(Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu, United States, 2014)
Say You Love Me
How much does Hollywood love movies about Hollywood? Enough to shower The Artist and Hugo with accolades and awards at year’s end back in 2011 despite the overwhelming critical opinion that several other films were much more deserving. Enough for the AMPAS to inexplicably anoint Ben Affleck’s Hollywood-fest Argo Best Picture for 2012. Maybe this explains the current enthusiastic praise and award season success of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest Birdman (Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). To say Birdman is a bad movie would be unfair. It’s technically accomplished to be sure. And, there are one or two novel ideas here, but it’s certainly not as clever it hopes to be. Thus, in the wake of Boyhood and The Grand Budapest Hotel among others, it leads one to wonder, why Birdman? Are critics afraid to criticize it? It should go without saying that no film – even one crafted as a sly auto-critique – is immune to criticism. Just because an amalgam of Iñárritu’s detractors appears in the film as a self-righteous theater critic (Lindsay Duncan) doesn’t mean film critics shouldn’t weigh in honestly on Birdman whether good or bad.
Iñárritu’s film straddles the blurry line between art and commerce with a self-referential setup and a classic Hollywood story of a washed-up actor making a comeback. The actor in question – Riggan Thomson – played the superhero Birdman in a previous incarnation of his dwindling career and has set out to rejuvenate his reputation by adapting Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love” for the stage. Riggan’s story should immediately register familiarly as the actor who plays him is Michael Keaton who similarly starred as Batman in ’89 and again in ’92. Likewise, Keaton’s career has remained largely under the radar since. It’s the first instance of meta that will go on to define the remainder of Birdman.
The film’s story primarily centers on the days leading up to the play’s opening night on Broadway. Iñárritu – via Emmanuel Lubezki’s inspired camerawork – follows Riggan and the other performers and crew as they prepare for the widely anticipated premiere. Lubezki’s camera snakes through the darkened labyrinth of the St. James Theatre’s backstage featuring much-talked about long takes (brilliantly edited to give the appearance of one two-hour uninterrupted take) effectively pulling us into Riggan’s story and allowing this talented troupe of actors to act for more than a few seconds. To be sure, it’s probably Birdman’s greatest feat. Lubezki is a DP in a class of his own, at once capable of producing endless reels of gorgeous footage for Terrence Malick (The New World, The Tree of Life, To the Wonder) and pushing the boundaries of digital cinematography for Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men, Gravity).
During the film, Riggan battles his inner demon – his former alter ego Birdman – who presses him to throw off this hopeless ambition and accept fame and fortune by donning the cape and mask once more by returning for Birdman 4. His conscious egotism suppresses this urge throughout and propels him to continue with the play despite signs of potential failure – a loose cannon of a performer (Edward Norton), his daughter’s (Emma Stone) insistence on his increasing irrelevance, his manager/friend’s strict attention to the bottom line (Zach Galifianakis), and the threats to destroy his play from one stuffy critic (Duncan) who fittingly drinks alone each and every night.
Many a film critic has rallied behind Birdman precisely because of this setup. Of course, one could easily point to its technical achievements and solid performances, but the vast majority of the ink spilled lavishes praise upon Iñárritu’s willingness to confront the compromise of artistic vision in the face of dollar signs and mass appeal. It’s a notion as old as the Movies itself. What do we consider art, and what is just product? Which films seek to cash in the most each weekend, and which ones seek mostly to engage and offer something new? In crass terms, which ones are films and which are just movies? Do we consider Transformers in the same breath as The Tree of Life? One has certainly reached a wider audience and has raked in a pretty penny for its studio, but even its critical detractors would agree that Malick’s is the better film.
But, I would argue that it’s an over-discussed subject that may be perpetuating a false dichotomy. On one very crucial point, The Tree of Life, Birdman, and Transformers are all on an equal playing field; they are all movies – images and sounds captured by a film crew featuring actors – and are all thus subject to criticism, debate, and thought despite the intentions (artistic, financial, or otherwise) with which they were made. Would Riggan be selling out if he chose to don the cape again? Or, worse, is his bid for Broadway glory fueled by his desire to be loved again? Ultimately, the motivations lie within Riggan alone. Iñárritu, it seems, is too quick to exonerate him possibly in hopes that we too might like what he has to offer. Is it too much of a stretch to picture Iñárritu himself standing in Riggan’s spot on stage confessing his desire to be loved? As an artist, it should be nothing to be ashamed of. There are very few artists who can honestly say they care very little about what their public thinks. That notion is not more than a fan’s daydream.
Birdman, then, functions just as much as a portrait of its maker’s wrestling with his own art as it does for the characters that populate it. There are instances of bona fide filmmaking here, but Iñárritu’s film ultimately suffers from a few glaring missteps. For one, Birdman contains some downright bizarre dialogue, a few one-liners that fail to register as funny and more or less just weird. The film opens with Riggan’s scene-setting voiceover thoughts. He concludes that his dressing room “smells like balls.” Okay… The film is littered with these non-sequiturs that draw unwanted attention to a fairly clunky script. Later, during the intermission of the play’s premiere, attendees congregate outside the theatre and comment on the strength of the play’s first act, but there’s something unmistakably awkward about the dialogue. I haven’t been to a large number of shows, but do people really talk like that? I’m inclined to think not. The cringe-inducing dialogue hits a low point with Emma Stone stating “this is power” while showing her father a video of him running around NYC in his underwear going viral. Yuck.
Perhaps more egregious than a questionably written screenplay is Iñárritu’s arguably unfair treatment of critics and artists alike. The entire critical community has been reduced to one cartoonish peripheral character in Duncan’s Tabitha Dickinson. Not only does Iñárritu give her some of the film’s worst lines (“Aren’t you afraid I’m going to write you a bad review?” – each word clearly enunciated), he also paints her with a snobbish attitude toward the arts and dismisses her profession (not once, but twice!) with a “those who can’t create, critique” zinger and never revisits her character again. True, online publications are rife with critical vitriol that, to be blunt, deserves never to be read. Lofty and unexplained opinions are not befitting an intelligent critic (as Dickinson isn’t portrayed here), but Iñárritu’s view toward criticism in general is rather shortsighted. A large part of what makes art art is how the public interacts with it. A good critic, a thoughtful critic, should shed light on nuances, influences, issues, or particularly exemplary touches that casual fans of art may miss. We need critics just like we need artists. His willingness to take self-satisfying film criticism to task is commendable, but there is more depth to be found in the similarly themed, five-minute soliloquy at the end of Pixar’s Ratatouille. In that film, food critic Anton Ego recognizes that critics “risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to [their] judgment.” Edward Norton’s drunken Mike Shiner says as much in one scene spitting in Dickinson’s face, but it feels a bit more genuine from the mouth of the critic instead of a potentially embittered performer.
His portrayal of the tortured artist isn’t much better. Here again Iñárritu touches on that aforementioned false dichotomy. Art and poverty coexist where commercialization and wealth cannot. This widely accepted notion (extending into other forms of art too – notably current conversations regarding a suffering music industry) asserts that a true artist must forgo potential financial returns for their work lest they risk compromising their artistry. Birdman the alter ego comments that during his heyday Riggan was ignorant of his own insignificance in culture, but at least he was happy. Why? Riggan’s motivation for throwing himself wholeheartedly into this production is revealed as a desperate need to reassert his position in cultural conversation, but is this the only motivation an artist could possibly have for making the ever-controversial jump from screen to stage, or vice versa? And, why shouldn’t an ambitious artist expect to make a living off their art? Of course, the risk of choosing a career in film, music, or literature is that one may not reap monetary benefits or achieve fame, but is it really so wrong for him or her to aspire to it?
Iñárritu’s final error finds the director unfortunately retreading familiar water. Though his latest is nowhere near as guilty as the insipid Babel in this regard, Birdman proves that Iñárritu can’t seem to shake his need to achieve relevance. Comments about Twitter, going viral, current superhero movies, public perception in the age of social media, and the more-pertinent-than-ever discussion surrounding artists “selling out” abound in Iñárritu’s film as if to assert this is how we live now. It might rouse critical discussion today, but this plea for relevance may very well lead to his film fading ever so quickly when another film seeks to define the cultural climate come December 2015. Today’s buzz will always be tomorrow’s distant memory. So, shall we call Birdman art? If its creator thinks so, then sure. But, not every painting is a Monet.
(Writer’s note: This evaluation was originally written upon first viewing in January 2015 prior to Birdman‘s inevitable Best Picture win at the Oscars.)