Some, Not All, of The Best of Last Year will be a very late series of posts of music, film, and other things that stood out above even the most exceptional in 2014. A best of list with no specific order or reason, much like the site itself. Just a compilation of more recent things to enjoy. Note: I could write forever about this film. I don’t and what is presented reflects that. Sorry. Also slight spoilers. I tried to avoid them, but what can you do.
This past weekend, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) was awarded two Golden Globes. One was for Michael Keaton’s performance of a has-been comic book hero actor trying to reclaim fame and finally achieve prestige while discovering his inner superpowers/delusions. The other Golden Globe was for Alejandro González Iñárritu’s screenplay, a scathing commentary on an obsessive culture that empowers celebrity and seeks validation through successes of any popularity. That is a ton of meta induced irony going on in the film and to have won any award only amplifies it, especially in categories that directly judge them. Birdman is a film that gives a big middle finger and a pretty loud fuck you to the multifaceted film, theater, and celebrity world. This isn’t why it’s great film, but rather the road that eventually leads to the films greatness.
From the film’s get go you are given certain prejudices through the film’s meta fictional style, taking as much from the fictional story as it does from reality. Riggan Thompson is a rough and mean sketch of Michael Keaton. Mike Shiner, a talented and very opinioned actor with extreme dedication and acting techniques, is the funhouse reflection of Edward Norton. Even the publication history of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” (the story being adapted for the stage in the film) has a metafictional role in the film. The collection of stories in which it appears was originally published in 1981, heavily edited by Gordon Lish It was nearly unrecognizable from its original form which was only recently published in 2009. This notion of editing and lack of control until far past inception happen throughout Birdman, challenging the creation of the fictional play and even the film itself.
You don’t need to know every reality based outlier that informs the film. These elements aren’t part of the movie per se, but they mold this intense verisimilitude that makes you question every note in the film. The moments of duality give a film an odd and welcome depth. Normally this would distract from the core of the film (which I havent even gotten t yet), but here it flourishes Iñárritu’s direction.
Iñárritu’s craft is at its best with Birdman. Iñárritu, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, and editor’s Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione inspired notion of making the film look like one, maybe three, long takes. Obviously this would be impossible considering the scope of the film and physics in general, so a bit of trickery was implanted. On my first viewing I wanted to mark all the hidden cuts to myself, but the way in which these artists took it upon themselves to make them flow and blend into each other caused me to fall into the film. It’s one of the few times my analytical mind shut off just to enjoy the film. Scenes of the passage of time, change of location, even shifting between characters are taken to a subtle but utterly critical limit.
Iñárritu’s direction of the cast is also phenomenal. There just seemed to be an earnestness from every performance.The show business characters portrayed in the film all have this undeniably attraction to them. Zach Galifianakis is really turned down here, giving a slightly neurotic performance as Riggan’s friend and lawyer. Andrea Riseborough as Riggan’s actress girlfriend is a little sad, a little nuts, and surprisingly affable. Edward Norton plays unlikable cocky so well I was convinced he wasn’t playing. Naomi Watts as Lesley, the play’s female lead and on/off lover of Norton’s Shiner, is amazing. Watts balances naive ambition with cynical acceptance so well. She also delivers my favorite joke of the film and probably the most interesting way of denoting a sexual relationship (“We share a vagina.”).
Keaton’s Golden Globe wine was completely deserved. His character’s acts of desperation never felt forced and the weakest moments held a sort of grace to them. His interactions with his daughter Sam (portrayed by Emma Stone) and ex wife (portrayed by Amy Ryan) are some of the best scenes in the film. While Stone’s scenes are particularly volatile and visit the extremes ends of the emotional spectrum, Ryan’s are more subtle and reserved. Stone and Ryan offer this loving ray to their characters, even when they are being vicious or disappointed.
One of the most important parts of the film (to me anyway), is Iñárritu’s use of music. The music throughout included some wonderful classical pieces, but the original score was written by Mexican jazz drummer Antonio Sánchez and may be one of the best in recent memory. The base of the score is entirely his percussion, giving every scene this tense sense of urgency. My own heartbeat matched these scenes of intensity, from leaving the stage light accident to the final walk on opening night. Had soaring strings or blasting trumpets been placed the foreground of the soundscapes, I think a lot of the spontaneity and feverish beauty would be lost. Side note: the score was disqualified from the Academy Awards, which is fucking ridiculous. I could go on about the decision and call out strange ideal of nepotism, but fuck it. This only enhances parts of the films message against such recognition.
That recognition, a sense of an outsider qualifying your work as good is one of the overarching themes of the film. It’s not as simple as superhero-action-explosion movies are-bad and indie-bleed-for-your-work-films are good. There seems to be no upside to the pursuit or the celebrity that comes with it. Riggan’s battles with his former feats as a superhero actor and his attempts to be recognized for skill are usually cast away. His daughter suggestion that importance comes through social media acknowledgement instantly feel as sad and pathetic as any other. Those how have reached the level that Riggan searches for are nor better. Shiner’s holier than thou acting mentality which has caused as much harm that his realest moments are used for fodder for his next role. Critics, those that usher the recognition, are represented by Tabitha Dickson (portrayed by Lindsay Duncan) as self-important, uncaring, and petty as anyone else.
It’s so easy to just call out the goal of celebrity and recognitions being bad. Birdman wouldn’t be as good if that’s all it did. The film’s true core is in human nature and the lengths it will go to satisfy the ego. The setting and acts are just examples being shown to the viewer, but the devastation and loss of control are universal and what is truly being dealt with. Each one of the character experience tragedy en route to what they what. Sam drug use for attention, Shiner’s inability to have real connection to facilitate false ones on stage, etc. The most cinematic of these is Riggan’s struggle with his desires. The moments of his inner conflict teeter back and forth between reality and delusion (or maybe it’s realty and metaphor). This send up of celebrity warns again obsessiveness to anything, even goals that seem too important to let go.
The film’s ending is a convergence of all the previous elements in the film. Nearly every note, whether touching or insane, is looked at and pieced together to dig deeper into what is going wrong in Riggan and everyone’s mind. The film purges on to the screen human nature and the lengths it will go to satisfy itself. The film ends on a beatific image, one that challenges the supposed truths the audience has been presented. Do we accept the ending as a continuation of the delusions brought on by struggle? Or as sequence symbolic of being freed from the burden and being seen as who one thought they were? I’d like to believe that the ending embracing both sides of these worlds to find understand the turmoil of obsessiveness and the pain it cause. I’d like to think that, so I guess I’ll remain virtuously ignorant.