This week, Henry brought us a contender for the upcoming Oscars, Alejandro González Iñárritu‘s 2014 film Birdman. But before the film, with a title like “Birdman” we definitely had to have a couple of shorts.
I had a perfect Kids In The Hall short – the first instance of Chicken Lady (and which might properly be called “Chicken Lady on a Date”).
And Henry followed that with a 1951 cartoon starring Foghorn Leghorn called “Lovelorn Leghorn”.
Of course, the real draw of the evening was the potential Oscar winner. Let’s spoil the crap out of this movie!
We start the film by getting a view of Riggan, the former star of the Birdman action film franchise. This would appear to be a pretty thinly-veiled reference to the Batman franchise, though to be fair Keaton is not given any writing credit and I don’t know if the role was deliberately written for him. Google knows. On a real quick check, Google suggests “No”. Huh. Riggan has a few interesting things going on. For one, he’s trying to put together a serious Broadway production based on Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” (and I would like to brag myself right out of my shoes for actually recognizing that this was what he was adapting before it was stated – yay me!) It’s sort of a whole “I’m still relevant and creative” thing. Second, he seems to have an evil Birdman voice going through his head, tearing him down and trying to stand in his way at every turn. Oh, and third, he’s FLOATING. The allegation of Riggan’s telekinesis is a major plot element throughout the film.
This film also loves hallways.
Riggan’s production is being spearheaded by a character whose name is completely unimportant (IMDB says…”Jake”!) and is played by a completely against-type Zach Galifianakis. Just forget you ever saw The Hangover before you watch this film, or seeing Mr. G. play a serious character might induce mental whiplash. While it’s not really Zach’s fault – he’s holding this production together with duct tape and kindergarten paste – there are many issues surrounding the play. One of the first is that one of the actors Riggan cast was horrible. Useless as an actor. So Riggan telekinetically makes a stage light fall on the poor actor’s head and ushers him out of the production. He needs a last-minute replacement, and co-star Naomi Watts (…”Lesley”!) offers up her current boyfriend, who is a very big name but is known as a bit of difficult person to work with.
After a few scenes you realize that there’s actually a reason that this film loves hallways so much – it has been edited to look like it was filmed in one continuous shot. And to do that, you’ve got to follow people from location to location.
Another bit of drama in the production is that Riggan’s assistant is his own daughter Emma Stone (…”Sam”!), recently out of rehab and not entirely keen on the job. They haven’t had the greatest relationship, which is kind of a cliché with the whole actor-dad-not-there thing, but, you know, plausible.
The film isn’t meant to be shot in real-time, so during many hallway transits we actually get a time jump as well, though (outside of I believe two outdoor darkness-to-dawn lighting changes) we’re never actually clued into exactly when the time jumps occur – we just have to figure it out.
Yet another bit of drama in the production is Naomi’s (for now) boyfriend Edward Norton (…”Mike”!), who brings just about every monkey wrench he owns into the theater and begins throwing them left and right. He starts out by breaking character and completely derailing the show’s first preview (there are three before the actual opening night) because Riggan has replaced his stage gin with water. He ups the ante during the second preview by basically attempting to rape his own girlfriend on stage in a simulated sex scene because, hey, he was in the mood. So she dumps him and Riggan beats him up. And Norton, undaunted, just turns his attention to a probably about two decades younger Emma Stone. She’s vaguely receptive. And in the the meantime she rips her dad a new one – calls him a fake, says he truly is irrelevant (I mean, he’s totally not trending! #RigganIsALoser) – though much of this anger may be because he has discovered her smoking pot. So much for rehab!
In addition to its hallway fetish, the film tends to make a pretty big deal of Riggan’s telekinesis. You’ve got floating yoga, you’ve got falling lights, you’ve got spinning boxes, and you’ve got a pretty impressive psychic tantrum in his dressing room.
And of course, during the final preview something else has to go wrong – in this case it’s Riggan not only getting accidentally locked out of the theater while taking a smoke break during the play, but also getting his robe caught in the door. He’s forced to walk around to the front of the theater in his floating yoga outfit and do the unconventional nearly-naked-foyer-entry-with-finger-and-thumb-gun maneuver for his final suicide scene. But hey, at least now he’s trending (#BiVDman)! If that isn’t indignity enough, after the show he runs into a theater critic at a bar who, despite not being present at the previews, informs Riggan that she’s going to spitefully kill his play because he’s a Hollywood actor and he has no business being on Broadway. If you’ve ever seen a beer snob forced to drink a Budweiser, you know what she’s all about.
The thing about Riggan’s telekinesis is that (outside of the stage light, which he really only takes credit for post hoc) he only ever does it when there’s nobody around to see. A really nice scene was the psychic tantrum, because during the tantrum somebody sticks their head in – and at this point the telekinetic tantrum changes to a physical one.
As the opening draws near, the Birdman becomes more and more invasive and there are some pretty ambiguous scenes where Riggan does the whole jumping-off-building-and-flying thing. At this point I had become wary enough of whether Riggan’s telekinesis was real or in his head that it was plausible to me that he might splat on the pavement to end the film. But no, he flies. Not that suicide isn’t in the cards, necessarily, because on opening night Riggan replaces the prop gun with a real one for his suicide scene. Bang.
One thing that I forgot to mention regarding the faux one-shot aspect of the film is that as long as the filmmakers were doing some digital magic (usually in the dark bits of the corridors, unsurprisingly) they simply couldn’t avoid giving an homage to one of the greatest shots in movie history. If you’ve been following Cinema 1544 closely, you know about the penultimate shot from Antonioni’s The Passenger, where the camera (seemingly impossibly) exits a room through a window grate and then pans around to show that it is outside the very grate it passed through. It was a technical feat, but it was all done in-camera (watch the scene, think about it, then Google it). Birdman does the same sort of thing – twice – through a more complicated grate, but I’m pretty sure that here it was CGI. And that makes it kind of…cheap. But after Riggan’s on-stage shooting and before the final scene, we do get the mercy of one actual cut in the film.
The final, problematic scene in the film occurs in a hospital room, purportedly on the next day. Riggan in his botched suicide has managed to shoot his nose off, and although he has been very quickly provided with a new transplanted nose he has bandages on that give a bit of the Birdman vibe. His play was a hit – the nasty critic loved it and there’s talk from Zach of the play being put into production worldwide. (This would seem to be a big overcommit, as Riggan is holed up in the hospital and won’t even be able to make the second show.) Finally everybody leaves Riggan alone, he removes the bandages to reveal his new schnozz, and then he opens the window and exits, several stories up. Emma Stone comes back into the room to find the bed empty and the window open and runs over in horror. She looks down, then confused, looks up…and smiles. The End.
The ending, as I said, is extremely problematic. Some have hypothesized that Riggan succeeded in killing himself on stage, and that the final scene is simply his own vision of how his story would end, could he write it. But I reject this on the simple objection that dead men have no visions. That’s no good. But what if we explained that he lived, and that these events really happened? There are huge implausibilities – the nose transplant (looking not so bad for being about 8 hours beyond the surgery), the extreme success of the play and the critic’s 180, the idea that the show will go on despite Riggan literally shooting his figurative wad in the opener. And of course, since we aren’t to believe that Riggan splatted on the pavement any more than he did earlier in the movie, his telekinesis would appear to be real. And his daughter does take his off-camera floating above the camera pretty much in stride. That doesn’t really work for me, either. So what the heck is it? Why are you showing me this scene that just increases the ambiguity of the film instead of resolving it? I’m not going to say that a filmmaker always has to tell us everything – a classic example in my mind is Lost In Translation with its “secret whisper”, a device that worked incredibly well. I’m not even going to say that a filmmaker has to end the movie with everything resolved. There are more examples that can be counted that work without full resolution, either because there really is action yet to come or because there are unsolved mysteries. But this one…the movie spends most of its second half strongly implying that Riggan’s powers are a mere flight of fancy. Then it inserts a scene that suggests very strongly otherwise, but makes the scene so incongruous that it seems to be unreliable in the first place. I just don’t know what to do with that, but I know that it sits very poorly with me.
The gimmick of the single-shot also sits kind of poorly with me. If it were a true single shot, that’s a technical marvel. But being a false single-shot…I mean that was done at least as early as Hitchcock’s Rope, and like the “Passenger” shot, that was at least done in-camera. Proving that you can use CGI to accomplish a faux technical feat already done decades ago without CGI is relatively pointless. And outside of the fact that some of the truly continuous long shots were intricately choreographed (“the drummer” comes to mind) the gimmick does nothing to add to the story. I mean, it’s good to be clever, but when your gimmick was first done more than 65 years ago (Rope was 1948) that’s not clever, that’s stale. As much as I hated Avatar, at least the epic 3-D flying stuff was completely novel. If it’s only a gimmick, show me something new. Otherwise, make it advance the plot. Give me a reason why you did it. Birdman fails that test for me.
What doesn’t sit poorly with me is the acting. Top notch. Norton was the real standout for me, but Keaton was good, Stone was good, Watts was criminally underused, and Galifianakis was a revelation. In a relatively banal script with the bad type of ending ambiguity and a useless CGI gimmick, the acting was really the only thing that salvaged the film. That said, I’ve basically just handed Birdman the Oscar for Best Picture. I don’t think it really rises to that level, but me throwing shade at it is probably just enough to push it over the top.