Telluride 2014 Review: ‘Birdman’

Birdman Michael Keaton Ed Norton

Birdman may be the most artistically riveting movie I’ve disagreed with thematically. I can share my interpretation of what I think Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is trying to say without spoiling much, but you won’t know if you disagree with me, or if I even got the film right until you see it. 

Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) is putting on a play, his own adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Love. In the ‘90s, Thompson was the star of the Birdman trilogy but since turning down Birdman 4 he has been a has-been. I guess. There’s about 20 years between Birdman 3 and now. He must have kept working to still be able to mount a play in 2014, but to what extent and in what quality of projects isn’t specified. 

The hook of Michael Keaton playing a former superhero trying to be taken seriously is enough to make Birdman entertaining on a superficially meta level. They name drop several current franchise stars and take overt digs at the blockbuster culture from which Riggan is trying to escape. Keaton has actually done just fine since Batman so it’s all in good fun.

 

Birdman seems less about Keaton winking at Batman than it is Inarritu coming to grips with the entertainment industry. His statement against studio films, which several characters besides Riggan express overtly, is totally stereotypical. Yeah, blockbusters are so commercial, man. We need to make real art, man. 

And what is Inarritu’s beef with blockbusters? He makes art movies and he’s gotten to make five art movies that have won awards. Blockbusters aren’t cutting into his slice of the cinematic pie. Let both exist, not to mention the artists who find a way to say something within commercial genres.

Inarritu’s previous movies are all about how miserable life is and sad things happen and keep happening, usually out of order. It’s valid to explore that too, but I’ve actually found that films like Biutiful, 21 Grams and some of the subplots in Babel don’t actually understand why bad things happen. They just know it’s real, man, it’s real. Why do people’s decisions keep turning out badly? Why do the people protagonists surround themselves with get them into more trouble? Well, it just keeps happening and it’s real, man, it’s real.

I say this both for context of my interpretation of his oeuvre and to illustrate that Birdman is actually different. This isn’t real, man. It’s about art. But it’s complaining that art needs to be more real. Riggan’s formidable costar Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) complains about truth and honesty, a theater critic accuses Riggan of lacking honesty and truth in his craft, and of course that is to what Riggan is aspiring. So, I’m sorry, I don’t believe ranting about honesty shows you really understand artistic truth and honesty. 

We also learn what Inarritu really thinks of journalists, and that’s cute, but when the theater critic gives a big speech near the end, come on. It’s also got that old “critics are just failed artists” argument layered in there, which I won’t dignify by refuting it. Not to mention, Riggan’s play is not very good. Maybe it’s not supposed to be so the other characters’ criticisms are valid. Maybe it’s just that thing that any movie within a movie or show within a show is never the great masterpiece it’s supposed to be. If it were, that’s the movie they would have made instead. I’ve never read the original Carver, so I don’t know if it’s word for word. The personal risk Riggan is taking is admirable, but he has to face the consequences of it himself. He’s either good or he’s not. 

I shouldn’t single out the director. Four people wrote this script, including him. Yet, having this statement, though I disagree with it, gives Birdman the most drive of any Inarritu film. It’s not weaving between several characters. It’s on a mission. So it’s fascinating to be invited on that mission through the medium of cinema, and the technique is so extraordinary I don’t mind. I certainly won’t be invited to hang out with Inarritu and hear his thoughts personally. 

The technique is one long single take, and it is extraordinary how much interaction occurs before fluid frames. It is really worth it for filmmakers to try to capture as much live as they can, and marveling at the execution of that can be a welcome distraction from the film’s thematic problems. They’ve gotten really good at hiding the cuts too. I think I spotted some but maybe I didn’t. Of course when they walk through a dark hallway, a frame of black is all you need, but maybe a wipe across a wall can be digitally composited. Of all things, a YouTube video cuts between several angles, but maybe it was a megamix of lots of popular recordings.

So when the technique explodes into surreal visions, they’re still awesome even though I disagree with their thematic purpose. I don’t agree with his criticism of Hollywood films. I have many criticisms of Hollywood films of my own, but I don’t share these, yet I love the artistically audacious way he works them out. The practical revelation of his metaphorical excursion is amusing. 

The actors are outstanding too. There are tour de force performances from Keaton and Norton, and powerful moments from Naomi Watts, Emma Stone and Andrea Riseborough. Most of their characters encounter each other in scenes handled with complexity and subtext. Maybe more of that and less talking about art and honesty. 

Essentially, I liked Birdman. A lot. I spent so much time marveling about how it was done that by the time I discerned what it was saying, I didn’t much care. I get a chance to explain and contest it here, and if I’m just part of the problem then maybe Inarritu will make another movie about it.

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Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind Best Episode Ever and The Shelf Space Awards. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.