One of the critical hits of this year’s movie award season has been Birdman: or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). It’s about a movie star best known for playing a superhero called Birdman back in the ’90s. Two decades later, this guy, played by Michael Keaton, is struggling to mount his own stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, at Broadway’s St. James Theatre.
Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, the talented Mexican behind Amores Perros, 21 Grams and others, Birdman is an impressive piece of filmmaking. It also has its “meta” aspect, in its loose parallels with the career of Keaton, who more than two decades later is still associated with his starring role in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman and its sequel Batman Returns (1992). Although Keaton has worked prolifically, often to critical acclaim, in the years since, he is, perhaps, perceived as never quite having fully shaken off the cowl and cape.
Birdman has changed that; this week it racked up the SAG and Golden Globe nominations, and it will almost certainly land Keaton an Oscar nomination, and his won’t be the only one. But for all the movie’s undeniable merit, I find myself lagging behind the critical bandwagon; I can’t bring myself to jump all the way on. Certain aspects of Birdman have been irritating me since I saw it, and more than a couple of them are nerd-relevant.
9. The Free Ride It Takes on Michael Keaton
Michael Keaton is among the best living American actors. He’s a great favorite of mine. He’s brilliant in Birdman, and if he gets an Oscar nomination for it, few people outside of his own circle will be more pleased than me, and if by chance he goes on to win the statuette, I’ll be delighted.
But Keaton is always brilliant. His performance in Birdman is nothing anomalous in that regard. He was brilliant in Jackie Brown and in Beetlejuice and in Night Shift and in Much Ado About Nothing and in Ron Howard’s underrated The Paper, and he’s usually pretty brilliant even when the movie isn’t very good. If I had seen Herbie: Fully Loaded, I’d probably think he was brilliant in that.
And yes, Keaton was brilliant in Batman. What’s irksome about the use of Keaton in Birdman isn’t the parallel to his early career fortunes, but the distortion of that parallel. You would think, watching Birdman, that Keaton had been some Brando-like leading man who was seen as selling out by taking the role of a superhero. But Keaton made his name, in the early ’80s, as a zany comedian – a sensationally talented clown, sure, but a clown nevertheless.
His casting as Burton’s Bruce Wayne/Batman wasn’t controversial because it was seen as a sellout, at least not as I recall it, but rather because it was doubted that he could be taken seriously in the role. And the sober, reticent force of his performance shut these doubters up.
I don’t think this is a quibble with regard to Birdman. Whether or not Inarritu created the role with Keaton in mind, his casting has the effect of pushing the idea on us that when Keaton’s character, Riggan Thomson, played the role of Birdman, he lost his credibility as an actor. But it could just as easily be argued that it was by playing Batman that Keaton proved his acting chops.
This leads to another gripe…
8. Comic Book Movies = Selling Your Soul
Like a lot of moviegoers, especially those over the age of, say, 45, I am, not to put too fine a point on it, sick as fuck of superhero movies. If I weren’t a critic, I would probably skip many if not most of them. Even as a critic, I skip as many as I think I can get away with.
But this doesn’t mean I think they all suck on their own terms. It’s mostly a matter of generational tastes. I came of age in the days of TV’s Batman and the Super Friends cartoons. I like superhero stories simple, garish and tinged with camp. I always enjoy parts of the contemporary Marvel and DC flicks, but overall I find their sterile CGI atmosphere oppressive, and the interminable explosion-filled climactic scenes tedious. The multiple ending scenes and the mid-credit codas get on my nerves too.
I note all this to make it clear that my distaste for Birdman‘s apparent attitude toward comic book movies isn’t because I can’t get enough of them. I don’t much care for most of them. This certainly doesn’t mean, however, that I think the superhero movie is somehow an inherently inferior genre.
If you dismiss the superhero story from the human narrative tradition, I don’t see how you don’t also have to dismiss Beowulf or the stories of Hercules or Lord of the Rings. The genre has its limits, of course, but that’s only because all genres have limits. Blaming superhero stories for being unrealistic or simplistic in their characterizations is like blaming The Graduate for lacking epic spectacle. Blaming superhero movies for fulfilling power fantasies is like blaming love stories for fulfilling romantic or erotic fantasies. It’s what they’re for.
Birdman, on the other hand, seems to take it for granted that Riggan sold out when he played the title character – who amusingly haunts Riggan, growling Christian Bale-style, throughout the film. Again and again, characters in the film refer with sneering contempt to “comic book movies.” But…
7. Theatre = Virtue
…how much moral or aesthetic superiority over “comic book movies” can the contemporary American theatre, and especially the Broadway theatre, really claim? I’ve spent some time in the theatre myself, albeit not on such as exalted level as the characters here, and I’m not persuaded that the bragging rights would be all that extensive.
Of course I get that Birdman is a satire, and to some extent the snobberies and self-indulgences of these dressing-room rats, especially Mike Shiner (Edward Norton, in one of his best performances ever) are being spoofed by Inarritu. But to how much of an extent? Inarritu does allow Riggan’s daughter (Emma Stone) a speech in which she points out how insular and culturally unimportant her dad’s project really is, but despite this dissent, and despite the mockery of theatre attitudes, the movie seems at bottom to accept Riggan’s attempt at redemption as noble. And when “Birdman” – that is, the Birdman side of Riggan’s mind – tries to talk him into attempting a comeback in the role, we seem meant to see it as a Faustian temptation.
This is another of these phony either/or choices that movies often try foist off on us. The truth, of course, is the well-known “one for me, one for them” formula: big-name actors often star in big silly blockbusters to get the money and clout to mount their stage adaptations of Raymond Carver.
And while we’re on that subject…
6. Raymond Carver = High Art
The apotheosis of Raymond Carver drove me nuts during the release of Altman’s 1993’s Short Cuts, too. Carver was a fine prose craftsman, and a capable practitioner of a certain type of austere, downbeat literary short story. He was very good, at his best.
But the way Carver’s name and work are used in Birdman – as a sort of code-word for high art – is unconvincing to me. Again, it’s possible that Inarritu may mean it satirically, but if so he plays this satire very close to the vest. When we get to see Riggan performing a Carver monologue, it’s Keaton’s acting, more than the text itself, that makes it riveting.
To put it bluntly: If I had to choose, for edification as well as entertainment, between the superhero comics I’ve read in my life and the Raymond Carver stories I’ve read in my life, the choice wouldn’t be difficult at all.
5. Magical Realism
In Birdman, main character Riggan Thomson finds he’s able to levitate, like Joseph of Cupertino, and to perform feats of telekinesis. He even throws a telekinetic tantrum at a certain point, trashing his dressing room without touching anything.
These and other flights of fancy throughout Birdman fall into the category of what is usually termed, in literary fiction, “magical realism.” But they seemed to me a lot like…well, superpowers.
I mean, don’t they?
Sure, these scenes probably aren’t meant to be taken literally; we’re probably supposed to regard them as externalizations of Riggan’s imagination. But if he’s allowed daydreams like these, then why all the disgust over movies for people who fantasize about flying or climbing walls or dodging bullets?
4. The FREAKIN’ Drumming
The long Steadicam takes of Riggan, weaving through the halls and stairs of the theatre, are driven along, throughout the movie, by jazz riffing on a drum set by Antonio Sanchez, presumably intended to heighten the frenetic atmosphere. Beyond doubt Sanchez is a talent at the skins, but man, could I have done with a little more sparing use of this noodling. After a while it’s like listening to the dialogue through static.
There are many people who can’t abide watching hand-held camera in the Blair Witch vein; it gives them motion sickness. This sort of musical score is an aural equivalent of this effect for me
But it also leads me to wonder – without the incessant rattling and rolling of Sanchez under them, how numbingly dull might some of those shots become?
3. The Pre-Emptive Strike Against Critics
At one point Riggan encounters the New York Times critic (Lindsay Duncan) in a bar. She flatly tells him she intends to write a scathing review and shut down his play, not because she thinks it’s bad – she hasn’t seen it yet – but because she hates the Hollywood ethos he stands for and doesn’t intend to let him pollute the New York theatre scene. Riggan repeats the tired old charge that critics do what they do only because they can’t practice the arts they criticize (a more graciously-phrased version of the sentiment is delivered by Peter O’Toole in Ratatouille).
Yeah, I know, it’s disingenuous to object to this as unfair – but it is. Or, I don’t know, maybe it isn’t unfair, just unbecoming. There’s no denying that critics like this exist, and that they’re a disgrace to the profession. No doubt there are also plenty of critics who are unfulfilled artists. But it’s childish to believe that this is the only source for the critical impulse. Plenty of critics (even those with artistic aspirations of their own) are above all enthusiasts – experienced and passionate audience members with strong opinions.
But even if the stereotype were true of all critics, that wouldn’t, in itself, mean that their opinions were valueless. And somehow when critics offer unmitigated praise – as they have, with very few exceptions, for Birdman – they’re suddenly no longer frustrated hacks, but venerable and highly quotable sages.
It should be said, however, that Norton’s description of the expression on the critic’s face is the funniest line in Birdman.
2. It’s Just a Showbiz Story
For all its arty flourishes and ironic touches, in the final analysis this movie’s conflict isn’t really different from that of any corny backstage tale. Riggan is just a hipped-up version of the desperate director (Warner Baxter) in 42nd Street – Keaton would have been great in that role too, I think – or Gene Kelly’s washed-up silent movie heartthrob in Singin’ in the Rain, or Shakespeare and his cronies in Shakespeare in Love. Birdman, you could argue, is Singin’ in the Rain for people who don’t sing or dance.
There’s nothing remotely wrong with this, of course, as long as you don’t mistake Birdman for some subversive curve ball. The movie’s style is flashy, even daring, I suppose, but its attitudes are mainstream and conventional, even quaintly old-fashioned – Hollywood entertainment is toxic, comic book and superhero stories are culture-weakening trash for undiscriminating audiences and “legit” theatre is redemptive. But when Birdman‘s moral is, essentially, just another version of The Show Must Go On, it’s hard to recognize its authority for this sort of scolding.
1. It’s Excellent
If Birdman wasn’t ultimitely a top-notch piece of work, it obviously couldn’t have irked me this much, or provoked this much peevish commentary. Keaton and Norton are superb, and the rest of the cast is first-rate as well, particularly Stone, Zach Galifianakis and Amy Ryan in the thankless part of Riggan’s ex. The dialogue is witty, and Inarritu’s dazzlingly supple direction gives us hilarious sequences, like Riggan locking himself out of the theatre in his underwear, and touching moments too.
But something at the core of Birdman‘s sensibility feels sour and ungenerous, and even though I’d rather watch this movie than a crappy superhero flick, something about it made me want to stick up for crappy superhero flicks.
By the way, are they going to come out with a series of Birdman comic books, or maybe a Birdman action figure? I sure hope so.
Previously by M.V. Moorhead:
The 18 Strangest Versions of Dracula
The 12 Nerdiest Manifestations of Russell Johnson
Ten Movie and TV Characters Named Insultingly After Real-Life People
The Ten Best Fantasy/Sci-Fi/Horror Novels You’ve Probably Never Read