The Showboating Must Go On: Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman (2014) – cinema review
Iñárritu collides digital cinema with classical stagecraft. Plenty to argue over, until his sour conclusions show just as much tunnel vision as his one-shot showboating
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance)
(Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2014)
Film theory has long been a tussle between two schools of thought: montage or mise-en-scéne, the trick of the eye or the representation of reality. Alejandro González Iñárritu appears to be on a one-man mission to put the debate on screen. His early trio of films with screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga (Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel) were post-Tarantino monuments in the power of editing to fracture time and space by telling multiple stories, or scrambling their chronology. With Biutiful, he stepped into a more sombre, linear mode and, with Birdman, he exaggerates it into self-parody: a deliberately tricksy, supposedly ‘single take’ movie set in the theatre, that ultimate stage of mise-en-scéne thinking.
It isn’t that simple, though, as Birdman abounds with ironies. The tale of a Hollywood superhero superstar trying to find an artistic renaissance on Broadway, it is a film about the cultural gap between theatre and cinema, and the mutual antipathy and snobbery between its practitioners and acolytes; these themes are mirrored off-screen by the creation of a performance-led, ‘art-house’ piece that has been assembled with directorial bravura and technical cunning. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who won an Oscar for Gravity, achieves similar lighter-than-air sensations here with a fluid, seemingly impossible take (in reality, stitched together from several, no less impressive long takes).
The big question: does Birdman warrant this kind of intellectual and technical showboating? At heart, it is a stage farce, constructed on the Noises Off lines of behind-the-scenes chaos rhyming with the action on stage. By denying a classical cinema, shot/reverse shot structure, Iñárritu is true to those roots and yet the woozy movement of the camera, perversely, slows down the pace. As comedy, this needs more frantic urgency, with the result it works far better as a symbolic statement of the world viewed from an egocentric A-lister’s tunnel-vision, especially as the narrow walls of the theatre’s corridors come to resemble an inescapable labyrinth. Yet, dramatically, it’s a handicap.
Not that the story helps. This is familiar territory: the ageing star terrified of irrelevance, seething with envy about a more naturally gifted rival. It is All About Eve updated to the 21st century, a world where insecurities multiply in the age of celebrity (Riggan Thomson is obsessed with proving he is more than a has-been big-screen movie star) and social media: an opportunity for publicity regarded as a threat by the old-timers. Despite flashes of lucid wit, this is a sour, over-familiar scenario, nowhere more so than in Riggan’s hostile encounter with Lindsey Duncan’s snobbish critic, with both characters reverting to clichéd put-downs. Perhaps that’s deliberate on Iñárritu’s part, a wry acknowledgement of his material’s timelessness, or else it’s just as lazy as Duncan’s reviews are deemed to be by Riggan.
The one area in which nobody is slouching is the acting. This is justly being hailed as a return to form for Keaton; even beyond the obvious real-life similarities for the one-time Batman, Riggan provides a mercurial, tragic-comic role perfect for Keaton’s narrow-edged mischief. And mischief abounds: the biggest surprise is that Iñárritu (a director renowned for the severity of the calamities that befall his protagonists) can create hilarious, likeably flawed characters. Emma Stone oozes brittle deadpan as Thomson’s recovering-addict daughter and Edward Norton is a prissy, self-important delight as a madness-in-his-Method actor. The film’s best joke is actually unspoken: Stone and Norton are now also superhero movie veterans, implying that Riggan’s paranoia is now a Hollywood epidemic.