Thursday Rethink: Birdman Is Clichéd, Empty Spectacle

This past Sunday, February 22nd, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), walked away with the top prize at the 87th Academy Awards, winning Best Picture as well as Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Cinematography. This is unfortunate as it’s the only film of the eight nominees for Best Picture that I actively dislike. It’s not that I dislike the actors in Birdman—I’m actually a huge fan of Michael Keaton and one of the saving graces of the film’s success is that it has put him back on the map. It’s not that I’m opposed to flashy tracking shots—just this past weekend I was gushing about the camerawork in Goodfellas when rewatching it with some friends. It’s that Birdman is empty spectacle disguised as serious art. It’s a flashy show about nothing. It has strong performances and technically impressive camerawork in service of a story composed of clichés.

Although Anders already gave Birdman a mixed review back in November, I feel the need to pop this critical balloon and explore why Birdman is an artistic failure.

The “one take” tracking shot serves no thematic or narrative purpose.

The most lauded aspect of Birdman is that it’s filmed to look like one unbroken shot. In actuality, Birdman consists of multiple shots with identical opening or closing frames stitched together in the editing room. It’s more Hitchcock’s Rope than Sokurov’s Russian Ark. This fact doesn’t seem to make a difference for most people. Appearances are all that matter, and Birdman appears to be one impressive long take. People have hailed this as one of the most technically impressive feats in modern cinema. They ignore the fact that the one-take effect adds little to the film.

Form and content have to be taken hand in hand when discussing narrative cinema. Just as you cannot dismiss the way a film is shot in favour of examining only its subject matter, you cannot remove its technical aspects from the story they are depicting. When talking about Birdman you cannot praise the impressive nature of the camerawork and ignore what the camerawork is doing. The cinematography in Birdman is an illusory effect meant to mask all the film’s deficiencies, even as it ends up embodying its very soulless nature.

First of all, it doesn’t make narrative sense. Birdman does not take place over two hours, or even one day. It takes place over several days in the locations in and around a theatre near Times Square. There is no reason the film could not cut when one day ends and a new day begins, except that viewers would not be buzzing about the film’s “amazing long take” if it did so. As well, it’s not even depicting the subjective experience of Keaton’s Riggan Thomson, as it often breaks from following Riggan and depicts other characters’ private experiences. There’s no consistency to the camerawork aside from its affectation. The artistic impulse here, then, isn’t to serve the film’s characters or its narrative, but merely to show off. The camerawork is impressive because it self-consciously looks difficult. It’s pure artifice!

As well, the camerawork is not immersive. It’s performative. It is constantly reminding you that you are a watching a film that has yet to cut, much like Riggan is constantly reminding people that he wants to be a great artist and yet his theatrical adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love does nothing to demonstrate this so-called artistic talent. His play only gets a good review because the New York Times theatre critic interprets Riggan shooting himself at the end of play as a grand piece of performative reality, when it was really a egotistical suicide attempt. She mistakes the appearance of a thing for the soul of the thing.

Film critics love to decry the gross caricature of a theatre critic that Birdman contains, but many of them have failed to realize that they are falling for the same trick that she does, assuming that because something is loudly proclaiming itself to be great art (through blood and sweat and tears) that it automatically becomes great art.

The film’s themes and characters are empty clichés.

Birdman’s ensemble consists of the very talented actors Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, and Zach Galifianakis. Sadly, these actors aren’t playing three dimensional characters here but character types. Keaton is the egotistical washed-up movie star. Norton is the insufferable method actor. Stone is the screw-up who’s blessed with wisdom. Watts is the naive up-and-comer. Ryan is the level-headed ex. I could go on. They’re all clichés and they tell us nothing new about art or the people that make it.

As Anton mentioned in his look back at 2014, the scene where Emma Stone’s daughter rails against her dad epitomizes the film’s clichéd characters and themes. She rails against her father’s self-importance, telling him that his play doesn’t matter and that, by extension, he doesn’t matter. The entire film stops dead as he’s forced to acknowledge that she’s right, that he doesn’t matter and that he’s doing this all for himself. He even tells her he’s proud of her. Too bad this scene and its so-called honesty is bullshit. It’s undone when the film ends up validating Riggan’s artistic efforts and has him literally levitate out of his hospital room window, an event which is witnessed by his scornful daughter. Even she believes in his true artistry at the end.

This final turn means that the earlier conversation only exists as an opportunity to let the actors show off while saying nothing meaningful. The entire film is full of these kinds of conversations, most of which stand in contradiction to each other. Characters loudly proclaim their motivations, ignoring all traces of subtext, and repeat all the tired clichés we’ve always heard about troubled artists: that they yearn for beauty and truth, that they cannot balance life and work, that they are driven by egos, and that they seek immortality through the work they do.

As for Birdman’s themes, they are shallow and have been done to death. There are many films such as and even Chef that deal with artists stuck in the midst of a crisis who want to validate their own art. There are many backstage films that show the emotional fireworks that come with staging a theatrical production. There are many films about washed up artists who have one last chance to prove their greatness. Few of these films have been so masturbatory, however, or shed so little light on the reality of the subjects they purport to depict.

The film is contemptuous of the viewer.

I find it shocking more people aren’t bothered by the fact that Birdman essentially tells the viewer to “sit down, shut up, and be happy the artist put on such a good show for you.” Now, I don’t want to say that Alejandro González Iñárritu automatically endorses Riggan’s perspective on art by the virtue of directing the film. It’s dangerous to assume that depiction automatically equals endorsement, as I discuss in my review of American Sniper. However, I don’t see any way to interpret the end of Birdman other than to believe that Riggan’s ego is ratified, that his artistic impulses are validated, that his play genuinely was a piece of art, and that he has finally achieved the kind of artistic success that he so desperately wanted. Why else have him levitate outside his hospital window during his moment of triumph, when the entire town has finally acknowledged his artistry and he has been given the very accolades he’s chased his entire career? He has transcended into the state of a true artist like a saint ascending to heaven.

We could take this scene ironically, except that the one witness to Riggan’s transcendence is his daughter, the one character who believed his quest for artistry to be nothing but narcissistic bullshit. However, as she looks up and is finally awed by his transcendence, she has no quips or putdowns. His art has finally silenced her. How is this not an ultimate justification of Riggan’s egotism? His final antagonist has been vanquished by the pure virtue of his art. Riggan has won. Art has triumphed despite all critics and audience members.

Going back to earlier scenes in the film, Riggan bemoans what people want from him. He whines that an artist shouldn’t have to justify his desire to make art and that people should be thankful that he is giving them something, that he is putting his heart out on the stage in a quest to achieve something meaningful . . .to him, that is. His internal monologue, externalized as the Birdman character that made him famous, constantly tells him that he’s better than the theatre because he had millions of people around the world loving him, thinking him larger than life. Not only is it contradictory that the voice supporting artistic virtue is voiced the soulless, commercial character Riggan is famous for, but it proves that Birdman isn’t interested in honest, self-critical art, but rather with art as self-levitation—a way to rise above yourself in the public’s eyes. The Birdman character constantly goads Riggan into thinking himself important, and as the film progresses, he starts to listen to these egotistical prods more intently.

Midway through the film, in the bar next to the theatre where he’s putting on his play, Riggan meets the NYT theatre critic who will review the play opening night. Norton’s actor informs him that she intends to pan the play. Because of this, Riggan yells at her, telling her that she does nothing, whereas he puts himself out there in the attempt to make something important, and that all she does is tear things down and put labels on them, describing what things are but not really getting at the heart of them. A critic is just an elevated viewer, and Riggan has nothing but contempt for critics. The film does nothing to disagree with him at this point. The critic is nothing but a contemptuous shrew, while Riggan is an artist—albeit a messed-up one.

In this scene, the critic calmly tells Riggan that she’ll destroy his play, but in the end, he has the last laugh. She eventually calls the play “super realism” and pronounces it a great coup for the theatre world. It hoodwinks her, just as the film is hoodwinking the viewer. Riggan wins, as does Iñárritu, as they’re both producing art that is nothing more than a testament to their own egos.

It’s important for artists to express themselves through their art, but art always involves an audience. A novel is just words on a page until someone reads it. Then it becomes a story. The idea itself, alone, on its own, is nothing. It is of no value. A painting no one ever sees might well have never existed. And the art that Birdman portrays is intimately tied to the artist. It has no life of its own. Riggan’s play is all about Riggan’s career and how people perceive him as an artist. It’s mercenary work done for egotistical reasons. It never considers the audience.

It takes an artist and an audience for art to occur, and it’s not just the artist who dictates the terms of that compact, even if they are doing more of the share of the work. But Birdman doesn’t care about that because the artist is the only individual that matters. It argues that the audience consists of fools who should gladly gulp down whatever true artists feed them, because if they’re left to their own devices, they only care about superhero movies and blindly follow the dictates of shrewish critics. It says that it doesn’t matter if the artist is an egomaniac and is only pursuing art to create a false sense of immortality, because art has the power to enrapture people and achieve some level of transcendence for the artist. Art makes sinners into saints through the sinner’s sheer desire to be something more.

Birdman’s celebration of artistic transcendence through fakery made its triumph at the Oscars assured as Hollywood tends to celebrate movies that inflate their own self-importance. Like Riggan winning over the New York theatre scene, Birdman achieved its own feat of “super realism” and won over the film industry. But we have to remember that like Riggan, Birdman only floats if we believe it does. Hollywood may have a vested interest in hiding the cables holding it up in the air, but the cables are there all the same. All you need to do is look for them (just as you can guess the cuts in the “single” take if you watch closely).

The subtitle for Birdman is The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance. I believe a more appropriate subtitle would be The Transcendent Ego of the Artist. It would be more accurate as the “ignorance” mentioned in the film’s current subtitle likely applies to the viewer and not the film’s character. This new title would at least contain some honesty and truth in a way that nothing else in the film does.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014, USA)

Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu; written by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo; starring Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Amy Ryan, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, and Zach Galifianakis.