The pulse of humanity continues to thump as though nothing changes from day to month to millennium; even nihilism makes sense stretched out over an eternal timeline. Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) [just Birdman for the rest of this essay] is a thrice-meta dialogue between film, a film audience and everyone else. Its message is messy and unkempt and uncomfortable and its style is prolific and unimpeachable. It plays anti- to almost every convention, even the anti-convention of bakers’ dozen favorite Boyhood, which was a deeply boring and inauthentic approach to cinema verité. Its whole gimmick – and yes it was a gimmick – was that it followed the same cast around a coming-of-age, one-size-fits-all approach to growing up. Birdman, essentially and almost certainly accidentally flips it the proverbial bird, daring to ask, “is this it?” Boyhood asks us to inspect the shit, then eat it, while Birdman thumps through it, seemingly at random, slicing life, not into categories bounded by “age,” but into tiny pieces that can’t be ordered.
Birdman the film feels like a culmination of a century of film-making but Birdman the film also acts as a secret joke between friends, which adds a whole order of long-and short-form narrative. Alejandro González Iñárritu directly points at Alfonso Cuarón (director of 2013’s marvel, Gravity, and 2006’s non-nominated Children of Men) and utters something about a “single shot,” chuckles, and collects a trophy to pair with his…trophies. Birdman in turn collects a stunning number of film tropes into a mess of moments: magical realism, the myth of super, Hays impersonations, comedy of remarriage, meta-narrative, among others, and crosses between the World Trade Center with no net. It, for lack of a better word, works. The casting is kinetic: Michael Keaton is electric; Edward Norton is characteristically ugly and charismatic; Emma Stone took a break from the latest Miyazaki to eyeball the world without blinking; Naomi Watts shines like an undying fluorescent bulb. They have summed to triumph, as it wasn’t enough to just have the idea, and execute, but also to electrify.
Birdman the audience demands introspection from this film and it gets the uncanny collusion of collective narcissism and mystified mental health. Together, these conditions mirror the state of the union circa 2014. The world suffocates inside own self-importance and the stigma of “I don’t feel well” is unironically swept under the positivity rug. The everyman, he who would be King, balks at reality, as he can escape to Instagram or Facebook or to the quick-fix brigade. She who would be Queen sees the world in three-by-five, not an index card, but a glass screen, through which she can collect “likes,” “hearts” and texts. It’s not the method that is irksome, but the purpose. The dogma of this self-medicated cynicism is not the drive to be better than one’s current self, tomorrow, but to count to a million. Michael Keaton (as Riggan Thomson) arrives, not twenty years after playing Batman, to be Birdman, the magical superhero, can’t combat like-fever in his head, where his titular character splits from reality and demands more, for better or for suicide. None of these underpinning methods Linklater their way to T.R.U.T.H., but rather ruminate in the graveyard for “likes,” “hearts” and go-fuck-yourself’s. Continue reading