15 December 2014

First Impressions: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Believe it or not we're almost at the conclusion of the Year 2014, and as is the norm for this time, each and every website worth its shit covering film is dishing out lists of the best movies, music, TV, nudie pic leaks, and anything else they can imagine. Rest assured, Norwegian Morning Wood's Lists are coming (we never jump the gun on these things - that's what the week between Christmas and New Year's is for), but looking back on it a bit now, one thing is clear: 2014 was a CRAZY good year for movies. It's like 2007 levels. Seriously, look around. Even the blockbusters didn't suck! Mostly!

It's such a shame then, that Birdman (2014) makes them all look like pieces of shit. In 2007 this was No Country for Old Men (2007), which dominated amid a weird flurry of Westerns like There Will Be Blood (2007) that I'd now consider a little worse, as well as Westerns like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) that seven years gone I'd consider a little better. It was a strange time for everybody.

2014 isn't linked by a singular genre, and who knows if these opinions will hold up across the next seven years (can we link 2014's best films through the dark-comedy genre? How will Birdman's Legacy compete with The Grand Budapest Hotel [2014] and Inherent Vice [2014] in 2021?), but right now Birdman stands out as a really great movie in a crowd of really good movies, which is damned impressive. Top to bottom this thing just excels in every possible way. SPOILERS will fire from all angles from here on out people, so go see it now if you haven't already, take notes, then come back, prepared to discuss. I'll wait.

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OK, welcome back. So since this is basically a critical assertion of the film, let's start by addressing how the film addresses critics, and then focus our impressions from there. There are many layers throughout this whole thing, from the subtext of the plot formed from both the personal struggles of the principal characters and the congruent themes along with a plot that intersects fantasy with reality in increasingly meta ways that comes off much less obnoxiously than that sounds. But there's a solid dig at critics at the intersection of art and commerce.
Caw Caw!

There's this continual argument in the film against the vapid emptiness of stupid superhero films, which is rendered indelibly ironic through not only its main character, Riggan Thompson (played by Michael Keaton, whose role in Birdman (1992) is the clearest extension of his real-life role as the Caped Crusader in Batman [1989]), but also the use of Ed "Bruce Banner" Norton and Emma "Gwen Stacy" Stone. Throw in Naomi "Ann Darrow" Watts and Andrea "The Chick from Oblivion (2013)" Riseborough, and you've really got a cast with a tremendous amount of big-filmmaking experience. Tabitha, the New York Times Critic played by Lindsay Duncan exposes at length about her contempt for Riggan's kind - the ego-driven celebrities posing as "actors" who take up space in theaters where real art could have been produced.

Riggan counters that Tabitha doesn't know how to bare her soul for art, and chides her for merely labeling things without digging into structure or meaning. Tabitha isn't really phased, and this argument about the nature of art rages between her, Riggan, and the pompous actor, Mike (Ed Norton). So let's try not to label things here and dig into structure and meaning, baring a little soul.

That's how Mike sees things. He's really only alive on stage and is only comfortable as a performer. As a real human being he's downright detestable, without much concern for how people look at him. He's a firm believer in the pursuit of truth, though, and his introductory riffs with Riggan are a marvelous introduction to character that also blends what exactly is acting and what is real personal reactions. He also chastises Riggan for making populist drivel, considering him to be an ego-driven hack who used his name to write, direct, and star in a passion product where he lacks the talent or insight to actually make a play or performance to reveal human truth.

Riggan is therefore at this intersection of opinions on art. He made his name on big, billion-dollar franchises but twenty years on is mostly a wash-out. Again, the meta-irony with casting Michael Keaton in this role is just as heady as the irony of casting Ed Norton as the pushy, difficult actor. And apparently, this concept was not lost at all on either Norton or Iñárritu. Riggan understands the stupid emptiness of blockbuster filmmaking and wants to distance himself from it - that's the whole point of his undertaking. Each time he's derided for the very past he's trying to fight against it's a rough blow to his own sense of self-worth and direction. At the same time his ego swells large enough to fantasize himself as a real-life Birdman fighting giant mechanical eagles and flying around the city. If you've gotten this far and haven't actually seen this film yet, what more do I need to tell you? Get going!

Welcome back.

Like I was saying, there's all these competing ideas for what art is. And as well there should be, because no one actually knows what art is. Everyone has an opinion of what it is, and that's what really makes art anything - it's simply worth discussing. Here at Norwegian Morning Wood, we think just about everything is art. Especially Rebecca Black. I wonder what Rebecca Black is doing right now. You ever think about that? Or what Gotye is up to. Did you ever think Gotye would become a one-hit wonder? How does, oh I don't know...what does Kel Mitchell do to get through his day every day? Does he chill with Kenan after SNL rehearsals? I'm fascinated by this shit.

Way off topic. Riggan is fighting for truth as well, but gains confidence by the idea that he can fall back on his billion-dollar franchise and although the film mostly derides the stupid big studio movie, there's some sense that it can be a source of pride for those involved, even if Iñárritu expresses such sentiment with some degree of sarcasm. I think there's a heady concept out there that these big movies push the little movies out of the way, to the irritation of those seeking high art, the same way that vanity projects like Riggan's supposedly hack adaptation of "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" leave less space for other, more important plays to rehearse.

These are the huge ideas the film presents about art, movie-making, and specifically superhero movies. But there's so much more to this thing. Let's talk structure, as Riggan would like us to. The most notable feature of this film is obviously its one-take nature which is hypnotic, baffling, and erection-causing all at the same time. Now, it really wasn't one-take, although the illusion is crafted precisely. Through some careful pans, editing, and color corrections the film is present as such, although I've been fooled pretty thoroughly. I assuredly can't point out to you where these moments are, although the two time-lapse (presumably) skyshot scenes that transition from night to morning are fair indicators. There may be more spliced in, and if anyone can find an article online determining when, feel free to share below!

That being said, much of the film was only a few takes, which is crazy hard. Seriously, it makes Touch of Evil (1958) look like a pile of crap. The precision involved for literally everyone - director, blockers, lighting guys, and actors especially - being on point in some really difficult scenes is infinitely impressive. And I usually don't give a shit about actors. The planning and precision required from the screenplay is all the more impressive and mind-boilingly difficult. I mean, they literally designed the set around how long it look to say a piece of dialogue while walking down a corridor.

And the cheats are incredible and puzzling and exactly why you still go to the movie theater in an age where a lot seems to be able to be explained with CGI. How do Keaton and Norton exit the St. James Theater on 44th and walk into a bar on 47th? Or how is Keaton suddenly in the middle of Times Square in his underpants. The logistics are crazy! It's a script and directing achievement that I think unfortunately will overshadow many other tremendous writing and directing achievements this year, although who knows if the Academy will even agree, and who knows if time will agree with either of us.

Everything in this movie also fits really well tonally, which is also astounding, because it's such a tricky tone to achieve. It's not quite straight, there's way too much goofiness and surrealness, but it's also not an out and out comedy. The bubbling bursting drumming by Antonio Sanchez offers a frenetic pulse that complements the unending continuous take. The continuous take style mimics the Live Theater subject matter at the heart of the movie. Even the set design represents the characters' struggles from the crumbling, cramped backstage hallways to the immaculate stage, suggesting how disastrous these people's personal lives have to be against the public face to which they are judged. It's amazing.

Riggan wants us to dig deeper. So let's talk about ego. There's a lot of this in the movie, and it's touched on just enough to remind us it's an important theme without over-explaining itself, leaving a lot for interpretation. That sounds like good art! There's a lot of talk about Icarus and of course the title of the film, which also configures itself as a final Times headline, "The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance." That's essentially a good sum-up of the film, perhaps as good as "Birdman" is. Or maybe they're the same thing.

Tabitha uses the title to describe how the hapless, unrespected, Broadway-outsider Riggan by accident created a new performance method, which she dubs, "Super-Realism" by shooting himself in the head, only to miss and annihilate his nose, which by itself is also an unexpected virtue of ignorance. It could thus be seen as the power a fresh mind with little experience has when entering a new medium without bounds of expectation to limit potential. It's also a statement supporting dumb luck.

Icarus, obviously, flew too close to the sun in his pride, after which his wings melted and he fell to his death. Right? Did he die? Well, he got messed up for sure. Riggan either did that years ago with the Birdman franchise, which doomed him to never step out of that shadow and be respected as a real actor, or is doing that right now in overstretching himself to create this play at the expense of his entire life - straining every personal relationship and obliterating himself financially, professionally, and mentally to get it completed. His ignorance is either in his pride (the Birdman blockbuster invincible mentally that also saves him from suicide. Maybe.) that allows him to think this is possible, or in the completely accidental way the play becomes a hit, mostly due to his or someone else's (usually Mike's drunken freak-out or public erection) bungling that catches on, through word of mouth, real or digital.
"You wanna get nuts?!"

That's another big theme that runs through the film, usually through Riggan's daughter, Sam (Emma Stone): the fight for relevancy and legacy in both an age where everyone is fighting for it and an industry that is quick to discard has beens and latch on to the next up and coming star. Another great irony in the film is that Riggan is so quick to dismiss and disregard social media (as is, I would imagine, Mike and Tabitha, who would denounce it as a lack of the search for truth, which is as outdated an attitude towards social media as you can get), but he ends up becoming a sensation through his own dumb series of fortune. Another bill for the unexpected virtue of ignorance. He achieves relevancy not when he is seeking it, but exactly when he doesn't want to be seen (an underpants parade through Times Square). That battle to stay relevant in the digital age, not only through ignorance of technology, but really when you are but one of billions with the exact same capability, is an extremely difficult endeavour that the film hits home pretty well.

Needless to say, this is all supported by really good acting. Keaton has always been a bit of a chameleon, switching between roles like Beetlejuice and Bruce Wayne with ease in the 80s and popping up in random things like Multiplicity (1996) and Jack Frost (1998) in the 90s, then killing it with TLC references in The Other Guys (2010). The dude can actually do anything. Norton, who usually plays such nice dudes slips into this asshole role really well, perhaps because it's a little closer to home. Stone is the other stand out as a bit more bitter than she usually skews, but with all the charm she can elude. The rest of the cast has impressive turns, from the strained Watts, the confused Riseborough, and a fierce Galifianakis, who is showing an actor inside him that deserved to come out a long time ago. It's fantastic.

I can't heap any more praise on this thing. I know it's been praised a lot, but it deserves a little more. I really thought Gone Girl (2014) would have been my pick this year, but this might do it. I have a few more weeks to get through all the best movies of 2014 but this is hard to top. Go and see it, already, jeez.

And leave a comment about where those cuts are below.

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