not merely superfluous, but ridiculous
There’s some debate about how much to reveal in a film review, but most people would agree that the first shot is fair game for discussion- you’re not ruining anything the audience won’t find out in the first seconds of the film. And yet I don’t think I’ll reveal the first shot of Birdman. It’s the sort of image that deserves to appear unbidden before the audience’s eyes, surreal and beautiful and begging for explanation. That image represents the promise of Birdman, or as its full title reads: Birdman; or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance. That the second part of that title never really seems to apply to the film represents the limit of that promise.
Birdman is a film made on the far edge of moviemaking talent: director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu has proved himself with hyper-kinetic dramas like Amores Perros and Babel, and has surrounded himself with skilled collaborators. Emmanuel Lubezki, fresh off his Oscar win for Gravity, leapfrogs that film’s technical accomplishments with a camera that doesn’t appear to make a single cut during most of the film’s running time. The percussive, kinetic score by Antonio Sanchez is still pounding in my head three days later. And Iñárritu gets world-class performances from a murderer’s row of actors, especially Michael Keaton and Emma Stone, neither of whom had ever shown the stuff they get to show here. So if you want to see the best of what cinema in 2014 has to offer, Birdman is a no-brainer. Go see it now.
Just remember that the movie is a bit of a no-brainer in other ways. Thinking back on the film, I can’t remember a single meaningful thing it has to say about its ostensible subject- or anything else, really. Characters seethe and shout and pace back and forth, communicating the anguish and ecstasy of their art so well that you can’t help but believe it to be genuine, but I’m left a bit confused about why I’m hearing it. What does Stone and Keaton’s conversation about the comparative brevity of human existence (memorably illustrated by a roll of toilet paper) have to do with Norton and Stone’s conversation about their personal demons, or what either conversation has to do with Keaton and Amy Ryan’s conversation about his legacy (Ryan plays his ex-wife. Like I said, amazing cast). It’s all a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing, and it’s clever of the film to winkingly crib that bit of Shakespeare, but it only makes it clearer that cleverness is about all this film has going for it. It’s this year’s version of The Artist, a handsomely-mounted tribute to itself. It’s final effect on the audience reveals the title to be a downright misnomer: there is no unexpected virtue to this film’s ignorance, which is the one thing that holds it back from greatness.
That sounds negative, but I don’t think of Birdman as a disappointment, as I found the skill with which it was made to be worth the price of admission alone. The play-within-a-play hinging on one of my favorite Raymond Carver short stories was just a bonus. I almost feel like Iñárritu has revealed a new type of film to me: the arthouse blockbuster. Like any blockbuster, it’s more concerned with spectacle than ideas, but the spectacle is almost entirely located in those aspects of filmmaking more typically appreciated by the arthouse crowd: subtle acting choices, innovative camera work, intricate screenplays. While I’d be surprised if Birdman remained one of the best films I see this year, all those elements are enough to place it near the top of the pile- for now. But even if it’s supplanted by more substantial films, it will likely remain the perfect thing to pop in the DVD player on a rainy day when I’m feeling lazy and want to see some truly excellent mise-en-scène.