Thursday, December 18, 2014

Superhero Blues

Michael Keaton in Birdman

Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu), like many of the director's films, sometimes lets the technique of its making overshadow its subject matter. Iñárritu has been a Mannerist from his first film onward, so this is no surprise. What is surprising is the technique Iñárritu has chosen. His other films have shattered narratives; they are Cubist mosaics in which multiple story chronologies define fragments of the whole. Birdman, by contrast, is downright classical in its adherence to the unities of dramatic time and space. There's a practical reason for this. Most of the film is constructed to look like one long uninterrupted take. And that's only the start of its cleverness.

The story follows one Riggan Thompson, who once upon a time made a splash as the lead actor in a big superhero franchise. Those days are long past, though, and now he's trying to resurrect his career in the "legitimate" theater writing, directing, and starring in a play based on Raymond Carver. The play is a vanity act, but Thompson's vanity is a fracturing, prickly thing. Things are not going well with the play. His lead actor is terrible, one of his actresses appears to have become pregnant with his child, his daughter is on hand after a stint in rehab, and the critic from the Times is hellbent on destroying his play because his career is an affront to her ideas of art. "You're not an actor," she tells him, "you're a celebrity." Oh, and it appears that he's developed the power to move things with his mind. This solves his problem with his lead actor when he unconsciously drops an light on him. The fix for that is worse, though, because Mike, the actor who steps into the part, is brilliant and knows it. He rubs Riggan the wrong way by being the very definition of a difficult actor. Soon enough, Riggan and Mike are at odds over the creative direction of the play itself, and, indeed, of Riggan's sense of self. Inside his mind the persona of the Birdman, Riggan's long-ago superhero, is speaking to him. Riggan does his best to channel this into art--into performance--but at the risk of his own sanity...

Michael Keaton and Edward Norton in Birdman

The best way to consider Birdman is as theater, with its actors and cameras adhering to  rigorous blocking within the film' space. This is a necessity given its one-take aesthetic. It's not really one take. There are several edits that are cleverly (and not so cleverly disguised). As a technical exercise, this is closer to Rope than it is to Russian Ark. The theatricality of the film's structure infests the performances. The performances in this film are weirdly stylized, as if the characters are always on stage, playing to the rafters. This is true even of Lindsay Duncan's scabrous theater critic who never takes the film's literal stage, but whose lines are the kind of bilious wit that used to animate films like Sweet Smell of Success. One of the film's best jokes finds the drummer providing the film with its jazz score existing on-camera. It's all theater. Even the ranting derelict in the alley behind the theater is shouting Macbeth.

Beyond its technical conceits, there are also nested levels of metacinema at work in Birdman.  The outer layer is the casting of Michael Keaton as Thompson, the washed up actor who played a superhero back in the late eighties. This is so obvious a joke that it is almost kitsch, but it's a clever disguise. Two of the primary furies flogging Thompson are his daughter and Mike, played respectively by Emma Stone and Ed Norton, both of whom have also appeared in superhero movies. Putting a critique of art and meaning into their mouths is sly, given that neither actor has been defined by their respective comic book roles in the same way Keaton has. The dichotomy between art and commerce, between actor and celebrity presented by this film is slippery: it seems clear cut only if you accept the surface. The film is at pains to make the surface completely unreliable.

Michael Keaton in Birdman

The film approaches its central concerns obliquely. The questions of what constitutes art are a red herring. Rather, the film is more generally concerned with what art grants the artist. What does the artist owe the world? Blood? The film deals with that explicitly. Authenticity? It subverts this idea and reconstructs it at various points of its story. What does art make real for the artist? Is the artist real only through art? Birdman asks this question in the text of its fictional play, but it also asks it in Thompson's various fantasies of power, whether moving things with his mind or vanishing into a special effects fantasia of his Birdman persona. This last concludes with an off-screen voice, in true New Yawk fashion, screaming for him to cut it out and asking him if it's all for a movie. "Yes," he says, thus tearing down the fourth wall. The film further muddies all of this at the very end, when it becomes clear that it's not all in his head. The ending of this movie reminds me a bit of Chauncey Gardner walking on water at the end of Being There. The magic has been made real. The straw man has been made flesh.

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Deborah Lipp said...

Oh, I like the connection to Being There. I didn't think of that.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

It took me by surprise when I thought of it. Different implications, of course, but the same kind of serendipity.