratuitously structured? This question can  also address the film at large.

I find myself feeling about 80/20 on the matter with the weight going to playful.

The playfulness includes a satirical metacommentary on society’s adoration of celebrities, especially in the form of superheroes. Michael Keaton is brilliantly cast as Riggan Thompson, who was once famous for playing the superhero named Birdman back in the early 90’s. Now he’s attempting to revitalize and legitimize his reputation and career through writing, directing, and starring in an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Keaton, like Riggan, also was at the height of fame in the early 90’s when he played Batman in the Tim Burton-directed iterations of the icon. Keaton has taken smaller roles on as he has aged and settled mostly into obscurity. The Burton Batman films have been replaced by the Nolan versions as the ones the general populace thinks of first. Although I cannot speak to Keaton’s motivation for taking this role, it seems possible that starring in an arthouse film like this one could legitimize and revitalize his late(r) acting career–at least the film wants our brains to go that route. And if it’s true, Keaton has succeeded with numerous acting nominations and awards for his portrayal. I know I was impressed with his varying levels of acting performance.birdman-mirror

That’s just one of many examples of how Alejandro Iñárritu has given the film a sneaking, dark humor and self-reflexive mockery.

And it wouldn’t amount to much more than a satirical comedy without strong artistry behind it. Prevalent in this is an ensemble cast of characters that ride the line between drama and parody with ease. Edward Norton, Emma Stone, and Zach Galifianakis are all giving intriguing, humorous performances with Galifianakis surprisingly being the most subdued and realistic. The screenplay layers on the intertextuality, inviting seemingly meaningful connections to “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” Batman (and numerous other superhero films), and Macbeth with further reference to Roland Barthes for the English grad school grad.

What takes the cake–and even the BAFTAs agree–is the cinematography. Emmanuel Lubezki is director of photography. Here he doubles down on the long takes of Children of Men and creates a film that appears to be shot continuously. The effect is two fold: it amps up the appearance of realism, but paradoxically it also makes the film feel more surreal because it works against the continuity editing we’re used to.

That’s also a great analogy for the film: surreal realism.

This is a film that gets stuck in its own head (or Riggan’s as the case may be). It asks big, gigantic questions about identity, artistry, and reality, and it doesn’t offer clear answers, if it offers any at all. I enjoyed that immensely, couched in the craft of this cast and crew and married to the playfulness. It has inspired many thoughts and hypotheses on what the film might actually be suggesting. It creates and maintains an ambiguity regarding the reality of what is shown that I admired. Not many films attempt this kind of tight-rope walking, and for the most part Birdman is successful.

Michael’s Take:

I don’t necessarily disagree with anything Erin said. I’m just less enthusiastic about it. This kind of narrative – mirroring, story within a story within etcetera, even the atypical cinematography – is the foundation of my wheelhouse. Maybe I wanted more balance on the playful versus pretentious scale.

There’s a point in the film where the protagonist addresses the audience via proxy and détournés any subjective response. I can say I liked Birdman or I didn’t,  but the principles don’t care. I don’t either, but we’ll save that for later.

There’s nothing here about technique! There’s nothing in here about structure! There’s nothing in here about intentions! It’s just a bunch of crappy opinions, backed up by even crappier comparisons…

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a $22 million film chock full of superhero movie veterans. Movie stars. The very people Riggan Thompson represents, literally and metaphorically. Those people whose artistic integrity is explicitly questioned. Celebrities.

Alejandro Iñárritu’s been nominated for multiple Academy Awards. The director of photography, Emmanuel Lubezki, won one last year following several previous nominations. Birdman could scarcely be more Hollywood.

Those are facts, not opinions. I can’t speak to intentions, there, but it looks like the deck was stacked pretty heavily in favor of success. And so far its paid off, making twice what it cost. So, in that sense, it’s a successful movie.

Because it’s a movie about a movie star hanging his relevance, his self worth, on a Broadway vanity project, the content reverberates with the context. This is a smallish movie for almost everyone involved. Keaton’s own experience as a former screen superhero informed both his casting and his performance. But perhaps more importantly that resonates with the audience. We can substitute Batman for Birdman and elide reality and fiction.

That’s how we come to the movie. Heck, it’s how we come into it. Icarus falls outside Riggan’s dressing room window as he floats a few feet off the floor with the voice of his eponymous former film persona haranguing him off camera. What is going on? Is this real? So, you see what they did there. The film itself is a metaphor for what’s in the film.

Iñárritu says that the appearance of a continuous shot is meant to keep the viewer in the crisis, that the labyrinthine theater set is intentionally claustrophobic. It’s a crappy opinion, but I think it works. Given the conversations we’ve had about it, it’s difficult to rise above the layered metanarratives and talk about structural elements without slipping back into the context(s) within which they appear.

Birdman 21

Take the quote above. The film is structurally sound. The technique, while not flawless, is expert. Literally hollering about it isn’t necessary. It detracts. It calls into sharp relief clever turns of the script where dialogue reappears or set direction where motifs repeat. It betrays a lack of trust in the audience. Stuff I might have loved without the command to appreciate it ends up reduced to sight gags and suspect flourishes.

I saw Birdman. I recognized the incredible efforts that went into it. The direction, cinematography, and performances are inspiring. I appreciated the finished product as a complex intertextual narrative. It wasn’t perfect. That’s okay. There isn’t any perfect art.  I don’t know if I liked it or if I didn’t like it and that doesn’t really bother me. I’ll probably watch it again a couple times.

4 Stars

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Author: thedinglehopper

The collective authors of The Dinglehopper, a husband-wife duo with a toddler on the margins of hipster-geekism and too much training in social and literary criticism.

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