Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
(SPOILERS) A backlash began against Birdman (or The unexpected addition of the bracketed bit) even before it was Oscar nominated. That it gained a late stage upper hand in the awards buzz circuit (increasingly, it appears that’s the way the season operates) and managed to seize the Best Picture statuette only seemed to confirm in the eyes of some that it was extremely overrated, a film that could only explore its themes through explaining them in bold type again and again every couple of minutes. Such criticism is, in part, deserved. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film is no model of restraint, as the attention-seeking “one shot” conceit of the movie evidences. But it’s frequently very funny and, if its swipes at the world of artistic endeavour are familiar, it is lead by a pitch-perfect cast operating at full capacity. Birdman may not have deserved the Best Picture Oscar, but Michael Keaton definitely deserved Best Actor.
The egotistical funk of the artist struggling for validation is nothing new as a plot device. It’s remarkably (depressingly?) common for the creative type to write what they know (hence the number of Stephen King or Woody Allen tales about a writer). It’s a vocation keyed to be reliant on the response of the audience. Popularity is everything, until it isn’t. Then comes in appropriate veneration; the cultural mechanics of high art and low art. Quality and trash. To an extent, Birdman presents a role-reversal of the Coen brothers’ classic Barton Fink. There, the pretentious, self-absorbed Fink is a playwright who departs for Hollywood; throughout, the Coens walk a line of excoriating the character who looks down on and diminishes the low art to which he has reduced himself as a wage slave. Barton is wholly aesthetically removed from the masses, essentially serving a crowd who (as Emma Roberts daughter notes in Birdman) devour his intellectual snobbery but represent the furthest ivory tower from making a difference.
Keaton’s Riggan Thomson has made a career from lowbrow action movies and romantic comedies, most famously the Birdman superhero franchise some 20 years earlier. He has sunk his money into a Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story, an act of hubris born from a desire to prove himself the actor (and adaptor and director) he would like to be seen as, and see himself as. Like Barton, he testifies, “I’m trying to do something that is important” to anyone who will listen.
But the only one really listening, and reproving him, is the Birdman in his mind, who “tells me the truth”. Riggan imagines (or does he?) himself floating in a yogi position and moving objects with the power of his mind, even “causing” a lighting rig to knock an actor he loathes out of the play. Not only is Riggan an over-the-hill movie star, clawing at a doomed bid for respectability, his satellite world is filled with loved ones to whom he pays little attention or heed. The daughter Sam (Emma Roberts), out of rehab and acting as his assistant, the girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough) possibly pregnant (when she comforts him on the play’s prospects with “It won’t be the first time I’ve been humiliated”, he absently remarks “Of course it won’t”; it’s all about him) and the ex-wife unglamoured by the showbiz world and the delusions it breeds.
It’s perhaps not so surprising that Iñárritu’s disparaging remarks about the superhero genre have been seized upon both by those disavowing the picture and those embracing it. For one group, it characterises Iñárritu as exactly the kind of lofty prig embodied by Edward Norton’s theatrical darling Mike Shiner, or betraying the vitriolic contempt exercised by theatre critic Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan).
For the other, it underlines why Birdman is to be embraced, a film that satirises the mores of Hollywood and its bottom-line feeding artistic desolation. Iñárritu has a point when he characterises superhero movies as “very right wing”, but he may as well level to waste any other given genre (the cop movie, or any given thriller, for example) and ignore that each individual entry is capable of nuance or distinction.
As a director feeding on the very “substance” that Keaton’s character craves, it’s a little disingenuous, particularly when the basis of the film’s shooting style comes from something as creakily “student-speak” as the realisation that “we live our lives with no editing”. Apart from anything else, that just isn’t true, but more than that, it walks a line where it would be very dangerous to nurse the conceit unselfconsciously. It is, essentially, a gimmick, however it is dressed up, and as flashy a device as a multi-million dollar special effects set piece.
The tirades against empty Hollywood blockbusters appear ungenerous but mostly the problem is our auteur du jour is unable to make good on his antidote to all this palatable and empty fascism. Iñárritu is setting himself as a purveyor of the deep and meaningful, given a pass because he is an artist and definitely not the critic who trashes the trash. Yet there is a sense there is an unintentionally perverse aspect to this. Iñárritu’s makes “deep” movies only through having characters bang on about how deep they are (or aren’t). They take in water like an existentially holed ship. One might say it’s a shallow depth, like drowning in a puddle.
But. Despite his comments, and those of his characters (“Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige, my friend” advises Mike; “Okay, I don’t even know what that means” replies Riggan), the picture is far more even-minded in its targets than it might first appear. There is little doubt that everyone, barring Riggan’s wife and daughter who are removed from or on the periphery of the entertainment industry, is adversely effected by it. It is innately wearing and tearing on self-respect and worth, because it relies so fundamentally on endorsement by others. And so it invites hierarchies within. As soon as the idea of art as something to be venerated is bandied about, those doing so are revealed to be delusional and onanistic.
Tabitha tells Riggan “I’m going to destroy your play. I hate you and everyone you represent” accusing them of being “entitled, selfish, spoilt children”. She sees his weak points and goes in for the kill (“You’re no actor, you’re a celebrity”). In turn, Mike despises Tabitha, and only vocally supports Riggan as a refraction of his contempt for her. The artist taking payback at the critic is much seen (from Lady in the Water to Chef). Mike quotes her “A man becomes a critic when he cannot be an artist in the same way a man becomes and informer when he cannot be a soldier”.
The arbitrary manner in which Tabitha is only interested in the politics of her position as hit maker or breaker, and has no honour about the thing of the play is wholly cynical, seen through the extreme lens of the artist who has been burned one time to many. This is underlined by the final volte-face review, where the play receives a ringing endorsement under the picture’s alt-title “Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance”. Which is very much a backhanded compliment, if it’s even that, authenticated by waffle about “super-realism”. Tabitha is presumably calculated enough to recognise the cachet in affirming her own brand through the creation of a new theatrical style. More than that, Riggan was making no more of an artistic statement than Howard Beale in Network. It was interpreted that way (“unexpected”). He’s no method actor, but the performance is now cooked up as a pretentious soufflé (in much the same way as the Game On episode, where Ben Chaplin joins a band, has a panic attack on stage, and then gets acclaim for creating a whole new genre).
Mike: I pretend just about every place else but not out there.
Norton’s luvvie isn’t in the right either. He’s a complete prick. Norton’s casting is as sly as Keaton’s, given the latter’s history as masked vigilante and the former’s rep for being difficult, but also for being unquestionably a great actor. With this and his association with Wes Anderson, it’s good to see Norton regaining a foothold in quality offbeat roles, and Mike Shiner is wonderful creation. A performer who only comes alive on the stage, it’s perhaps a mistake to give him as much self awareness as he actually has, but there’s some lovely broad swings at method acting (“I think he’s drinking real gin”) and prima donna-ish behaviour coming from someone who knows they are the best at what they do and so has no problem with pissing people off (“Don’t you ever worry that I’ll give you a bad review?”; “I’m sure you will if I ever give a bad performance”).
Whether it’s standing buck naked for a fitting, suggesting to Lesley (Naomi Watts) “Let’s really fuck” during a bedroom scene, or wrestling Keaton in his underpants, Mike is a mirthful nightmare of overweening arrogance. As I said, I’m not sure the humanising side (his relationship with Sam) wholly works, although it does serve to illustrate that even someone as much of an arse as he is still manages to connect and show greater honesty than Riggan,
I’ve mentioned Barton Fink, to emphasise Birdman’s failings, but it reminds me of a Coen brothers film in as much as it’s wonderfully cast. As such, it’s a breeze to watch even when its ideas are sitting in plain sight. Stone, whose eyes get larger and larger with every role, is on much firmer ground than in her last Woody Allen effort; her naturalism ensures a role that is clichéd and obvious is invested with meaning and all but flies.
Riseborough and Watts, and Amy Ryan as Sylvia (Riggan’s ex-) are evidence of how well the actors responded to the screenplay, since these are very much supporting turns that live or die on what the actors bring to them. Zach Galifianikis is relatively subdued, and the better for it.
But this is Keaton’s show, and he’s amazing. He hasn’t had a part on which he can go to town like this since the back-to-backs of Beetlejuice and Clean and Sober. From his first caustic lines as his alter-ego Birdman (“How did we end up here? Smells like balls”) it’s clear this will be a performance to savour. Giving the disability Oscar to Redmayne is a shame because it reaffirms that a good comedic performance is always going to be seen as second fiddle.
Keaton’s still got that mad sparkle in his eyes and wired energy going on (Warner might have missed a trick not bringing him back as an aging Batman, actually), and he has the vanity of Riggan down pat, whether it’s his doubts changed in moments when Jake tells him the show is sold out or his underpant stroll through Times Square. The latter is delightfully ungainly, mainly due to the grimacing determination with which Riggan has to get back to the theatre (and the absurdity of people nevertheless coming up to him and asking for his autograph).
Iñárritu’s dialogue (with Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinaelaris and Armando Bo) is often lumpen amid the caustic gems though, and it’s down to Keaton that it carries. Birdman may be his scolding voice, but “Because without me, all that’s left is you, a sad selfish mediocre actor grasping at the last vestiges of his career” leaves nothing to the imagination. His ex tells him “You confuse love for admiration” as if we were unable to work that out for ourselves. So, while lines like the Iron Man bashing (“That clown doesn’t have half your talent, and he’s making a fortune from that tin man get-up”) are funny, and his ex-wife’s review of a movie has the ring of truth (“Just because I did not like that ridiculous comedy you did with Goldie Hawn did not mean that I did not love you”), the picture does at times feel overworked.
Birdman’s dissection of why Riggan’s mediocrity is to be celebrated (they love action, “not this talky depressing philosophical bullshit”) is polarised into one or the other; Iñárritu takes the equal and opposite position to Tabitha. It leaves the picture in a place of acceptance it seems, but perhaps not consciously. Looked at another way, it is merely a counterbalance. No more truth has been revealed by the “authentic” world of the theatre (or the auteur filmmaker) than in the special effects centric movies. It’s all inevitably infected by deception or self-deception.
So where does that leave the final shot? Riggan awakes, post-shooting, with a new nose (a beak?) and Birdman still about (sitting on the toilet). The newly celebrated thesp climbs onto the window ledge and, when Sam enters, he has gone. She looks out and up and smiles, which is to suggest Birdman has flown. Riggan has accepted his own mediocrity and so become a whole? It would be difficult to interpret this as his feeling validated by the reviews because then Birdman might have absented himself all together.
Until this point, though, the assumption has been that the super-goings on are all in Riggan’s head; the levitating, the telekinesis, flying, and the scene where the street turns into a Birdman movie appears as the ultimate confirmation of this. We can take the last shot as a very meta- confounding of the rules of the picture, of course, or as a retrospective endorsement of it being magical realist. But it doesn’t really make a lot of sense on its own terms. Even one of the writers said, “I’m still trying to work it out”. I quite like it, but more because its one of the few points in an otherwise thematically overbearing picture that is left open to interpretation (one of the few other moments that Iñárritu doesn’t overtly comment on is that Riggan’s suicide bid is profoundly selfish, leaving all alomne a mentally fragile daughter who really needs a father). Maybe it’s aimed at pseudy critics who love to read their own meanings into the work of their favourite genius. Maybe that would be giving Iñárritu far too much credit.
Inarritu has made a fun film, and a superficially clever one, but I’m dubious it has hidden depths even given the abstruse final scene. This, like Robert Altman’s The Player, is the kind of picture awards ceremonies lap up, because it shines a critical light on the industry while allowing those who are “above” its targets (anyone who needs to think they are, basically) to feel superior. The exaggerated accolades have unfortunately detracted from what is witty movie, superbly performed by all. I don’t think the one-shot conceit was worth all the vexation it caused the makers; honestly, the drum solo score does more to create a sense of mental uncertainty than the restless camera.
Birdman look as if it will be one of those pictures where Oscar glory taints it retrospectively, since it already appears to have been raised beyond its true value. It doesn’t help that the Iñárritu’s conceit suffers from the same over-inflation it directs at its characters; like that Hamlet speech, it may just be a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.