A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2014)

So, on a repeat viewing, does Birdman hold up as the triumph of style, technique, and performance that won it a best picture Oscar, or is it seriously undermined by pretentiousness and banality? That it is undermined I can't deny, just as I can't deny that the style of Kevin Thompson's production design and Antonio Sanchez's drum score are fresh and powerful, that the technical wizardry of Emmanuel Lubezki's cinematography and the film editing of Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione provide a seamless flow that appears to be one long tracking shot through most of the film, and that Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, and Emma Stone give career-landmark performances. But I also have to say that I don't think the movie adds up to enough. As Richard Brody observed in his New Yorker review, Iñárritu even courts comparison to Jean-Luc Godard in the opening titles of his film -- a disastrous comparison to my mind, because whatever his faults, Godard was always going against the grain of conservative politics and social attitudes. Iñárritu is attempting a satire on the power of popular culture and celebrity to foul up even the best-intentioned attempts at doing something different. The problem is that his protagonist, Riggan Thomson (Keaton), is doing little more than trying to change his public image. He's known as a pop-culture hero from his hit Birdman movies, but like every clown who wants to play Hamlet, he's trying to make a Broadway debut in a deadly serious play he has crafted from a Raymond Carver short story. Naturally, he is plagued with insecurity, and nothing that his family, his crew, his fellow actors, or the busily buzzing entertainment media can break him free of it. There is a good human story here, but Iñárritu and his fellow screenwriters, Nicolás Giacabone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo, can't be content to just tell it. Instead, it has to be tarted up with touches of magic realism (the first time we see Riggan he is in his underpants, levitating in his dressing room), and by the unstated fact that Iñárritu has cast as the former Birdman a former Batman. We are in the realm of that tiresome trope, the relationship between illusion and reality, and the screenwriters can't help hammering on the point. Riggan has a sign on his dressing room mirror that says, "A thing is a thing, not what is said about that thing." And Mike insists that he has to drink real gin during the rehearsals because Raymond Carver was a drunk and everything else on the set is fake. He even tells Riggan's daughter (Stone) that the only time he is real is when he's onstage. The satire tends toward banality when the film takes as its target the omnipotent critic for the New York Times, who is determined, even before she sees the play, to destroy it because she resents a movie star like Riggan invading the sacred temple of the theater. So does the technical finesse of the film make up for these flaws? Only if you're willing to shut off some key parts of your intellect, which is something Godard would never ask you to do.

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