Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “Birdman,” Or The Unexpected Virtue of Contrivance.
[Caution: this essay review contains spoilers in its last paragraph.]
After his “Death” trilogy (“Amores Perros,” “21 Grams,” “Babel“) Alejandro González Iñárritu took an even more depressing route. Instead of swallowing the proverbial chill pill by directing something lighter, looser, something with a sliver of optimistic verve in its veins, he went ahead and made the ultimate downer of his filmography: “Biutiful.” Nothing against the film itself (it personally moved me to no end, and I believe it contains the best performance Javier Bardem has ever delivered), but it’s bleak as all fuck. Despite his stupendous critical success with all four, the Mexican director clearly needed a mood swing. And he’s swung so successfully with “Birdman;” he must feel like he’s flying just as highly as his protagonist does. But, “Birdman” doesn’t mean a change in approach. If you’ve already fancied Iñárritu pretentious with his unsubtle direction, non-linear story lines, and imbalanced tones (I’m merely playing devil’s advocate here), “Birdman” could make you sick to your stomach with how unapologetically contrived it is. This contrivance, this forced artificiality, I argue, is the film’s greatest virtue.
Iñárritu’s pendulum has swung all the way to the other end of the stylistic spectrum, and a number of things differentiate his latest film from all of his previous ones, all steeped with very obvious, almost obnoxious, features that call attention to themselves. Firstly, he’s working with superstar cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Famous for being Terrence Malick‘s and Alfonso Cuaron‘s DP, Lubezki is the Hans Zimmer of cinematographers. He’s, by far, the most popular cinematographer working today, rising to prominence with his work on”Children of Men,” “Tree of Life,” and “Gravity” (the last one got him that overdue Oscar, so he’s officially a Hollywood baller). He’s been experimenting with long takes and invisible camera trickery since “Children of Men,” but that’s child’s play compared to what he does in “Birdman;” shooting and lighting the entire picture under the illusion of a single, uncut, take. It’s “Russian Ark” stuff, but since the majority of the mainstream audience isn’t familiar with Aleksandr Sokurov‘s 2002 film, “Birdman” has that “ahhh” fresh feeling. On a technical level, it looks like a one-take pony, indulging in a gimmick that has been calling attention to itself ever since “Gravity,” and stands in stark contrast to the signature feverish editing that punctuated Iñárritu’s previous films. Regular editors Stephen Mirrione and Douglas Crise do literally seamless work here, barring the opening and closing moments of the film.
Then there’s Michael Keaton. Still remembered by the mainstream audience as Beetlejuice and Tim Burton‘s Batman, Keaton’s heydays are long behind him (somewhere in the late 80s and early 90s). The last artistically respectful role he played was Ray Nicolette (“Jackie Brown,” “Out of Sight“), over 15 years ago. The similarities between Michael Keaton and his Riggan Thomas are too obvious to count, and they’re the key into understanding how Keaton’s twitchy, erratic, and flamboyant performance is simultaneously a comical, over-the-top, farce and a poignant self-reflection. Working with Keaton marks a big change for Iñárritu because Keaton is no Javier Bardem in terms of popularity and status (the latter only understands “washed-up” in laundry terms), and comparing him to any of the other big-name actors Iñárritu has worked with before (Sean Penn, Brad Pitt, etc.) is a pointless endeavour because this is only the second film he has directed with a clear lead in place so the dynamic, and meaning along with it, is all different. And yet, “Birdman” is also an ensemble. Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Zach Galifianakis, and Lindsay Duncan all get at least one highlight reel moment (apologies to the incredibly talented Amy Ryan, but she doesn’t get hers). So, even performance-wise, “Birdman” is presumptuous enough to want its cake and eat it too, by being a one-man ensemble show.
What about Antonio Sanchez? Next to Lubezki’s camera and Keaton’s quirks, the other aspect of the film that’s obtrusively shoved at the unwarned audience is the upbeat and energetically jazzy original score. It’s another feature Iñárritu (no doubt very consciously) wanted to take a leap of faith with, as a way to dissociate his new film from the four gloomy, impossibly melancholic, and incredibly unembellished scores that marked his previous features. All four previous films were scored by two-time Oscar winner Gustavo Santaolalla, a man who’s made a career out of composing sombre guitar harmonies. So, in order to swing away properly, Iñárritu hired jazz drummer Antonio Sanchez who has never scored a film in his life. What balls! We first hear the score as it’s synched with the buoyant opening credits sequence, and it keeps surging and crescendoing through-out the picture like something out of “Whiplash.” It’s just about the least subtle thing in a film that’s overflowing in garishness, and in more than a few scenes, Iñárritu makes sure to call attention to it in the most literal of ways: by having a physical drummer playing it regardless of whether his presence makes narrative sense (it doesn’t).
And finally, there’s the four-person original screenplay. Joining Iñárritu himself in writing this pageant show are Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo. Screenplays written by more than one person are immediately suspect, because more often than not they prove to be all-over-the-place tonal messes (just look at the most poorly-received comic book movies out there). Bo and Giacabone co-wrote “Biutiful” with Iñárritu, and Dinelaris worked on it as well unofficially, but this time all four join forces to write one screenplay. It’s filled with overblown and egotistical characters, quotable and melodramatic dialogue (“Look at me. I look like a turkey with leukaemia”), and the most self-centred, schizophrenic, special effect action of the year. It also willfully indulges in the biggest no-no of screenplay ethics: the voice over. But what sets it most apart from all four previous Iñárritu films is a crucial element that was always missing from the man’s filmography: hilarity. Everything about the story and its characters leaves room for a smile, a grin, a chuckle, or a busted gut. Long gone are the days of Iñárritu’s “Death” trilogy collaborations with writer Guillermo Arriaga. Here is an original screenplay, inspired by everything from Raymond Carver to Batman, written by four people, about one middle-aged man’s rage against the modern consumption-whoring world around him. And it’s brilliant.
So, if “Birdman” is so presumptuous and contrived in the way it’s shot, performed, scored, and written, how in God’s name doesn’t it crumble under its own arrogance? The key to this answer is the letter G. I think only someone like Iñárritu, someone who has successfully scraped the bottom of the dirty human barrel with every single one of his previous, humourless, films, can turn artifice into such an entertaining advantage. With “Birdman,” this director has undergone an artistic cleansing, and through it all has been born again as the more youthful, springy, Alejandro G. Stretching out a celebrity cinematographer’s gimmick to its furthest tendons, casting a once-upon-a-time Hollywood star to lead an ensemble, foregoing veteran guitar strings for dilettante jazz percussion, and co-writing an energetically paced screenplay full of screenwriting taboos, are all things that would’ve been the critical death-knell to “Birdman,” had it been directed by anyone else. With the experience he has from his string of morose movies, Iñárritu knew that the only way to make this work was to superglue his foot on the gas, and the pedal to the metal, and go absolutely bat-shit wild in every aspect of filmmaking. One take? Do it. Michael Keaton? Fuck yes. Antonio Sanchwho? You’re goddamn right. If “Birdman” feels pretentious and contrived, it’s because it is, and the greatest thing about it is that it doesn’t pretend to be anything else. Iñárritu is the kind of filmmaker who doesn’t know the meaning of subtle, and if he’s going to take his chill pill, he’s crushing it in his mouth, spitting out half of it, and drinking down the rest with a shot of Bourbon.
And still, there’s another vital ingredient to “Birdman’s” greatness. The same thing that makes any great movie, great: storytelling depth. It uses Raymond Carver, America’s favorite alcoholic short storyteller, and the current plague of the comic book film (two supremely extreme opposites of American art) as two springboards to tell one story of a man disillusioned with the career he’s lead, presently stuck in a seemingly never-ending whirlpool of garbage, and unsure about where he’s headed. The very concepts of indulgence, artifice, and attention-seeking contrivance are woven into the thematic fabrics of the film. And thus, Lubezki’s one take rises above being a mere gimmick to become something that has thematic weight (Riggan’s state of mind is one continuous stream of consciousness). Casting a middle-aged washed up actor who was once the most popular Batman adds a whole new layer of meaning. The jazzy percussion and screenwriting taboos can all of a sudden be analyzed as part of the “don’ts” that make Iñárritu stand out and differentiate him from Hollywood’s celebrity-crazed cinema. Similar to how Riggan achieves “super-realism” through his artistic ignorance by the end of “Birdman,” Inarritu achieves a kind of “super-cinema” through his artistic contrivance; fusing every element with multiple layers and meanings, while simultaneously (and successfully) swinging himself far away from his signature style. The opening extract for the film, from Carver’s “Late Fragment,” now feels riddled with even more meaning:
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
The film ends with a swooping tracking shot of Emma Stone’s Sam thinking her father committed suicide, looking up into the sky, and breaking into a smile unlike any we’ve seen in previous Iñárritu films. Indeed, Sam is expecting death and misery (the pervasive moods of Iñárritu’s previous four films) and slowly looks up to see something new, exciting, and alive. Ambiguous as it is, one thing’s for sure: it’s unapologetically optimistic. For all his life, Riggan has been calling himself beloved and by the end of the film, he’s finally felt it. One can argue that Iñárritu’s drastic switch from emotionally draining cinema to one more emotionally empowering is him showing us just how beloved he feels. There was no other way for him to achieve this transition, than to climb out of the lower depths he took himself to with his previous four films. A climb he could only have achieved by wholly indulging, embracing, and employing contrivance, thus elevating “Birdman,” and himself, into a playing field no other film or filmmaker in 2014 reached.