Friday, November 7, 2014

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

 
This isn't the first film to address the feelings of inadequacy long after one's glory days in the spotlight. Of how an actor best known for a commercially successful series of films tries for that big comeback years on.  Also, a bid for legitimacy to convince the world (and himself) that he has the chops to do serious work and  meanwhile struggles to identify with a very different world in which to do it.  A world where technology has exponentially grown to make it smaller, to make anything that happens instantaneously viewable on one's phone.

BIRDMAN or (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE) is also not the first film to feature a lead character who is informed/inspired/tormented by an alter ego. TRUE ROMANCE featured Christian Slater being tutored by Elvis Presley. But writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu's (BABEL) latest is a certified original, a real stunner. To me, the most exciting film I've seen in a very long time.  It is a grand example of how the appreciation of the art form of film is truly not what it's about, but how it's about.  That does not mean "style over substance", as the screenplay makes points that should convict you where you live, at times (and not just to actors). But the form is the thing, the cinematic essence, and BIRDMAN employs a maestro's modulation that blindsided and delighted me straight through to the final moments.

An actor named Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) finds himself  in the opening scene in a dingy dressing room, wondering how he went from bankable movie star to has-been thespian trying to make his adaptation of a Raymond Carver story work on the Broadway stage.  His role as a superhero called Birdman made him a household name and spawned a trio of over-the-top action spectacles, perhaps the kind Joel Silver used to produce.  But that was over twenty years before. When people actually existed without social media.

Riggan's daughter Sam (Emma Stone), again out of rehab, is his assistant. She's typical of her generation: tech savvy, caustic, jaded, apathetic. She nails her father with a lengthy rant as to how irrelevant he is in this age of Twitter and Facebook. Riggan also finds himself dressed down in person by a New York Times theater critic, the type who can wield her pen and close a show with one acid review, a gut punch to his confidence.  Maybe she's right. Who is he to tackle Carver? And there's also coveted actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), newly cast to the company and brimming with arrogance about his craft.  Hell, everything.

But the biggest thorn in the side of Riggan Thompson is Birdman himself, his old character that perhaps never left his cortex. Always demeaning and pissing on his host's attempts at a clean start - an ammends to his family, friends, and still adoring public. Is it conscience? Reason? Left-brain logic? Heard in a raspy voice, the "superhero" persona dispenses toxic advice and encouragement for an unbrided id to (continue to) act on the baser impulses.  It's a fascinating battle to witness. These scenes take the film to surrealistic heights, places best not described here, for the discovery of them is part of the film's charm and magic.

If you've read anything about BIRDMAN you know that the entire film was skillfully constructed to resemble one long take. There have been other features to try this but I have not seen them. Here, it is mostly seamless. You will try to find the cuts, but resist that.  Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione lead viewers through all corners  and rafters of the St. James Theater (where most of the film takes place) in a breathless dance,  a whirl of nervous energy that doesn't necessarily lead where you expect. The choices for focal points are certainly fodder for interpretation (why do you think we linger on that hallway?).

Accompanying the story is a propulsive score and at various times a drummer is seen doing his stick work in the background of a scene. It manages to be distracting, disturbing, electrifying, and strangely appropriate.  This is one of several seemingly disparate elements which create a unique experience, a real-one-of-a-kind bit of movie going.

Every cast member is at the top of his or her talents. While, yes, having Keaton play this character is a big meta exercise (you recall the actor's late 80s/early 90s franchise participation), he explodes in every scene both with torrents of repressed anger and a mellower, resigned wisdom. He's aged, and so have his longtime viewers. Now and then you recognize some of those quirks Keaton trademarked in his 80s films, too, adding even more to the poignancy of it at this late date. Norton is every bit his match, likewise barreling through the movie with brio, his fiery take on the insufferably brash (though very self aware) thesp. Perhaps he too is pulling the trigger on his real-life image.  The two actors literally come to blows at one point but more often claw at each other's egos in speeches that deconstruct the whole acting/celebrity culture with scalding precision. 

Stone gives a real game changing performance with her bitter/vulnerable turn and Naomi Watts, while not having the flashiest role is effective in her insecurities as a first time actress on the Great White Way.  Her Lesley could almost be an East Coast version of the innocent she played (at least in the earlier scenes) in Lynch's MULHOLLAND DRIVE. Most surprising is Zach Galifianakis as Riggins' lawyer and friend Jake. He's funny and unpredictable and demonstrably capable of more than we've seen elsewhere. I believe we'll look at him quite differently after BIRDMAN.  And there will be nominations for members of this cast.

Many have written that some of the best cinema in recent years has come out of Mexico and BIRDMAN most certainly backs that up. Iñárritu's film contains elements of many films past, familiar storylines and characters and scenarios and glares at them with newer, wilder eyes, with deeper respect. With a new perspective on the possibilities of film that seemed all but dead.  Plus, it's another one to cite as to how foreigners seem to understand American culture better than Americans.

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