It’s much easier to explain what makes a movie bad than what makes a movie good. This is common knowledge. Any idiot can say that Transformers 4 is an ‘overlong, clunky, piece of shit’ or that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a ‘cynical cash grab’ and back it up with evidence. It’s much more difficult to say something like, ‘Birdman is a stunning meditation on the nature of art and celebrity culture’ or ‘Birdman is a fascinating study of a lost soul’s struggle for relevance’ and actually know what the hell you’re talking about. Made up pull quotes like the ones above can be found in dozens of mainstream reviews. Critics like to say half baked, highfalutin things like that to show how smart they are, to get their name on a movie poster or TV spot, and to convince us (or more likely themselves) that they are on the same intellectual level as a masterpiece like Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) . But in this film’s case, I think they’re missing the point and the fact that they’re exhibiting some of the same self-righteous, arrogant behavior as the flick’s nasty theater critic seems totally lost on them. I loved every second of Birdman and it might even wind up as my pick for the best film of 2014 but if you asked me to tell you exactly why I liked it so much or exactly what points it was trying to take, I’m not sure I could tell you. I’m happy to discuss the film with you and toss ideas back and forth but for me to say definitively what it all meant would be foolhardy and pretentious. I’m not going to sit here and pretend to completely understand all of director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s intentions and choices for the simple reason that I am fine with the fact that he is a genius and I am not. It’s ok to just let a movie wash over you and soak in all it’s wonderful performances, dazzling camera tricks, and perfectly executed scenes of black comedy and emotional drama without declaring that you understand every single aspect of it. That’s what repeat viewings are for. Maybe you’ll never fully comprehend the depths of Birdman and that’s ok too. As the subtitle points out, ignorance can be an unexpected virtue.
Let me get this out of the way right now, from this point on, we will be discussing the film in detail and there will be (gasp) SPOILERS. So if you haven’t seen the movie, first of all what the hell is wrong with you? What, you just had to go see The Hunger Games Part 3 Part 1? Goddamnit people. Go see Birdman and then come back here. And if you’re a theater person, go see it RIGHT FUCKING NOW. Drop whatever you’re doing and just go.
The first thing I took away from Birdman was how awesome it was on a technical level. I mean that in the true sense of the overused word. Birdman is genuinely awe inspiring. Whenever I hear that a film is using a gimmick like found footage, split screen, or in this film’s case, one continuous shot to tell the story, I always look for the seams. I watch a found footage horror movie shouting, “they wouldn’t put the camera there” and “no one could get that perfect a shot without consulting a cinematographer first.” When I went in to Birdman, I immediately started looking for the cuts. Like in Rope, when old Hitch ran out of film and had to break the shot, zoom into someone’s back, change the reel and then start shooting again. Truth be told, I found a few of them but after awhile, I didn’t give a shit. The technique was used so well and the story so entertaining that I was able to get swooped up in the magic without looking for the rabbit under the magician’s hat. The way the camera goes up a building and into a dressing room, the way the technique is used to show time passing, the way special effects are utilized in that key sequence. All of it is impressive and, to employ another overused word, dazzling. Could I tell you why Iñárritu decided this was the best way to tell the story? Not really, but I could guess. Maybe it was just to show off. Maybe it was meant to make the film feel more like the stage play that Keaton’s character was so wrapped up in. Maybe it was some kind of meta-commentary on…something. I don’t really know but I’d be happy to hear your take on it. All I can say is that it works splendidly and does not feel like a cheap gimmick.
The next thing I took away from the film (and this really surprised me) was how fall on your face funny it was. I was not expecting the comedy of the year from the guy who made 21 Grams and Babel but that’s exactly what I got. There’s great slapstick comedy like when the light hits that terrible actor on the head or when Keaton gets trapped outside the stage door. There’s some great piss-takes directed at super hero culture, such as when Keaton asks to get Michael Fassbender and Zach Galifinakis tells him, “he’s doing the prequel to the X-Men prequel.” Then there’s some great bawdy stuff with Edward Norton and Naomi Watts (that scene, you know the one, had me howling). There’s also some wonderful human moments that would be right at home in a typical Oscar movie but then Birdman pisses all over them. Like the scene where Emma Stone shows Keaton the paper representing all of human existence and he blows his nose on it. And of course, there’s Edward Norton’s entire character, the actor who can only ‘feel alive’ when he’s on stage. Anyone who has ever been in a play has worked with an asshole like that. It’s made even funnier since Norton sort of has that reputation himself. I think he’s making fun of himself with this character even more than Keaton is. It’s a hilarious performance and one that Norton still manages to find ‘truth’ in.
The final thing I took away was how moved by it all I was, even without being sure exactly why. I was emotionally invested in Keaton’s character even though he’s kind of a narcissistic asshole. He’s a bad father, dismissive of his girlfriend, and solely concerned with making a name for himself again. He claims his adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is all about honesty and integrity but we know the truth. So does his daughter. But still, when she calls him out on it, man that stings. It’s a testament to Keaton as an actor that he makes this guy’s plight so affecting. I think we also connect to it because who among us isn’t concerned with being considered relevant? We see how Hollywood propped this man up on a pedestal and then knocked him down. He’s as much a victim of his own shortcomings as he is of our obsession with celebrities. We treat them as godlike figures and perhaps that’s part of the reason why he becomes convinced he actually has superpowers. That Birdman makes this point without outright condemning any of us is a very good thing. It never feels like we’re being lectured to. And again, that’s only what I got out of it upon first viewing. I’m not saying that’s exactly what Iñárritu’s point was. It’s just something that I took away. What did you get out of it?
Which brings us to the already much debated ending. Did he actually fly? Did he die? What does Emma Stone see when she looks up? Has she gone mad too? Or is she seeing the truth for the first time? Did he fly and die? Does it matter? Iñárritu has said he intended the ending to be ambiguous and that he wanted people to get from it whatever they wanted to. I’m not sure what I got out of it yet. I’ve thought about it a lot and the only conclusion I’ve come to is that his journey is now over and his daughter understands who he is. That’s all I got but that was enough for me. Once again, I ask what did you get out of it?
I guess the point I’m trying to make in this long-winded post is that when we talk about Birdman, the conversation should be more personal than analytical. It should be about what we took away from it as individuals and not as consumers of media or self proclaimed film critics. We don’t need to spend hours analyzing the last shot looking for clues. We just need to talk about how it made us feel and share that with others to see if we can understand their perspective. And maybe that’s the main thing I took away from Birdman: that it’s an emotional movie disguised as an intellectual one. Or maybe it’s just great fun. I don’t know but I want to keep talking about it. Don’t you?
P.S. Talk about the movie in whatever way you want, discuss it freely and at great length, but please, stop comparing it to Black Swan. That’s just too damn obvious. Like comparing Star Trek to 2001. Besides, Black Swan was pretentious cocky-doody.