There’s novelty, and then there are crimes against cinema. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman succeeds at being both. Iñárritu’s films have always had their skeptics, though for the most part I’ve defended his exercises in miserablism despite their diminishing returns; his debut feature Amores Perros is a significant effort. But with Birdman, the director reaches new heights of faux-profundity and hyperactive cynicism, all compounded by a failed technical approach that makes for a genuinely infuriating experience.
The plot: a washed-up actor stages his comeback with a Broadway rendition of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love". The premise is tried and true, with Oliver Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria and David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars exploring the pathos of aging in an industry that resists the idea in superior ways. Everyone likes a comeback story though and Riggan Thomson’s (Michael Keaton) aim is as such: following a string of successful comic book films in the 90s, the man looks to make the shift from comic book actor to auteur. With the play’s impending release weighing heavily on Thompson, he’s left to consider the merit of his work and his life, whereby he questions his artistic legacy.
These are all Big Themes that have been the source for some incredible features, with Iñárritu having a genuinely inspired approach. He shoots the picture in long takes, hiding edits and maneuvering his camera swiftly in order to keep the action moving. As many critics have already commented, it’s not all too dissimilar from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, whereby a duo of murderers host a party with a dead body in the room, with actors weaving in and out of the frame as they seem to draw closer to uncovering the mystery. Hitchcock’s approach always meant to amplify tension, a technique deployed to maximize the anxieties of the film’s all too cocky murderers. Iñárritu’s deployment of this technique is meant to enter the anxiety-ridden headspace of an actor putting everything on the line, where tension is extracted from the perpetual movement of everything around him.
Iñárritu’s intention is noble, his execution a failure. Consider the visual approach and compositional framing that shapes the film: there is the prototypical medium shot that follows action between actors and subsequent close-ups. But there’s no sense of anxiety or tension that’s extracted from this technique. Rather, close-ups are used to conceal the visual space that characters inhabit, allowing production to swiftly rearrange the setting to maintain the single-take illusion. But it’s all a bit disingenuous, isn’t it? Close-ups aren’t used to elaborate meaning or convey distress, but rather are devices in which to keep this novelty going. The labyrinth that composes the backstage area only magnifies the uselessness of Iñárritu’s conceit- this is a formal exercise stripped of thematic or narrative consequence. Performers are kept on their toes, to be sure, but the end result are manic shouting matches that feed into Iñárritu’s empty hyperstylism. Birdman is loud and unhinged yet, despite its faux-philosophizing, has nothing to say.
The film constantly imposes its will, relentlessly addressing the actor/director’s plight in bitter overtures. The recent and similar-minded Listen Up Philip possesses a measure of bitter self-awareness, but unlike Birdman, it has the foresight to dial down its misanthropic tendencies by having anchored itself in reality. With Birdman, Iñárritu generates sardonic flights of fantasy within a realm of naturalism and fails to reconcile the conflicting arenas of headspace – an end result of stylism overriding thematic intent. The virtuoso swirling camera obscures; the histrionics veil; the long takes shroud… nothing.