Birdman (Alejandro González Iñárritu,2014) Review

I am definitely getting behind on my weekly reviews. In fact my last one was about a month ago, so not so much weekly, as monthly…

I had planned on reviewing all of the Best Picture nominated films in one post, as I expected to have very little to say about them. Then I watched Birdman and decided that it was worth more than just a small paragraphs squeezed between my dislike for ‘American Sniper‘ and ‘Grand Budapest Hotel‘. Yeah, controversial opinion but I’ll save that for another post.

Let me start by saying, Birdman is a film for cinephiles. That isn’t to say that you can’t or won’t enjoy it if you aren’t particularly moved by the filmic form. There is plenty to enjoy and revel in on the basis that it is just pure entertainment, a moving narrative and some interesting characters. It is not a unique story, but it is told in a unique way. Emma Stone, Edward Norton and of course Michael Keaton bring some great performances to the table and the dynamic between father and daughter is encompassed in a neat circular narrative arc. For the regular movie-goer, it may lack some dramatic tension – Birdman tends to float along lazily without any need to rush to a climax.

Birdman is unique in that it infers that the entire film is one continuous shot. Of course, it wasn’t, but technical trickery, clever lighting setups and one overworked steadicam operator means that the film certainly gives the illusion that it was seamlessly shot in one take. This is what I mean when I say Birdman was made for cinephiles. The cinematography. What is fascinating about the cinematographic style of Birdman is that it shows how little experimentation happens within popular films. By popular, I am talking exclusively about the Best Picture nominated films, of course. Except Boyhood (which I have yet to see, and doesn’t interest me at all) which was filmed over a period of 12 years, every other Oscar nominated picture sticks relatively closely to the standard, and arguably archaic, formula that the industry has been making successful movies with for so long. Continuity editing, shot -reverse-shot, establishing shots etc etc etc. It’s a formula that works, one that audiences are very familiar with and ensures that the narrative is presented as simply and as effectively as possible. That’s not to say that these films follow a simple structure, or are even simple to understand. It’s not a comment on the non-linear narratives of films such as Memento or Pulp Fiction.  It’s just that most films that are born out of Hollywood tend to utilize tried and tested methods of cinematography to tell a story. Even those that push narrative boundaries tend to be shot very conventionally.

It’s understandable why films use the same methods over and over again. It works. Also, it’s very difficult to create and produce a film that uses completely original techniques, there is nothing to look at for inspiration, or even to work how exactly you are going to be able to achieve that crazy shot. Birdman falls into this situation completely. The only other film, at least to my knowledge, that professed to using one shot for entire film is Hitchcock’s Rope (1948). Now, Rope was a technical feat in it’s day and impressed many critics with the illusion of the one-shot-movie. Realistically, though, there is no comparing Rope with Birdman. Whilst Rope takes place within one apartment, with limited lighting changes and a small cast, Birdman has exterior and interior locations, has enough extras to fill a Broadway theatre (literally) and also uses significant amounts of VFX within the frame. Rope was great, but it seems like we have moved on. I’m not saying that Rope wasn’t spectacular in it’s day, but movable walls and an extended camera dolly was simply not an option for Iñárritu when filming Birdman. Clearly, it would have been much easier, and economically safer, to make a film via tried and tested methods.

Fortunately, Iñárritu didn’t listen to the unbelievers and lucky for us – Birdman found a new way of connecting us with the medium. And it’s good. It’s really, really good. Birdman is engaging, not in spite of the overwhelming cinematography, but because of it. It doesn’t distract from the subject of the film, but is always present – adding to those moments of tension and allowing us to awe at it, in the same way we are in awe of the performances and the twists in the narrative. The one-shot works to keep the pacing steady, to move forward in time rapidly in a hazy, dreamlike way. Instead of fading in, or jump cutting to the next scene – we are moved slowly, and purposefully into the next piece of action. We watch Thomson (Keaton) rehearsing with the other actors, on stage. The camera floats around them, taking in the dialogue. We pan out, circle around and suddenly realise that there are people in the audience. We have jumped in time – from rehearsal to previews, without even noticing. It’s magical.

It’s also interesting that Iñárritu and his cinematographer (Emmanuel Lubezki) have small prestige in the world of Hollywood.  Iñárritu has directed a handful of successful films, and Lubezki was the director of photography on a few notable films, most recently the visual extravaganza that was Gravity. Their relative ‘non-fame’ speaks volumes about which kind of film-makers are willing to take risks to bring newness and creativity to a screen near you.

Birdman is a phenomenal film and not just because of the cinematography. It’s dark, funny and so meta it hurts. It’s a comment on acting, it’s a comment on stardom and it’s a comment on how we relate to each other, and what happens when we don’t. As I said before, the strong performances really guide the audience through the film, and are as important as the camera-work in cementing Birdman as a piece of solid film-making. It is filled with beautiful and surprising moments. Perhaps most importantly however, it never gives everything away and leaves you wanting more – an ideal that more films should aspire to.
Never give everything away… Birdman certainly doesn’t.

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