Saturday, February 7, 2015

Oscar Catch-Up: Birdman Does Not Fly Me to the Moon

“It reminds me of that old joke. You know, a guy walks into a psychiatrist's office and says, hey doc, my brother's crazy! He thinks he's a chicken. Then the doc says, why don't you turn him in? Then the guy says, I would but I need the eggs."

― Woody Allen, Annie Hall

Woody Allen's end-of-film direct address to his 1979 Annie Hall audience popped into my head the moment Emma Stone smiled as she gazed up into the sky at the end of Birdman.

YES. THERE ARE SPOILERS. Stop reading if you haven't seen the film.

Her dad, the Birdman character and washed-up actor Riggan Thomson, had just jumped out of the window of his hospital room.  But all sense of reality stopped when Riggan opened the window, because hospital windows do not open in NY. Doubt they open anywhere.

Which is part of the film's conundrum.

Richard Lawson explains it very well in Vanity Fair:  "Riggan’s descent into madness is played as madness, until it isn’t. The fantasy isn’t real until it maybe is. The film can’t seem to make up its mind about its reality. Which is allowed, certainly. But that inexactness muddies the scrappy truthfulness the film works so hard for in other scenes. "

So her father could not have jumped out the window.  We see that he's not in the bed, so he must have just walked out of the room, perhaps as a similar occurrence when we first saw Birdman fly through the air, but we then glimpse a shot of the actual taxi that brought Riggans back to the theater.

The film shows us Sam looking down to the ground, and then up into the sky, as though the Birdman is flying again instead being a blood splat on the ground. Oookaay.  We know Riggan can't fly, but we're asked to go with the story--interwoven amid the cinematic verisimilitude of reality & not madness---because, many argue, we need it, we need the eggs from this magical chicken. Just like we need the offerings from the complete artifice of theater itself. Humans have always created, and needed, art.

The Gump Affect

Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a front-runner for best picture.
This isn't only a "love it or hate it" movie. More interesting (as a critique) than hate is boredom:  There are tons of comments out there, on multiple sites, that people found the movie boring. For others, the relentless references, technical achievements, and cinematic quotes are pure catnip, leaving the viewer exhilarated. The film is dividing audiences like back in the days of Gump (thanks Lee Lorenz and The New Yorker).

I didn't love the film, and experienced a little of the boredom. Which is strange because I like Roland Barthes  references as much as the next ex reader-response critical theoretician, but the overall feeling I got from the film is we are all fools: for being onstage, or in the audience. Tell me something I don't know.

I'm a TV girl at heart, so here are some recap points:

•The drumming. Often a sound that bleeds into a scene relates to another reality. Here, it's actual hallucinatory madness, so in a way,  Iñárritu is messing with our heads.

•I like the subhead, "The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance." It's an excellent nod to Alexander Pope, who coined "a little learning is a dangerous thing" in his masterpiece Essay on Criticism . . . "drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring." The film takes direct aim at critics as the coward piranhas who feed off of the courageous artists, but is there anything actually more devastating than a well-targeted heroic couplet? I think not.

"'Tis hard to say, if greater Want of Skill
Appear in Writing or in Judging Ill.
But, of the two, less dangerous is th'Offense
To tire our Patience, than mis-lead our Sense."

The subtitle also summons Pope because he used a subtitle for his parody of Longinus' Peri Hupsous (On the Sublime): Peri Bathous, Or the Art of Sinking in Poetry. So very clever there all around,  Iñárritu and team writers.

•I liked The Shining homage. The hallways & carpet evoke the hotel, and with the celebrated camera work I absolutely felt  I was on my big wheels, rolling through the St. James Theatre. John Powers in Vogue also called out Andrea Riseborough's Shelley Duvall hair, and "the barroom as a truth-telling place." Yes.

•I did not like the conscious, insistence of Riggan that he "make art,"  be "an artist." For me, the worst cliche possible. The narcissism that is needed to act, either in film or the theater, is unpleasant to experience in any mode.

•But that is all topped by the crazy street person, whom Riggan encounters when he goes to the liquor store, who is spouting MacBeth: I think I heard it from "tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow" but it was the "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing" that made me cringe. I mean, really?

(Side note: The building/construction/scaffolding that Riggan shoves the crazy guy up against reminded me of 30 Rock's "The Tuxedo Begins" episode. When Jack Donaghy goes back to a similar sidewalk scaffolding where he was mugged, and enters his own magical realism, complete with Mr. Met. At the beginning of the episode, Tracy Morgan says, "I have an Oscar, now I get to do real art." Hmm.)

For Iñárritu to drag Shakespeare in here tells us again:  All of this time, effort, anxiety to produce a play, and a movie about producing a play, is just loud (check, we've got the drums) and means nothing (check, unless you're Roland Barthes).

The emptiness of the film is another common comment. There are flashes of emotion and humanity within, amid all of the solid acting performances that have been well documented, but no conviction about the performing arts or the audience except that we are all idiots.

I once studied critical theory with Walter Benn Michaels. He commented that it's an intellectually vibrant field, but ultimately sterile. Sometimes he'd rather be inhabiting the world of Pride and Prejudice full on, rather than pondering the theories of relating to it.

For all of its affects and heady references,  Birdman left me with that sterile feeling. I do enter and enjoy the world of magical realism in various ways. I just want to do it with conviction of feeling, like Chagall's "Lovers Above the City." That kind of flying makes complete sense to me.  No primal drumming or madness required.


Peteski said...

Ha! I said, "Well those windows don't open" out loud, and then...

A movie where you wind up disliking Michael Keaton, what could be bigger sin?

Ellen O'Neill said...

Peteski, I haven't seen anyone else write about the window issue, but as you just experienced, it's an important point! I'm not worried about Keaton, since he is a strong contender for Best Actor Oscar. And Inarritu was just awarded DGA Best Director Award, so just shows what I know.