Thursday, August 13, 2015

Oscar Winner Watch: Birdman - Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) - 2014

Man.  I really struggled with this one.

Let's make no mistake, Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014) is a technical marvel, and the sort of thing you have to give a tip of the hat just for its audacious approach to style and technical function.  It wants to be a melding of cinema and theater (or: theatre), and I'm not one to say that doesn't occur.  It's also a movie that's going to demand repeated viewings, something Pauline Kael refused any movie, and I think she has a point (asking someone to watch your movie over and over to "get it" shouldn't be a point of pride.  But rewarding viewers who catch something new on the second viewing should be a life goal.).  Our actors are all good, all on point, and the performances are not lacking - even when one character is supposed to be a bad actor, he nails his line delivery of line delivery, demonstrating to everyone that this is going to be a disastrous performance.

Birdman won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2015, and, of course, it's a movie about Hollywood's self-loathing and a desire to produce something better, something that matters as much as a well-written novel or beautifully produced play, and which isn't about superheroes and celebrity, even when that's exactly what Hollywood is exactly about on a good day.   Hollywood loves nothing so much as movies about itself (see: The Artist and it's Oscar win - and immediate dissolution in cultural memory after the fact - and how Argo made filmmakers into courageous action heroes), and even more so when Hollywood feels like a movie is doing their job for them and baring the artists to the public, as if to say "this is how Hollywood really feels, and what we really want to make if only there weren't so much money in making dumb shit for the flyover states.*"

The movie both criticizes and indulges in pretension in such a rapid fire, alternating current that it's hard to know what's satire and what writer/ director/ producer Alejandro G. Iñárritu actually thinks.  All of which makes a movie nigh-critic proof, because something is going on here, clearly, and if you get it wrong... well.  And, my god, the references and name-dropping.  Didn't you read Borges in undergrad?  No.  Shame on you.  You'd understand this scene and it'd be hilarious.  Otherwise you might mistake this as just a scene from yet another backstage dramedy about yet another at-his-wit's-end actor in crisis going through the motions you've seen before.  But, hey.  Good camera work.

There are theater critics who coldly dismiss an actor's passion in a stagey and theatrical manner, younger actors with a passion for the stage who get legitimacy (and more) on stage but aren't real in real life, a maybe pregnancy with a young actress...   the sorts of dramatic relationships native to late 20th-Century drama that works when you're 22 years old and think that's how adults operate, boozing, drugging, downfall, (an ironic twist to the ending, because we're past 2000 and/ or anything too heavy) and catharsis.  And playing on the superhero-ness, the desire to fly and rise above what we are (like... a bird...?), and occasional spurts of meaningful FX.

Yes.  It's also a collection of stuff you've seen before, because, after all, that's movies in general, so I can't give it a knock for that, but I can wonder "what was the criteria that made this the best movie of 2014/15?"

I don't take the lines of the most pretentious of the characters in the movie regarding superhero movies quite as dramatically as had been kicked around in interviews, etc... all of which were just on my periphery - I'd seen ginned up headlines about "Alejandro G. Iñárritu thinks superheroes are cultural genocide".  Maybe that's his opinion, maybe it isn't (it is).  It's relevant to the movie, but not the overriding theme.  And the "it says nothing of the human experience" is one of those things you get to say that doesn't really mean a lot other than stating one's taste in genre in hyperbolic terms.

Because I'm not exactly sure that Birdman reflects much about the state of the human experience.  What about a washed up millionaire actor with a drugged-up daughter putting on an ill-conceived play says something more than something about a specific guy going through a thing?  Doesn't Billy Zane do that in The Phantom?  Or Rocket Raccoon and his desire to be whole and understood in his scant dialog in Guardians of the Galaxy?  There's something about movies featuring people in a personal tailspin, especially actors taking "risky roles" from drunks to the mentally unhealthy (anything that isn't model-perfection), that doesn't just give a movie a pass, it makes the movie "about humanity", and, yeah, humanity is pretty predictable, too, I guess.  Those things happen and aren't all that specific.

I'm just not sure we're obliged to give everyone an Oscar for making those flicks.

The juxtaposition between the superhero film and the "meaningful" art the actors are trying to make, something Iñárritu feels is, in itself, an hilarious joke, leads to a strange point in the movie, of a "we'll show them" flit which leads to a very purposefully absurd ending.  All in a movie which freely criticizes everything, and ultimately dodges with an abstraction, pointedly supporting both fumbling artist and critic even when asking what the critic produces and providing no answer.  Maybe it's splitting the difference and embracing and chastising both, but it just isn't terribly satisfactory and stumbles across maybe not saying much of anything.

All of this is not to say I didn't like Birdman.

Had I gone in to see it before it won an Oscar, seen it free of hype, I might have found it interesting on it's own merits, seen what I thought was a director stretching and pushing hard against the closing walls of the Hollywood accountant-driven environment and the lack of freedom in movie making.  While I struggle with it being labeled a "comedy", it has it's moments of real character interaction, and certainly Keaton and Norton put in top notch performances.  I want to see more movies like this, and more work from Alejandro G. Iñárritu, because I think he's on to something.  He might just need to get less precious and more universal, but keep pushing the medium and industry, and that seems to be what's happening with The Revenant, according to this artcile my brother has sent me at least twice (but, holy shit, that trailer.  Like Jeremiah Johnson on PCP).

Part of me wishes reviewers wouldn't wet themselves every time a movie bothers to do something that stretches beyond Pixels, would dig in and not trip over one another to throws lauds and honor on a film when something not-inherently-dumb hits the screen.   It's great the movie exists

*It's no secret I find the Academy Awards absurd, but the self-gratification may have hit a crescendo in the last five years or so.  Let's be real, Hollywood, if you wanted to make art and less money, there would be no  movie called Paul Blart 2.


RHPT said...

I dragged Emily to see this movie, and she didn't have any idea what it was about. Emily told me after that the title made her assume it was a superhero movie, and it took her about halfway through to realize that it was not, in fact, a movie about a superhero named Birdman.

The League said...

That is just gold. Well, I can see how the first scene threw her off.

mcsteans said...

When the hell did you watch this?

The League said...

You know how you go to sleep before I do every night?

mcsteans said...

That is when you watch your boring movies I don't want to watch.

The League said...

Yeah. Like "Birdman". It's on HBO in-demand. You can watch it any time.

RHPT said...

I swear Emily and I have this conversation all the time.