Monday, March 9, 2015

Birdman

I DON'T GET IT.



I should say right off the bat that I really do appreciate films that attempt to make statement greater than what their stories are about. Birdman is a film trying to make a statement about...something, and no matter what, I'm glad it at least gave it a shot.

On the flip side of that, I hate anything in any work of art that doesn't add anything to the sum of its parts. I hate scenes that have nothing to do with the plot, characters that could be cut without losing anything, lines that don't have any necessity to them...all of that. A good movie is a tight movie. I especially hate it when directors or writers add shit specifically to be obtuse or weird. Look at this reindeer tap dancing. Isn't that shit raaaaandom?

Birdman comes in at the intersection of these two feelings I have. On the one hand, I get the feeling that the movie is about the nature of art versus the nature of entertainment. On the other hand, whatever point it wishes to make about art, the Theater, modern-day popularity, and entertainment were all totally lost on me.

That's not to say that the movie is not understandable, but just maybe it was not understandable to me. I...generally feel that I'm...somewhat qualified to talk about movies, but this is a pretty complex story here, working on several different layers. The plot, as general as I can make it, is about a washed-up actor who is adapting a short story to the stage. So, the first layer to this movie is the short story itself, which vaguely mirrors certain characteristics about the plot and the characters in the film. (If you want to get technical, I would add that there's actually two layers here -- the short story and the adaption of the short story for the stage. This requires the audience member to have read the original story at some point in time though to draw connections and -- more importantly -- see the differences between the stage performance and the story itself, BUT to keep things simple, we'll say it's just one layer.) The second layer are the actors in the play, two of which are very popular and thus have public personas as well as private lines. Finally, the actual, real-life actors and director of the film also add to the narrative. The main character is a washed-up actor known mainly for playing a superhero, struggling to work alongside an intense, rude method-actor while writing, directing and starring in his play. This movie stars an actor who is most well-known for playing Batman, an actor known for being hard to work with, and was written, directed and produced by the same person. I try hard to separate a creator's work from his or her personality or private history, but in this case, it seems that the choices made in terms of casting and aspects of the script could not have been an accident. There is even a point in the film where the main character comments that the last time he played the character of Birdman was 1992...which just so happens to be last time Michael Keaton was in a Batman movie.

I definitely enjoy all these layers and double entendres in the film, but it makes it astoundingly hard to dissect, while at the same time begging the audience to do so. The man character, Riggan, wants to make a grand gesture of art in the form of this play. Of course, being our protagonist, you're inclined to root along with him, to see the play succeed. As the film goes on, however, it begins to become apparent that Riggan is not in it for the "art" of the thing, but just to stroke his own ego, and convince himself that he's an actor. AS THE FILM GOES ON HOWEVER, you see just how much of himself he's been putting into this work. It is slowly bankrupting him and eating away at his sanity. The movie wants you to draw some sort of conclusion about whether Riggan can succeed and if he even should succeed, but it bounces around so much that I'm still not sure if I was supposed to hope the play failed and he went back to the family he neglected, or if I wanted the play to be a huge success so Riggan could be popular again.

Then, there's the issue of what "Real Art" is supposed to be. A good 90% of the film is spent deriding popular media, like superhero movies, and the vapidness therein. It's not an undeserved piece of criticism. However, this little theater, with its stage adaption of a famous short story, which is supposed to be "Real Art" is filled with just as many phonies. It has a character acting out of his own ego, a character lying to the media to boost his celebrity, a character faking (?) a pregnancy, and a stage critic who, sight unseen, announces that she will write a bad review of the play, simply because Riggan used to do Hollywood movies. It's a very depressing, and highly, highly cynical view of pretty much all art.

And then, Twitter enters the mix. At the start of the film, Riggan is actively avoiding any kind of media presence -- he has no twitter, facebook, myspace or anything. His drugged-out daughter calls him stupid for being this way, but because she's not seen as being the voice of reason, we're at first led to believe that this is the right way to behave. Without giving away the exact end of the film, I would argue that this position is ambiguously reversed.

At this exact moment

All that being said, as a viewer and a guy who sometimes writes about movies online, I should find my own conclusions in the debates this movie starts. Here goes:

Whether something is popular or not is not bad or good so much as it is irrelevant. What matter is how real the experience of it is. Art is typically made for money, by ego-driven attention whores. There is also no art more "legitimate" than the rest. However, art can transcend the creator. That is to say, a good piece of art should be better than the person making it. In this particular film, Riggan is also a pretty crappy guy, making this play for crappy reasons, surrounded by people of greater or equal amounts of crappiness relative to his own. However, he ends up creating a real piece of art, and that's the victory. His own life is insignificant in the face of it.
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