|Michael Keaton and Edward Norton in Birdman|
I saw Ed Norton speak about Birdman the day before I was due to see it at New York Film Festival with its cast, and he said “film schools will be talking about and dissecting this film for years to come”, and he is absolutely right. The entire film is one take, or rather, it is the illusion of one take. Without a single cut the film covers the rehearsal period and opening night of the production, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love that Keaton’s character is attempting to put on. If you look very closely, you can perhaps see where the camera lines up between each scene, but even so the film is largely seamless. You have to give him props for trying something so original and never-before-seen in one hundred years of cinematic history. The score is equally unrelenting: a non-stop, eccentric, jazzy drum beat, which maximizes the film’s almost clausterphobic backstage setting, creating an immersive and slightly stressful tone—which definitely works
Despite the psychological depth in the unconventional cinematic techniques of the film, the plot itself is chronological and completely comprehendible. You might let out a “huh?!”or a “what!” every now and then but never a “why am I here?”. The protagonist’s descent into madness runs through the DNA of the film–in every transition, angle, and close-up. And in here lies the essence of the movie: that with fame and success comes a series of breakdowns and crippling insecurities that shatter the Hollywood image we have come to love. It shows us a world beyond the movies and the cameras and the lights—or rather behind the curtain—where the actors are ripped from their pedestals and held to public ridicule. Inevitably it all falls apart, and they are stuck with the same problems we all have. Not to sound like a frat-boy, but the word ‘meta’ springs to mind.
Yet there is something that still doesn’t quite add up for Birdman. While it has everything a moviegoer like myself could wish for–spellbinding performances, intense, psychological filmmaking, innovative story–it still doesn’t quite leave you speechless. Perhaps it’s the elements of realism in the film, where the problems of marital breakdown, drug addiction, terror of being considered obsolete are all lain out with absolute honesty that it is sometimes hard to watch. [SPOILER ALERT] Or maybe it is the ending. With so much building to the final performance, it seems a shame when the director breaks his pattern and has his first cut in the film. This is where the problem lies: we are shown a world so close to ours, and therefore so capable of touching us in our very souls that once it is suddenly all mended and Keaton can literally fly away in the end we are left deflated and unsatisfied. This is not what we signed up for–not what we connected to for an hour and a half. It’s too easy, and too Hollywood. So while Iñárritu might have changed the game, he certainly leaves the player unchanged.