Wednesday, December 17, 2014

2014 in Shit: Birdman

The mean way to say it is that Birdman is Synecdoche, New York for adults. Both struck me, while watching, as little more than a proof of concept, blown all the way up. Both also -- and I would include Inception in this category -- left me feeling a kind of muted, hollow happiness upon walking out of the theater that I couldn't really account for, and that didn't persist, and that -- if I'm being honest -- might as easily been a consequence of "going to the movie theater" as it was anything to do with the film just watched. I didn't exactly love any of the movies -- that might be a slight fabrication for Synecdoche, whatever -- but I do hate some of the editorializing around them.

If there's a big difference between Birdman and Synecdoche, it is one of degree rather than kind; where Synecdoche was a proof of content, Birdman was a proof of form. Which is cool, I guess, even though that proof was done famously by Sokurov and recently in Silent House. And honestly, I'd put Silent House in the genealogy of Sokurov and Hitchcock('s Rope) ahead of Birdman, but you know. I like bad things. And have bad opinions. That are badly written. Let's go!

Birdman's a movie shot in a falsified single shot that is basically an extended joke, in which an aging actor, famous for playing a superhero twenty years ago, puts on a stage play to get some of his credibility back. He also has some level of telekinetic powers and Edward Norton ends up having sex with his daughter.

Also, before I get any farther: Naomi Watts is incredible. She's the best. How is she so wonderful. Also Emma Stone is fantastic and Zach Galifianakis is weird and I like him and Edward Norton is pretty cool too. Acting is weird and I don't get it but god fucking dammit Naomi Watts is amazing.

Anyway. Synecdoche, New York was always a movie about signs, about the gulf between the signifier and the signified, as represented through the Grand Boring Theme of mortality or whatever. It has mostly stuck with me because it was one of those movies I saw, and was like, I get it, okay, sure. But also I still liked it. Because it did, at least in some ways, push hard enough that even though it never quite got beyond that it was just an idea turned into a movie, there was enough movie there to enjoy. Birdman, on the other hand, has the immediate benefit of being an idea for a camera turned into a movie, that also happens to have enough movie there to enjoy. At least after the first, like, forty minutes of the movie that come after the first twenty, or something along those lines. After the excitement of trying to figure which particular configuration the limited set of rules afforded by the decision to film with no visible edits will be operative -- that is, after the first twenty minutes or so -- the movie quickly settles into a relentlessly sluggish pace. That this is, in the end, justified -- which is to say that the movie as a whole is well paced, even if the act of watching it in time might not appear to be at certain moments -- is cool, I guess, and allows Birdman to swell and climax in ways that would not seem to be readily available to it were the pacing not quite so stilted.

Do I seem to have disliked Birdman yet? It's weird. I often feel like I do, even though I didn't. This isn't the place to talk about the association of criticality with negativity -- because it never is because that argument can go fuck itself -- but there is a certain tenor to how I have thought and talked (and now written) about Birdman that gives off that impression, even to myself. Sorry. I'll stop talking about Charlie Kaufman now, at least.

There are some neat things about Birdman that -- despite the near-universal praise for it -- I haven't seen mentioned much. The decision not to equate the fabricated single shot with real time is one of them; a few times, throughout the movie, the camera will come to rest and the shot will go all time lapse photography. That is cool and an interesting way of dealing with the constraints of the narrative on the formal decision.

Another neat thing is that this is a goddamn science fiction film. That's weird. Should I talk about that? It's kind of, like, my wheelhouse, I guess.

I don't know much of anything about Alexander González Iñárritu -- or, for that matter, about Emmanual Lubezki, the cinematographer whose work this movie was widely recommended on the strength of -- but, as I blathered about last year, I have some reservations about the use of the term magical realism, especially when used in reference to authors from south of the United States of America. I feel conflicted, now, about my own thoughts; the more it gets formulated, the more I suspect I sound like the kind of whiteboy who decides the best way to talk about the art of artists of color. Which is to say, at least in part, that my issues could be divorced of real concerns, including the development of a language which allows for an appreciation of work on both critical and financial terms which might otherwise be refused it. Which is all just to say that my calling Birdman science fiction is a political argument, and one with which I am not entirely confident of its foundation. But here it is.

So. Keaton's role in the early 90s Batman films is here transmuted into a movie called Birdman, for which he is equally (un)renowned. His telekinetic powers are established fairly early, when he claims he caused a stage light to fall on one of the actors in his adaptation of Carver's head. There are a couple other scattered sequences, mostly involving small object manipulation, until he throws a fit and breaks a bunch of stuff with it. There is also a voiceover that occasionally intrudes into the film, apparently emanating from a framed Birdman poster in his dressing room. The movie doesn't go full sf until Keaton is considering suicide; a sequence in which he flies around the city is followed by him standing on top of a building as if preparing to jump; he eventually does, only to fly around more. There are regular hints that the whole thing might be in his head; it largely happens when he is alone, and otherwise there are little things to tip it off, like when Keaton glides down to the sidewalk in front of the theater, only to be pursued by an angry taxi cab driver demanding he pay his fare.

Here's the thing about these sorts of moments of disavowal; it is, I would argue, entirely possible to read them as systemic rather than generic. That is, they might usually be used to distance a text from a particular genre, but this isn't in any way a necessary reading of their inclusion. And if the difference between, say, science fiction and magical realism is a difference in systematization, where the latter includes it only as an organizing principle while the treats it as a goal or an end in itself, then the question of how it is read is a question of what genre it belongs to. If that sounds a bit too much like a divorce of genre from history, well, remember that it's all about getting paid.

The most obvious way to think about these disavowals as systemic is to extend the "magic use forbidden around non-magical beings" rules of a Harry Potter. This, at least, is a window; obviously that series mostly uses it to establish scenarios for its breaking. What I'm suggesting is something like that which is not a rule in the fiction, but of it.

Framing a discussion of Birdman in this way allows a potential reading of the film's central verbal conflict to appear; throughout, the question of Hollywood vs the Theater is raised and fought and dropped. I don't know that I would call it the central conflict as such, but there's an argument to be made there; the film's hook (Michael Keaton as functionally himself directing for the stage) certainly relies on it, and it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to say that the technique (false single shot) is addressed primarily through that lens.

Actually, come to think of it, I haven't seen anyone talk about the fairly straightforward observation that the use of the no (apparent) cuts camera style is a way of bringing the experience of movie theatergoing closer to the experience of stage play theatergoing. Which then offers itself as an explanation for why the passages of time are done in the way they are -- when the set changes, the audience stays watching, much like the time lapse shots of the sun. See, framing things through genre makes neat observations possible.

Looked at in this way, the film seems significantly more ambivalent about its stance on the Hollywood vs Broadway argument than it first appears to be. Despite being a film, it puts both the strongest arguments and the strength of conviction primarily in its advocates of theater, and does little to dissuade the viewer from taking the position that Keaton is kind of a washed up boor. Without reading the structure of the film as aspirational toward theater, you have then only the marketing and reception of the film to fall back on, which seem very geared toward the assumption that Birdman is by and for people with little or no regard for the filmgoing audience at large or the productions they enjoy. The very simple fact that it was largely marketed as a superhero film with a twist, rather than on its own merits (at least as far as I can tell), and that this assumption has bled into the reception of the film as its detractors are characterized as ignorant plebs, is remarkably telling.

Well, hell. I certainly didn't expect this to be the direction I took.

Reading Birdman as a film that is not just an attempt at a technical feat of filmmaking as such, but one which is meant to evoke the experience of the theater which it portrays, would seem to only underscore its position on the thematic argument. But by embedding that argument in the structure of the film, the question of genre (Hollywood vs Broadway, again, which is a slightly different use of the term than I usually prefer but which I think is nevertheless apt) is less something declaimed upon and more constitutive. And I do like thinking about genre, especially as a constitutive factor.

All of this, in turn, reflects on the question of Keaton's telekinesis, and whether it is the typical sort of flight of fancy that filmmakers sometimes employ because they can or is a fundamental aspect of the world or is a way of signalling a sort of predisposition toward a systematic realization of a deliberately hermetic world.

There's the danger, in getting into this, of coming off like the sort of IMDb forums posters who just argue minutiae. I'll try to avoid that.

Here's the thing; reading Birdman as being ambivalent about its own genre through its particular formal decision then makes its ambivalence to commit to a position on its more fantastical elements deeper, if not less apparently annoying. And, in the interest of fairness, this doesn't change the fact that while Birdman as a whole reveals itself to be deliberately paced in such a way as to hold up remarkably well as a cohesive text, this is done in such a way as to leave parts of the film, in their moment to moment experience, incredibly dull. This isn't a crime, obviously; it's perfectly valid to pace a film in the service of its being remembered. I even praised Silent House for it. The difference, though, is that if the no cuts technique is in fact an aspiration toward film-as-play (and I only demure because I am attempting to acknowledge the limits of my own memory here and the way in which this is a constructed on the fly argument given the nature of this project; I myself, now, am quite convinced) then the medium in which that takes place is firmly experiential, giving that aspect a weight that the pacing doesn't seem to acknowledge.

All this is relevant because, regardless of where it ultimately falls, the experience of the fantastic in Birdman is intimately tied up to its pacing. It is introduced early and sparsely used, until Keaton flies around and fucking punches an alien or something (I honestly don't remember) at the film's climax. It also, in a way, bookends the film proper, with the only two sequences not part of the single long take being short sequences, quickly cut, depicting some sort of comet or something (I also don't remember those very well), suggesting a scope beyond the personal life of Keaton's character that ties into it. If the film is paced in such a way as to be remembered, then this isn't as much the case; the real standout scene there is when Keaton gets locked out of the theater and has to run around the block in his underwear. As the best individual sequence in the movie, this bit is characterized by its lack of fantastical elements; dude can fly and all. But as a sequence of images that exist in time, it is the elements of the fantastic that are its anchors.

And those anchors -- to return to Charlie Kaufman, if only to wrap this thing up, because holy hell how did it get this long -- lack the ambivalent valorization that reading Birdman through genre would seem to require of them. To be sure, the intentional refusal to allow the viewer to accept the fantastic as objectively true within the world of the fiction can be called a sort of ambivalence, but it is only one which suggests a recourse to the psychological being the primary motivator of the film's aesthetic choices. Which is a fine reading and all, I suppose, though it ultimately turns Birdman into little more than, well. The mean way to say it is that it turns Birdman into Synecdoche, New York for adults. The nice way? I'm not so sure about that. But it has something going for it.

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