Thursday, December 11, 2014

Alejandro González Iñárritu | Birdman

just hokum

by Douglas Messerli

Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., and Armando Bo (screenplay, based on a story by Raymond Carver), Alejandro González Iñárritu (director) Birdman (or, The Unexpected Virture of Ignorance) / 2014

Given my self-admitted preference for films, plays, and literature that are what I have characterized as being “theatrical”—works that purposely reveal their methods, narrative strategies, and structures within the process of their storytelling—one might have imagined that I would have greeted Mexican-born Alejandro González Iñárritu’s new film, Birdman, with utter enthusiasm and applause. Certainly, in his often over-the-top emotionally raw exploration of what we actually mean by the word love, González Iñárritu often, sometimes intentionally, at other times, perhaps, not-so-intentionally, reveals the mechanisms behind his art. His clearly intentional decision to tie his film together through a series of shots intercut as to appear to be one long continuous take in the manner of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope and the first very long sequence of Robert Altman’s The Player, does, in fact, give his work an often graceful sense of artistry that winks at his audience with the implication that what might appear as a gritty, slightly realist-based recounting of down-at-the heels actor’s attempts to revitalize his career, is really a grand satire of the collision between and collusion of the cinema and stage drama.

Add  to this González Iñárritu’s clever use of opening credits that remind us of Jean-Luc Godard’s alphabetically sequenced titles in Pierre le Fou, as well as the heavy stew of references to other cinema directors, Scorsese (particularly in the director’s use of New York street scenes), Altman again (in his use of actor’s drug-recuperating daughter in the manner of Lindsay Lohan’s appearance the deceased American director’s last film, A Prairie Home Companion, a work also thematically connected to Birdman), and Federico Fellini (whose masterwork 8 ½ covers many of the same issues as this movie). And beyond  these referential nods to the cinema-tradition, the fact that González Iñárritu has chosen, in Michael Keaton, a star who, in his own history as a performer in two Batman blockbusters, is in a career hiatus much like the one his character, Riggan Thomson faces, and you have, apparently, a work focused on its own artistry.
     In an interview, González Iñárritu has argued that he doesn’t wish the viewer, after the first few frames, to consciously become aware of his astonishingly fluid camera movements, but I’d suggest that the audience members would have to blind to ignore them; nonetheless, such remarkable camera work can be justified in this film simply because it helps to create the sense of unceasingly claustrophobic motion in which the film embraces its characters. But, although the numerous other theatrical-like gestures may hint at the director’s grander intentions with regard to style and theme, such a self-declared imitator must always be careful, as some critics such as Richard Brody in The New Yorker argues, that he can skillfully play in the same tennis court. While Godard’s 1965 masterpiece, for example, goes on from its credits to explore and send-up numerous forms of cinematic genres and methods of representation, Birdman quickly fizzles out through its presentation of what is basically a realist play embedded in another realist psychological tale, spiced-up with a heavy dash of salty fantasies in the form of Thomson’s birdman doppelgänger who continually attempts to convince the striving actor that being a celebrity is far preferable to being a mediocre actor-playwright-director of a New York stage play, absurdly based on one of the short short stories by Raymond Carver.

    Despite my preference any day for a New York stage play over an epic adventure movie, I’m not sure that Thomson’s birdman-self, along with an entire chorus of caviling critics, present and past, mightn’t be right. Perhaps it is better to soar as Icarus in the imagination than attempt to levitate in front a Broadway audience. Certainly it’s more fun to soar through the Gotham skies than to wander through the rain-sopped 44th Street drunk out of your mind, or, even worse, in nothing but your skivvies—a challenge which, perhaps just for comic relief, González Iñárritu demands of the aging and balding Keaton. You have to give Keaton and his character, Thomson, credit for hanging in there, against the utter chaos of life revealed in the narrow halls of New York’s St. James Theatre, as the actor-character duo battle it out with a current lover who’s briefly convinced that she is pregnant (Laura, played by Andrea  Riseborough); a former wife (Amy Ryan as Sylvia)  who apparently still loves the man she has even reason to hate; a determined wannabee Broadway star (Naomi Watts as Lesley), who hooks Thomson up with his worst nightmare in the form a replacement actor; a rehabbed daughter who convincingly demonstrates to her distraught dad that nothing he is doing really matters (Emma Stone as Sam); a hateful New York Times-critic determined to teach the hubristic Los Angeles denizen the dangers of pretending to be a legitimate Big Apple actor (Lindsay Duncan as Tabitha); and a die-hard method-acting moron, who demands real gin, real sex, and a real gun on stage, the only place he really exists (Edward Norton as Mike Shiner)!  With friends like that….
     The trouble is, as daughter Sam puts it, nothing does truly matter in this travesty of a Broadway drama. Keaton is a good actor, and tries hard—very hard indeed—to convince us that he can reach beyond his acting range of a man of amused befuddlement to a shrilly screaming psychotic tearing up his dressing room props. He tries so hard at an Oscar-worthy performance that, in the end, we feel sorry when he can’t quite reach the heights of his flying super-ego. Edward Norton, when he finishes  tossing around the kitchen cupboards of their kitchen-sink drama, is far better at convincing that he really is a sleazy actor capable of some emotional depth.
     The real problem with Birdman, despite the well-meaning intentions of the director and its numerous fine actors, is that neither the fictional drama which Thomson has supposedly written nor the actual screenplay by González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., and Armando Bo truly rises to the occasion. Basically, both are realist soap-operas with a bit of fantasy worked-in to create the sensation that the plot might just float above the cartoon visions of reality they present.

     In the film, Thomson’s stab at realist acting—requiring him to use a real gun to kill himself at play’s end—convinces everyone that his Carver-based play is a kind of masterpiece. Unfortunately, the more González Iñárritu shows us variations of the play—set, as I mentioned above, in a believable kitchen and a vaguely noir motel—the actors tossing out lines so hokey that I cannot imagine any audience actually enduring them, the more we are forced to admit that Thomson’s Carver adaptation is a bore. A discussion of what love really means or doesn’t mean, at least presented by these seemingly amateur poseurs, is simply utter yawn-inspiring, no matter who delivers the lines. The very idea that the kitchen-sink-bound first act and the final motel denouement is linked by the playwright with a sort of kitschy psychological interlude with women dressed up as stags emblematically staggering across the stage, is ludicrous, even if purposely funny. Lunt and Fontanne would have had a hard time overcoming its corny premise that the no-longer beloved husband has been so reduced, that, declaring he no longer exists, he justifiably kills himself. Making it even worse is our recognition that this silly play is meant to be a kind of commentary on the larger play which overlays it,  
     In the bigger world this film conjures up, moreover, we often openly wonder what the fuss about is all about. Sure, Thomson is undergoing a mid-life crisis, questioning whether his celebrity has been worth it, given the fact that no one can imagine that he really might be able to act. Yes, he’s fouled up his life, had too many affairs, has been home too seldom to demonstrate any of the love he might feel to his daughter and wife. Okay, he’s under financial duress, the play having cost him far more than he ever reckoned, and is now faced with a possible suit over an accident(?) suffered by his former actor.
     At one point in the film, after revealing just how much Thomson’s daughter Sam is feeling sorry for herself, actor Mike Shiner asks her outright what she sees as her dilemma in life, daring her to answer why she feels so hurt about the fact that her father has been absent for much of her youth and sought to make up those absences with false praises. Just how is she so very different from anyone else? his questions imply. Those are my feelings precisely with regard to Thomson. Don’t all the problems he’s currently facing come with the territory of any necessarily self-centered actor? After all, in a career where someone works so hard at being anyone else, why should we imagine that he or she might later find it difficult to discover his or her own self? In short, why should we care about this character central to González Iñárritu’s fable?
     Even if we can perceive that we all share some of these dilemmas of identity and doubts of self-worth, does that automatically elevate this movie to level of serious drama it claims? In the end, it appears that even the film’s creators don’t care to treat their hero seriously. At least once before in his life, Thomson admits, he has failed at suicide, attempting to drown himself until he was so severely stung by jelly-fish that he struggled to return to shore. This time round, he simply misses the intended target of his head. In other words, Thomson cannot really meet the demands of his art.
     Accordingly, at film’s end, he returns to the fantasy world from whence he has come, floating—we ascertain from his daughter’s final gaze to the skies—in the pipe-dream of cinema instead of spiraling down into a drama with his guts splattered across some Manhattan crosswalk. Hollywood has beaten Broadway. And that is this movie’s great loss. The artifice it has pretended was just hokum after all.

Los Angeles, Janaury 16, 2015

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