Random Thoughts about Birdman (2014)
by Nandia Foteini Vlachou
1. That there is cinema, and a movie like Birdman – what a joy.
2. I don’t have a stomach for heavy drama. I had managed to avoid all of Iñárritu’s previous films, so I don’t know how Birdman fits in with his style or subject matter. To meet a director though with such control of his craft is not a pleasure or a privilege. It’s an honor.
3. The critique that makes up much of the film’s content – celebrity culture, Hollywood’s superhero obsession, the price of fame, social media replacing human experience (even standing in for meaningful existence) – is nothing new. Entertainment “reporters” interested in baby pig semen injections and confusing Roland Barthes for an actor in the Birdman series is funny, sure. But it’s the way that Iñárritu meticulously films each line and wrinkle on Michael Keaton’s face, every tiny mark of decay and age, that is the most effective critique of all.
4. For someone like me, who idolized Tim Burton for years and years, who considers Batman Returns not only the best Batman film (Nolan is so overrated…), but possibly the best superhero film ever made (hey, it’s really all about the freaks!), it’s thrilling to watch Keaton put in such a performance, that is at the same time a meta-commentary on his own career. That he is able to do so without a hint of irony, is a remarkable achievement of bravery, honesty and commitment. At the same time, he manages to maintain the façade of an enigma, as if – despite the voices in his head – one never knows what’s going on in there.
5. A technical achievement is not worth much in its own right. Last year’s oscar winner for best director was Alfonso Cuarón for Gravity, a movie that was deathly boring despite the visuals, the stunts and awe-inspiring outer space. Birdman on the other hand is nothing short of exhilarating. Knowledge of the technical difficulties of the shoot – the cast had to rehearse ahead of getting to the actual theater space choreographing their every move and turn, not to mention the challenges of the ‘single take’ approach – is not reason enough for admiration. The same way that one does not watch Boyhood to admire the technical achievement, the technical aspects of Birdman only enhance the viewing experience. The narrow, winding and almost labyrinthine space of the theater backstage – an irrational, overlapping geography – is the perfect visual and kinetic metaphor for Riggan’s state of mind.
6. Theater as art is opposed to cinema as popular entertainment, while Iñárritu boldly demonstrates what the latter is truly capable of. That is why the film works so well: sermonizing won’t do the trick of getting the message across. Film is a visual means that manipulates time and space, and Iñárritu displays a profound understanding of it.
7. Edward Norton, in a self-parody of the “very serious actor”, holds nothing back. He is utterly brilliant. He plays both with his public perception of self, as with the audience’s assumptions of what it really takes to be an actor.
8. I don’t remember where or when I first saw Emma Stone – but I do recall immediately falling for her. Even as a dedicated admirer of hers, I was shocked by how she owns her every scene, how she stands opposite Edward Norton and belongs there. Their terrace scenes were electrifying.
9. Performances were generally a high point for the film. I could even put up with Zach Galifianakis’ presence. Naomi Watts was terrific, as always, but I was particularly taken by Amy Ryan’s understated, very touching presence.
10. Music in a film can be a mixed blessing. There is the music score that accompanies a scene (discreetly or otherwise), there is the occasional music composer whose music is more memorable than the image, there’s the obligatory use of classical music for ‘serious films’, there’s even the ideal match between the two. But never do I recall having seen a film where music was put to such an expressive use. It is simply astounding.