Monday, October 13, 2014

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Superhero Movies)

The arthouse scene seems to be having a small crisis of identity over the rise of superhero films.  Hollywood is riddled with movies ending in "-man":  "Spider-Man", "Iron Man", "Batman v. Superman".  To cinephiles who believe that the superhero fad is an invasion of "low media" (comic books), the future must look worse and worse.  Just one ridiculous costumed hero kicking absurd quantities of ass after another.  If you've built your career on small, quiet movies about simple human emotions, all of this crimefighting must be an unstoppable nightmare.

Earlier this week I saw "Clouds of Sils Maria", an otherwise good movie about an aging French actress, Maria (Juliette Binoche) struggling with the next phase of her career.  Much of the film is a back and forth between Maria and her young assistant, Val (Kristen Stewart*), as they prepare for a new role, while the shadow of the superhero machine looms over them.  Maria and Val go to see a new alien hero future starring a young rival actress.  "Sils Maria" presents this movie as a hideous gaudy chrome-filled nightmare:  lurid sex, bad wigs, and CG violence.  It goes past parody to real hatred for the modern blockbuster, and everything it represents.

"Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)" tries for a more meaningful discussion between drama and action.  It stars Michael Keaton as Riggin Thompson an actor who has bet everything - his career, his ego, and his daughter's house - on a grand comeback as a Broadway star/director in an adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story.  Riggin Thompson once played a superhero back in the 90s called "Birdman", and is looking for a comeback.  Michael Keaton once played a superhero back in the 90s called "Batman" and has been using 2014 as a launch pad for his flagging career, what with roles in awful crap like "RoboCop", surprisingly fun crap like "Need for Speed", and now this.  "Birdman" is a war between artistic credibility and popcorn movies, about working out those sides of your ego and developing a final clear statement of yourself.  And it is a gonzo madhouse of psychic powers, lesbian kisses, and hallucinations.

Art only imitates life to a point, thank God.  Most likely Michael Keaton is living a very comfortable and happy life (with perhaps the scent of an Oscar gold in his future), unlike Riggin, who is a terribly desperate man.  The Broadway press do not take his play seriously, considering it to be nothing more than another Hollywood gimmick in the midst of a small pandemic of film stars taking the stage.  Worse, he cannot finish an interview without the word "Birdman" floating around like a bad cough you cannot quite shake.  His daughter Sam (Emma Thompson) is coming off rehab and has been hanging around the production like a very bitter sarcastic lost dog.  His girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough) may or may not be pregnant.  One of his key actors was taken out by a loose lighting fixture and has now been replaced by Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), an intense method actor who is trying to take over the both the show and Sam's pants.

Glad to have the awesome Michael Keaton back in my life.
Riggin's most difficult companion though, is Birdman, a deep voice screaming at him from the shadows.  Birdman does not really care too much about this Broadway reinvention, he just wants Riggin to get back out there and be an awesome movie star again.  The character has loud screaming arguments with himself in his dressing room.  Then things get all the more surreal when Riggin seems to actually have superpowers, as he trashes his room in a psychic fit of rage.  The telekinesis could be just a metaphor of this character's ego falling back into childish fantasies of magical talents.  Riggin's mental war between adolescent thinking and his ambitions for legitimate artistic prestige are made literal by his internal Birdman persona.  Or maybe he really can fly, and really does have psychic powers.  Life is neither clear nor simple, and neither is "Birdman".

"Birdman" indulges briefly in its second act in an extended hallucination sequence where Riggin, having reached the low point of his journey, succumbs completely to the magical fantasies Birdman is offering.  CG pours onto the screen, with a floating costumed hero appearing behind the real actor.  The skies erupt with mechanical monsters battling the US military.  Then Riggin defies gravity, flying above Times Square.  It is all nonsense.  Glorious entertaining nonsense, but nonsense nonetheless.  It is the very essence of escapist entertainment.  Who needs to face hard truths about yourself when you can watch a wonderful superhero movie?  Riggin drops back down to the real world to finish the movie.  But "Birdman" forever remains trapped in this enigmatic valley between realistic drama and comic book flights of fancy.  Was his argument with an imperious New York Times critic** real or just a projection of his fears of rejection?  You cannot be sure.

The playfulness extends into the design of the movie as well.  Most of "Birdman"'s score is an extended percussion jam session.  Then twice the actors walk right by the drummer hanging out on the street or backstage playing the soundtrack.  Riggin has an argument with an actor over his performance, with the actor wondering if a horribly hammy rendition was "too much".  Then later he walks past a homeless man screaming a soliloquy from "MacBeth" at the top of his lungs, who repeats the same line.  After an injury Riggin's face is covered in bandages that of course creates a white Birdman cowl.  It could not be any coincidence that The Incredible Hulk and Gwen Stacy happen to be sharing the screen with Batman in a meta fictional movie about superheroes.  Most of the film takes place in a theater around a play, then the film is made up mostly of long extended takes, requiring a level of preparation and choreography usually only required in traditional acting.

Troublesome actor trying to take control of the production?  Of course it would be Edward Norton.
Though "Birdman" is a movie that has a great deal to say about superhero cinema, it is not in any way shot like a blockbuster.  It is not even shot like an Iñárritu film, whose older works were heavily dramatic stories of tortured characters such as "21 Grams" using traditional filmmaking methods.  The cinematography is done by Emmanuel Lubezki who previously made "Gravity" the most visceral and gripping movie of last year.  Like "Gravity", "Birdman" is made up mostly of long takes.  The two hour film has only a single obvious cut - occurring just after the climax.  While the rest of the film is a continuous moving shot with the splits in scenes cleverly hidden by brilliant editing.  A Hollywood blockbuster will have trillions of edits, usually several a second, to smash your brain with a maddening swirl of images.

The shooting method of "Birdman" really does need a moment of recognition, because this was not an easy movie to make.  The long take process is done with such style that it never becomes a visual distraction.  (Though it is tempting to try to count the number of cuts in the film.)  Iñárritu and Lubezki have access to a full range of motion in their incredible actors and 360 degrees of view, as they spin around scenes, but it is done without the interruptions that would occur from typical editing.  That means going through a scene is infinitely more complicated - I'm still not sure how they managed to do so much filming in front of mirrors without accidentally getting the camera in the shot - but it makes for a mesmerizing movie.

"Birdman" is unlike "Sils Maria".  There is no hatred of superhero movies here.  This is very rich movie with several thousand things going on at once, muddling your mind with hyperreality but also fantastic characters and incredible filmmaking.  Michael Keaton was the only man who could play the lead role, mixing together intense humor and subtle despair.  The character of Riggin is not ruined by his fame built on Batman Birdman - if anything he's tortured by his attempts to break away from his past.  When he accepts that part of his life and his career, he is born again as a full person, who really can fly.  We don't need to have a war between cinema styles.  If fact, if they are combined together with a smart commentary on modern celebrity, you can create one of the best movies of 2014.

Time to quit worrying and learn to love the cowl.

* Who is incredible in this film.  Stunning.  I have given Stewart a lot of shit over the years, calling her a bad actress, giggling about her tabloid affairs.  I was wrong.  Completely completely wrong.

** The critic in this film is an awful bitch who has pre-judged Riggin Thompson's play to be awful.  She gleefully plans its destruction - because critics are awful jealous people with nothing better to do than destroy legitimate artforms.  Ouch, "Birdman", very ouch.  This is the mean-spirited take that to critics since "Lady in the Water".

1 comment:

  1. Wow, i never expected you to like this film or write a line of praise for Kristen Stewart's acting.
    then again i was surprised i enjoyed hyrule warriors.