“It’s important to me! Alright? Maybe not to you, or your cynical friends whose only ambition is to go viral. But to me… To me… this is – God. This is my career, this is my chance to do some work that actually means something.”
As excited as I am to see Michael Keaton playing The Vulture in the new Spiderman next year, I doubt we’ll see as fascinating a portrayal as the washed up bird star he puts forward in Birdman. As last year’s Best Picture winner, this is certainly one of the most important movies to make its way into the mainstream over the last several years. Cinematically, it’s a concept piece that challenges conventional visual presentation. As a story, it’s a rich, gut-wrenching piece of cinema which tackles a subject that has never been conquered with such successful results. As much as I love Whiplash or Grand Budapest, I think the finest film truly did take home the prize last year. It’s powerful, heartbreaking, and it hits me in a nuanced sort of way that few other films have managed to accomplish.
Michael Keaton, star of the 1989 Batman, plays a strikingly similar version of himself in the form of Riggan Thompson, an aging blockbuster actor who has hung up the cape (previously known for his work on “Birdman”) and is moving into more serious work in professional theatre. Inspired by the words of Raymond Carver, Riggan produces and stars in a stage production of “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Due to technical issues, he is forced to bring in Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a young actor on the top of his game who ends up clashing personally and artistically with Riggan over the production. In an attempt to finally create something great and shed his paper-thin blockbuster reputation, Riggan struggles through the opening days of his production while trying to keep himself together in a desperate plea for fulfillment.
The obvious cinematic twist to the film’s presentation is the famous long shot in which nearly the entire movie is presented as one continuous shot of film. In reality, of course, cinematic tricks are used to connect many shots together into a visual illusion of a long shot. For those familiar with Hitchcock’s Rope, this isn’t anything new, but it’s the most successful use of such a technique in any film to date. If you allow yourself immersion in the story, just about every cut feels seamless. Really, though, I don’t feel it should matter how many cuts this movie actually used for our appreciation of the film, as the result is more about a visual style, and the film should be digested for how it appears, not how it was crafted. It’s also a much needed relief to see such a bold choice from a mainstream filmmaker. With a respectable, if a bit tedious, followup this year with The Revenant, Alejandro Iñárritu is proving himself to be among the greatest working directors, and I predict his legacy will endure throughout cinematic history. His focused, striking approach to narrative filmmaking and innovative decision-making is desperately needed in today’s cinematic landscape.
I find that Birdman also excels in large part due to its performances, which heighten reality just enough to where the characters feel like works of theatre themselves. The first time I saw the film, I nearly felt more impressed with Edward Norton’s sharp approach to Mike Shiner than with Keaton himself. Upon further viewings, I think Keaton gives the most complex, sympathetic performance as a desperate artist, but Norton shouldn’t be discounted for the charm he brings to an often deplorable character. His constant verbal assault on Keaton’s work really stings deep, and the contrast between these two characters appeals to anyone who has ever put forward an artistic project of their own.
This contrast between Norton and Keaton leads into what makes the film stand out more than any other element for me: its enlightening, often terrifying, occasionally inspiring approach to its subject matter. Birdman is at its peak when it poses questions for its audience, questions that it often seems unable to answer for itself. What does it mean to be a critic? Are they really failed artists, cowardly hiding behind their criticism, or should a work of art be able to stand fairly against any criticism? After the suffering that Keaton endures to finally get a “good review,” Birdman seems to suggest that it might not be worth the trouble. Or maybe it suggests that we should seek validation and fulfillment from the ones we love as opposed to critical reception. It’s these questions that are rarely explored in great film, and it puts Birdman over the top for me. The thematic approach is so focused, so complex, that the story glides its way into a worthy Best Picture win in my opinion. (The only other film which comes to mind that tackles similar themes successfully is Clouds of Sils Maria, a wonderful French-language film if you can manage to track it down.)
Birdman isn’t an epic sort of film. It’s a painfully intrusive, messy piece of cinema that leaves us with a lot to think about, but these sort of films prove to be the most fulfilling for me as a viewer. The one-shot approach brings a fun, unique visual spin to the story, but it’s the characters themselves that drive home important thematic questions. I’m relieved that Birdman won Best Picture. I enjoy sitting down with a film like Whiplash or Grand Budapest more, but this is one of those too-often cases where Birdman is still the more deserving film, if only to show that artistry has its place in cinema, and a great film should make people think about the world around them. It’s a treasure of cinema that I have marveled over numerous times, and for all that it accomplishes, I would unflinchingly call it a high point of contemporary cinema.
Films Left to Watch: 919