Rob Edelman: Superlative BIRDMAN
Some film are worth seeing because they are, well... worth seeing. They are artfully directed, excellently acted, thoughtfully scripted. But on occasion, a film comes along that is not just good or very good. Such words as superlative and even groundbreaking are more than fitting adjectives. Back in the 1970s, such films as 5 EASY PIECES and TAXI DRIVER were better than good and very good. I vividly recall seeing them and being stunned by their uniqueness, the depictions of their central characters, and their singular views of the world. Last year, two very special films-- Spike Jonze’s HER and Alfonso Cuaron’s GRAVITY-- both were audacious and original.
So far this year, two films are equally distinctive. The first is BOYHOOD, directed by Richard Linklater, which came to theaters this past summer. Upon its release, I labeled it an instant classic both for its unusual decade-long shooting schedule and its razor-sharp portrayal of the plights of its characters. The second is of more recent vintage. It is Alejandro GonzálezIñárritu’s BIRDMAN, the full title of which is BIRDMAN: OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE).
BIRDMAN is the tale of a has-been Hollywood star, played by Michael Keaton in what for him is a career-reviving performance, who is attempting to resurrect his fame by penning a play and starring in it on Broadway. But to simply describe the plot of BIRDMAN is to do the film a great injustice. BIRDMAN is crammed with ideas and issues. The first involves our culture’s obsession with fame. In fact, the film asks: What is fame? What does it mean? How really important is it? And also, we live in a culture in which instant fame may be won on a Monday, but by Tuesday that fame may be replaced by instant anonymity.
We live in a name-dropping world, but how might an individual react when his or her name is no longer dropped-- and one’s fleeting celebrity results in his or her becoming little more than a Trivial Pursuit question? Furthermore, what are our core values? These days, the sole ambition of so many is to go viral rather than do something that is genuinely meaningful. And these days, in our Internet and social media-dominated culture, if you do not blog or tweet or have a Facebook page, well, you simply do not exist.
BIRDMAN also excoriates the arbitrariness of the media regarding the stories that get covered and how they are covered. The film savagely lambastes the power of critics and the sheer stupidity of allowing one critic-- translation: the New York Times critic-- the ability to make or break a play, or a career.
Particularly at its start, BIRDMAN is a mesmerizing mind-game as it challenges the viewer to distinguish between the dialogue spoken by the actor-characters and the dialogue they are reciting from the play. Also, until it is nearly over, the story in BIRDMAN appears to be told in one endless unedited shot, despite the fact that this shot features a passage of time that is longer than the film’s two-hour running time. This in and of itself is dazzling and amazing, and I would bet that this alone will earn GonzálezIñárritu a Best Director Academy Award.
These days, there are other ambitious, praiseworthy films coming to theaters. Take for example INTERSTELLAR: a science fiction tale that, while not without special effects, features a storyline that actually emphasizes characterization and human relationships. At its core, INTERSTELLAR is the story of a deeply complex father-daughter relationship. This makes the film relatable to viewers who favor storytelling over the endless barrage of mind-numbing visuals that dominate one-too-many contemporary sci-fi extravaganzas.
But in the end, despite its praiseworthiness, INTERSTELLAR is no GRAVITY. And no other big-ticket, end-of-the-year film that presently is being positioned for ten-best lists and Oscar nominations ranks with BIRDMAN and BOYHOOD.
Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.
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