Birdman is possibly the awards contender that has been talked about the most over the past few months for a variety of reasons. It seems to strike most people as a love it or hate it deal; a real ‘Marmite movie’ if you will. Fans seem to read into every gesture, every nuance, every possible intention, every word spoken and word unspoken to determine that the film is about so much that it would be impossible to absorb it all with a single viewing,but that one viewing is all that’s needed to appreciate Birdman‘s audacity. Detractors have been taking an adjacent slant suggesting that the film is nothing but surface and veneer, that the self obsessed characters spout self obsessed nonsense and that the “single take” structure of cinematography acts only as a gimmick. As with any subject of intense debate, the answer actually lies somewhere in the middle but if nothing else it would be patently absurd to dismiss Birdman out of hand. It’s simply too important for that.
Michael Keaton leads Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) as former superhero star Riggan Thomson, a washed up has-been who bailed from the comic-book movie scene about 10 years before it took off and is now living in irrelevance during the golden period of banal heroic action. To give his career (and personality) a boost, he stages a production of Raymond Carver’s When We Talk About Love, taking a leading role as well as writing and directing the play. During previews, Thomson has to salvage his play and life from an eccentric headlining performer (Edward Norton), troubled ex-addict daughter (Emma Stone) and his own reputation, sullied from years of Hollywood work as opposed to ‘real’ stage acting.
The most obvious point of conversation is the strength of the single take editing style. Although not strictly true, the amount of actual hard cuts can be counted on two hands throughout the entire run time of the feature (occurring both at the beginning and end of the movie) and 90% of the onscreen action is seamlessly shot or stitched together. Although that seamless stitching are distinctly evident (such as a camera panning to a time-lapse of the sun rising or setting) it’s equally obvious that for the most part, there are extremely long takes taking place and it is impressive. Birdman is, by this nature, less a movie and more a series of short plays that happen to take place after each other. This method isn’t perfect (and is, ironically, particularly distracting when you realise that you’re not noticing the lack of hard cuts) but is impressive enough to be worth seeing.
Although this editing style might at first appear to be nothing more than aesthetic, it is actually a rather impressive means of involving the audience in the nature of the theatrical world that Birdman invests in. As for whether the rest of Birdman has enough depth of content is certainly up for debate. Birdman is certainly layered but perhaps in too dense a fashion. As enticing as the onscreen visuals are, the bulk of interaction is rapid fire dialogue, extensive monologues which are never uninteresting but often obtuse, in a fashion that, like Riggan himself, tries as hard as it can but is never truly brilliant in any fashion. The dialogue is engaging but rarely laugh out loud funny, leaving visual gags to strike hardest. For what is ostensibly a dark comedy it’s somewhat unfortunate that Birdman doesn’t have more immediate comedic punch but the way that the dialogue frequently riffs off the soundtrack (almost entirely jazz percussion which serves to highlight the intentional freeform feel of the movie) is nothing short of masterful. It’s one of those few dialogue-centric movies that doesn’t just have conversations that entertain or resonate, it has conversations with rhythm and when the stars align, it’s hard not to physically nod along to the beat of the words.
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a movie made to court debate and it can’t be denied that it does so. For all its impressive feats, it’s very much an experimental movie and although not a resounding success, it’s certainly not as good (or bad) as some people would have you believe. If nothing else, Birdman is entirely deserving of your attention as an important and exciting visual experience and whilst the density of its messaging will leave many seething, the manner in which those messages are presented by the stellar cast is worth plenty of attention in its own right.
Practically made for film obsessives and connoisseurs of the ‘art film’ scene, Birdman is pretty much precisely the sum of its parts but doesn’t necessarily suffer as a result because it turns out that all those parts are fairly great.
Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance is now showing in cinemas across the country.