BIRDMAN (2014, Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu)
Towards the third act of BIRDMAN, Keaton’s character walks past a bum reciting Macbeth; it’s the “tale told by an idiot” speech, and it doesn’t really work on screen. It’s one of these signpost moments that feels like a clunky stab at spelling-out, mostly avoided by Alejandro G. Iñárritu (henceforth “AGI”) throughout the movie. In fact, the Shakespeare quote that would have been most on-the-nose (so much that I’m delighted AGI didn’t actually use it) is As You Like It’s “All the world’s a stage.” Because this movie doesn’t just break the fourth wall, it demolishes it and lights it on fire and buries the ashes so that it can never exist again.
The confidence and cohesion involved in this impressively crafted wall-breaking is what makes BIRDMAN so watchable — there’s never a scene where we don’t contemplate in a different way, whether it’s technical, formal, content-driven, or thematic, what it means to blur the line between stage and reality, between fiction and truth. Early on, when Keaton is first rehearsing his play, one of his lines is telling another character to “Shut up! Will you shut up for one minute?!” and it draws laughs from the audience in the theater seats. Ten minutes later, when he’s upstairs outside his dressing room talking to his agent (Zach Galifianakis, very good in a fairly thankless one-note role), it’s the agent who says “for real” to Keaton: “Shut up! Just shut up for a minute!” and none of us in the movie theater are laughing.
The ways in which BIRDMAN continues to cross that barrier between what’s performed and what isn’t are too numerous to mention, but what has to be discussed is the style here. Yes, the one-unbroken-shot method calls attention to itself and can be distracting, but it also serves to make sure we feel like the camera is always on. There is no place for Keaton or his fellow actors to hide. A quote often attributed to Godard is something like “film is the truth at 24 frames per second, and every cut is a lie.” If AGI wants to turn his fictional film into the truth, he can’t ever cut. And all the cuts that are here (save for a late-film diversion to a dream-like montage) are hidden. So when we are taken backstage and into the belly of the theater, where people are supposed to be “off,” it’s where the drama of the movie really exists. And the Edward Norton character continuously points out that the stage is where he’s the most honest. (Speaking of Norton, he’s phenomenal in this; one of his best performances to date, including one of the greatest reaction shots I’ve ever seen — following a particular rehearsal with Keaton where his face betrays the best kind of self-satisfaction).
In a movie this concerned with motif, there are bound to be elements that can come off as pretentious, and a stronger director might have lessened those. But AGI does step wrong in several places, most of them being the more mystical, sci-fi-type sections of the story. The more grounded the movie is in reality, the better his one-shot technique feels. But the more special-effects-heavy the shots are, the more of a strained exercise it feels like. Plus there are times when the satire (of Hollywood, of the entertainment business at large, of the masses and YouTube and Twitter, etc.) is facile and groan-worthy. But it’s never not exciting to watch, and populated by such good performances (Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, and Amy Ryan are so good too that Keaton ends up being one of the weaker actors, possibly by design) that I feel a sense of warmth about the whole project and look forward to digging into it again.
* Note: I forgot to mention, but the musical score is fucking awful. Awful. Both the content of it and how it’s used. Fuck that score.