Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Leeds International Film Festival) Review
Whilst watching Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) the thing that I couldn’t stop thinking about was why the film was so intent on reminding the audience that they were watching a film. Birdman (for the sake of brevity) is a film that is built upon artifice, an elaborate, preening, construction that is often in danger of smothering its rather thin thesis.
Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is mounting a broadway production of the (very real) play What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” by (the equally real) Raymond Carver. Riggan is trying to break out of the shadow of the Birdman movies, a franchise of blockbusters he abandoned over two decades ago. If you’re starting to make the connection between Riggan Thomson’s backstory and Michael Keaton’s post Batman life then congratulations, you’ve got the main joke of the film. Following an accident which renders one of the plays actors incapable of performing Riggan is advised to get a replacement, and leaps at the chance to work with the brilliant but temperamental enfant terrible of the New York theatre scene Mike Shiner (Edward Norton). Things escalate, dirty laundry is aired, and home truths are learned.
The problems with Birdman are twofold. Firstly, it’s not a particularly interesting or a particularly complex character. Secondly, it obstructs any movement towards real emotional beats by way of its exceptionally showy direction. Moving back to the first point, Riggan is just not a very interesting character and what little dynamism the character has comes from Keaton’s consistently great performance. It’d be churlish to claim Keaton’s performance is a revelation, because the fact is that he has been and continues to be a remarkably consistent actor. What is interesting though is watching Keaton be the focal point of a movie after carving a niche as a great supporting actor. Keaton’s acting credentials have never been in doubt, but his energy does seem to suit characters on the periphery of the story. This is the reason I always liked his take on Bruce Wayne, as he imbued the character with a weird, unsustainable, energy that worked in the small amount of screen time the character got in his two Batman movies. But what happens when you have an actor who is immensely capable of quickly sketching and presenting a character with minimal screen time, and then ask them to decompress their performance over nearly two hours? Well, something like Birdman happens. Keaton sketches out the entirety of Riggan’s personality and narrative journey in the first fifteen minutes of the film and then we’re left to continual cycles of riffing on various themes with this now fully formed character. It’s a testament to Keaton’s performance that this happens, but it results in the rest of the film (which is ostensibly a character piece) having to engage in a holding pattern until the finale. If the films major concern was the emotional journey of its central character then this would be a problem, but the film doesn’t seem to have much time for any of the people at its centre or even really any people at all. This is its own specific problem.
I mentioned earlier that Birdman’s direction is one of the major issues and a big reason that it is an issue is that you are constantly being reminded that you are watching a movie. The main conceit of the film from a directorial point of view is the attempt to present the film as one unbroken shot. In actuality Birdman is a collection of oners (single, unbroken shots) with obscured transitions from shot to shot. So for example one shot will start off somewhere and be consistent for the entirety of a scene, but then the shot will follow a character into a darkened room to mask an edit, or an extra will obstruct the camera to mask an edit, or the camera will focus on a specific item in a shot to mask an edit. As a whole it’s an amazingly well constructed piece of cinema, the problem is that the construction starts to become the main focus of the film. Once you figure out that the film is constructing itself this way your attention is invariably drawn to the movement and motion of the camera, the way the shot floats through and around the stage, to the clever little ways the film masks the seams between scenes. The problem is that this showiness of direction becomes the focal point of the entire movie and relegates the, already thin, character drama to window dressing.
Birdman is inherently a work that is primarily about craft and style and it succeeds in being cool and quirky and at times disarmingly beautiful. The problem is that a film can only sustain itself for so long by generating wry smiles at its innate cleverness and after a while there has to be something more to it, otherwise it is little more than an exercise in craft. Alejandro González Iñárritu's previous films show that he can build a film around a genuine and real emotional core, but he has a tendency to get lost in the machinations of his own filmmaking.
Frustratingly Birdman skirts close to several moments that have some genuine depth or emotion, and they’re the kind of moments that you could hang a film on. For example the initial meeting between Mike and Riggan, as they hash out an early scene in the play, does an amazing job of establishing the dynamic and conflict between the two actors whilst also playing around with the actors process in finding a character. Keaton and Norton both do amazing work in the scene and it is genuinely fascinating watching the two bounce off each other, watching the simple scene metamorphose as the two leads adjust their performance. It is also endemic of another potential problem with the film, the sheer metatextuality of the entire film that can offer veer into simple navel gazing. From its premise, to its focus, to the very nature of its jokes Birdman is a film very much about cinema and performance and you’re either going to roll with or be overcome by the sheer self-obsession of it all. It’s the kind of film where Edward Norton plays a turbulent and petulant actor, whose brilliance is only matched by his disruptiveness and the entire point hinges on parallels to Norton’s own difficult reputation. It’s the kind of film where the entire plot can be summed up as Riggan having a collection of conversations with people about the nature of truth in art. It is the kind of film which treats artistic credibility as the ultimate test of charcter, the major thrust of its narrative essentially being a long night of the soul for Riggan. In fact you could break the plot as essentially being a conversation in five acts, with each major back and forth functioning the way an action set piece would in a blockbuster. Riggan’s conversations with Mike, with his daughter, with his ex-wife, with a theatre critic and eventually with himself all acting as crescendos to the previous events and feeding into the larger discussion about the value of truth and art.
But these conversations are constantly obscured by the showiness of the direction and a gnawing sense that we’re not supposed to take any of it seriously. The constant flights of fancy and omnipresent direction giving everything an arch feel. Only Riggan’s conversation with his daughter Sam (Emma Stone)has any real emotional impact, largely because the camera chooses to settle down and really focus on the characters. In particular the way the camera chooses to hold on Sam’s face as she finally vents her frustration is one of the few emotionally honest moments in the movie, the impact of the words captured from Sam’s reaction to her father’s reaction. The fact that Sam’s entire thesis is that there is no artistic integrity in what Riggan is doing, and the fact that she kind of has a point, doesn’t help the general tone of the film.
Sam’s entire rant to her father is about his dismissiveness of new technology. His incapability to adapt to modern times and his sneering contempt for his new viral fame following an unfortunate incident involving a locked stage door and a lack of clothing. Getting to the heart of the issue the film doesn’t seem to know what to do with the very real points that Sam makes and by refusing to acknowledge her salient points (her critiques are possibly the most level headed and rational in the entire movie) it puts itself onto the back foot. The film expects us to agree with Riggan’s dismissal of viral videos and yet the entire film itself is sold on this kind of viral marketing. The ultimate irony is that the viral video that Riggan is so dismissive of features the majority of the footage used in most trailers for the movie.
At the end of the day I wouldn’t be surprised if people connect with the film more than I have. It is exceptionally well made and the cast is impeccable, especially Stone who is a naturalistic centre to every scene she is in. But to me the film feels like too much of an experiment in form, the loosest skeleton of a story and emotional journey embellished with directorial flourishes. It’s a beautiful, well-acted, at times acutely funny artifice masquerading as something else.
Birdman had its UK premiere at Leeds International Film Festival. More information about the festival can be found here. It will open across the country in January.