Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – Magic realism meets stream of consiousness. (Film review)

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Let’s generously ignore the fact that Birdman  or (The Unexpected Virtues of Ignorance) is yet another film about the growing old anxieties of over privaledged white males, for two reasons – a marvellous little mini-speech by Sam (Emma Stone) shouted at her dad (Michael Keaton) informs us that if  Alejandro González Iñárritu doesn’t necessarily know we’re all bored to death by that premise, he is at least aware that it’s a tad bloated; and the fact that certain aspects of the film make it one of the most interesting and exciting films of 2014. Ok, that might not be saying much, but Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtues of Ignorance) – let’s just call it Birdman from now on, shall we – is a very interesting film, if not a great one, that does so many interesting things with so many interesting ideas, that one feels inclined to forgive it several glaring faux pas that prevent it from being great. It’s a film that incorporates such a multitude of  ideas, it almost can’t help but collapse under its own weight to a degree, and does suffer from an obnoxious self-indulgence other highly ambitious projects, such as Winter Sleep or Boyhood managed to escape. There are times while watching Birdman that you can’t stand another second of its self-congratulation, but then its overwhelming beauty and its genuine, earnest desire sweep you away and you’re in forgiveness land all over again.

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A glaring, most peculiar problem with Birdman, is the drift away from the films ingenious point of view, on about four separate occasions (I think I counted that many). The film is framed as a stream of consciousness single take, even though (and this is terribly clever) it plays with time in the same way theatre does, and yet strangely it veers away from the protagonists point of view for a couple of scenes that exist almost as glaring out takes and only have meta value, no narrative importance at all. One I remember clearly is between Leslie (Naomi Watts) and Laura (Andrea Riseborough) that follows two women faux-empowering each other that eventually dissolves into a Mullholland Drive-esque kiss. The four writers ( Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., Armando Bo) play a great deal with the cast histories (the most obvious being Michael Keaton as Bat Birdman) which is a nice theatrical touch, but in the case of these head hopping moments, the meta narrative is stealing from the technical and narrative brilliance of the original set up. While one of the hit-over-the-head obvious “points” of Birdman is its blockbuster Hollywood v’s real art performance lamentations, it seems unneccessary that it had to deviate from its stylistic cleverness to score more of these points.

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Despite that being a rather large issue (I’m not comfortable calling it a problem because all these film makers are so obviously in total control of their material) Birdman carries inside its DNA room for experimentation and therefore a child-like fascination sets in with any jarring occurence one might feel while experiencing it. I enjoyed Birdman, a great deal, I think it is a marvellous film, but I can completely understand why someone would hate it and I doubt I’d be able to talk them out of it.

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And yet, there is an undeniable sublimity in its narrative structure, the directorial ambition, the sheer orgiastic beauty of Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography and the writhing, explosive passionate drumming of Antonio Sánchez. I confess I didn’t laugh much, for me the comedic qualities were another of the movies weaker points, but it didn’t matter, for the sheer beauty of the thing is enough to deepen the engagement with the kind of immediacy the team are obviously going for. It becomes its own parable that Riggan can’t see the beauty around him, only the futility of his struggle for recognition – a nice commentary on the over privaliedged white male in itself. Lubezki gets to work with theatrical colours, and he almost creates the immediacy of theatre with his adherence to both the limitations of the eye and the expanse of the eye when actively engaged. After watching Birdman, one gets a strong sense of theatre as a certain kind of image, as a platform for text and engagement.

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There has been a lot of talk about the performances, and everyone is completely on point here, except Zach Galifianakis who seems overwhelmed by the talent around him and spits every line with such rapid fire he comes across as desperate to get his scene over with and retreat to a safe distance. Michael Keaton is immense, as is Naomi Watts, Emma Stone (Woody Allen couldn’t get anything like this out of her) and Edward Norton as a tiresome method actor in love with his own story. It’s particularly gratifying to see Naomi Watts in fine Mullholland Drive form again, and although I doubt this very much, it is nice to imagine they left her lesbian kiss in just to remind us how brilliant she is.

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The writing, while witty and at times very exciting (any time Lindsay Duncan is on the screen the entire script takes flight – pardon the pun) it is a bit of a boy-ish sycophants whose-who of blokey greats, with names like (obviously) Carver,  Roland Barthes, Jorge Luis Borges and Martin Scorsese brandished about as if they were the symbols of great achievement, names that represent a stage every male creative will go through at some point prior to thirty. But again, even if it never quite gets over its own magnificence, Birdman does live up to it enough, even in the patchy script, to excuse its pretensions, or at least tolerate them. Clever moments like (semi-spoiler) losing his nose, or his beak, to spite his face are skillfully played out leaving room for multiple nuances and interpretations that make Birdman eminently re-watchable.

Birdman, a film that envelopes and enjoys its own flaws, is a standout on the 2014 (2015 now) calendar and highly recommended from me – if you’re willing to go on a wild, arty ride.

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