Saturday, January 10, 2015

How Birdman Ruined Movies for Me

If you have read more than three posts on She Wears Red Shoes or known me longer than a week, you know that I love movies. I don't just like them a lot, I loooooove them. For years, I have enjoyed watching movies and mentally cataloging my favorites, my not-so favorites, and my don't-make-me-watch-it-again list. With the opening of award season beginning this weekend (Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild, and Academy Awards), the preceding months of "award buzz" has fluttered around an unusual flick entitled Birdman, starring Michael Keaton.

You know, the Michael Keaton of Mr. Mom, Batman, and Beetlejuice fame. Yeah, that one.

Any casual watcher of Keaton would likely be perplexed at the potential for an Oscar nomination for the same man who played a dead guy in a bad suit in Beetlejuice. Then again, the casual watcher of Keaton would likely have missed his stellar performances in Clean and Sober, My Life, and (my favorite) The Merry Gentleman. If you ever saw one of those films, then you saw the incredibly nuanced acting chops of this guy. 

When news of this new movie Birdman swirled around last year, I was intrigued at the premise as well as drawn by the not-seen-enough and highly-underrated Keaton. It immediately went on my list of movies to see. Keaton also spends an inordinate amount of time in his underwear in this film, making me wonder if he will thank Fruit of the Loom in any anticipated acceptance speech.

The film follows Riggan Thompson (Keaton), an actor whose claim to fame was a superhero movie franchise some 20 years
prior. Now, Riggan is a somewhat forgotten actor struggling to restart his career with an ambitious adaptation of a Broadway play. Nothing is going well with preparations for the play -- or in his life -- and in the midst of this debacle of a production, Thompson is trying to hide his full-tilt mental breakdown. A likable character, Riggan and the cast open the first night with a surprisingly spectacular performance. It's surprising because Riggan gives the performance of a lifetime and has a shot at reviving his career. 

The project gave Keaton a place to not only prove his dramatic abilities but also to feature his incredibly honed comedic timing in this dark comedy, the combination of the two ignites into a firestorm of a performance. The supporting cast is not to be unmentioned with Edward Norton playing a wonderfully self-obsessed stage actor who is a thorn in Riggan's side, Emma Stone playing the bitter and angry daughter, and Amy Ryan as Riggan's understanding but all-too-aware ex-wife. The cast alone is a worthy combination, which also includes Naomi Watts and Zach Galifianakis, but the manner in which director Alejandro González Iñárritu shot the film to appear as if it were one long take is just plain beautiful. One scene flows to the next but the artistry of the shot never overshadows the actors or the story. 

And what a story it is.

The viewer experiences the story from the point of view of Riggan, but in a twist, it is from the view of Riggan while he is having his mental breakdown. We see things that cannot be real, but to Riggan, they are. We cannot imagine being followed by a giant bird-like superhero down the street, but in Riggan's mind, that alter-ego is quite real and insurmountably gripping. Yet, with all his faults, we can't help but like Riggan for we see through the flawed and delusional shell occasionally and get a peak at a fragile man throwing everything on the line toward the hope of a career resurgence. Some part of Riggan's struggle will resonate with the viewer. Who of us has not felt irrelevant at one time or another? 

Birdman was one of the best movies I have ever seen as well as one of the most painful to watch. It drew me up into its whirlwind of a story then let go, leaving me grasping for an emotional hold while I fell for a bit. Then it swooped in to grab hold of me again, allowing me a sense of comfort for a few moments, until it let go again, leaving me emotionally floating, unsure of where I would land. This constant lift and drop, push and pull, kept me locked into the story, determined and curious where it would lead me. 

Where did it lead? Well, we're not sure. The end is open to interpretation, which is one of my favorite parts of the movie -- it's ability to allow the viewer to drive the story based how the viewer experienced it. It doesn't tell you everything; it let's you fill in some of the blanks. 

After my initial viewing of the film, I was struck silent for several hours. I just could not get Riggan out of my head. I saw a matinee show and do not remember being able to speak -- or wanting to speak -- until that evening. I simply remained in quiet contemplation of every part of the movie's unfolding. I was so struck that I saw the film again the following weekend and was also rendered silent by that viewing. The second viewing allowed me to see more of the subtleties, uncover more of the sub-stories, and reinterpret some of the dialog. It was a slightly different movie the second time around, but one I still could not get out of my head.

Since then, each movie I have watched has paled in comparison, which is a strange phrasing since there really is no comparison for Birdman. Movies I had looked forward to seeing and equally praised by critics (Wild, The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game) all came up short for me because of one reason: Birdman. The cinematic accomplishment and emotional adventure that is Birdman effectively ruined me for any other movie. 

Welcome to my new normal of movie watching. Nothing will ever be quite the same. Good movies will still be made, but it would have to be an unbelievably remarkable flick to knock Birdman from its mooring. That is, for me, since this movie is not for everyone. This movie is for the hard-core movie person, not the casual watcher, not one who needs the story to be completely told on screen. This movie will not be as popular as the blockbusters of our day, nor will it be enjoyed by masses who will buy billions of dollars of merchandising for it. There will be no sequel. There will be no want of Halloween costumes depicting Riggan Thompson. There will be no parodies on late night variety shows. 

There will just be Birdman, on its own, away from the pack, quietly sitting in the corner, waiting to tell its story. Waiting for another viewer. Waiting to draw one more into its story and never really let them go. 

Birdman International Trailer (strong language)

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  1. You can definitely add "Movie Reviewer" to your long list of talents. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. Thank you Rita, I'm so curious to see it now. It sounds like it would lend itself very well to school/college/university film analyses class and some very interesting assignment papers as a result. Just out of interest... have you seen The Secret Life of Walter Mitty? If so, I would love to here what you thought.

    1. Birdman would definitely lend itself to classroom analysis. There are so many subtleties, many of which I am sure I am as yet unaware. As for the Secret Life of Walter Mitty, I thoroughly enjoyed this one as well, liking it so much that I bought the DVD when available. This is rather special because I do not like to own too many DVDs with them taking up space and having a tendency toward clutter.

      Secret Life is the only movie where I audibly gasped in the theater at the last scene (I'm normally very quiet in the theater). It's one of those movies that lifts me up when I watch it, making me want to conquer a fear or just boldly do something I have wanted for a while. I truly believe that a viewer receives a movie, and it's story, based on what is happening in the viewer's life at the time, making some viewer's like one film while another dislikes the same one. Right place, right time theory. We hear the messages we need to hear.

      Often one line or scene will make the movie for me. Sean Penn delivers a line in Secret Life saying, "True beauty does not ask for attention." Sometimes the best things in life go unnoticed by others but that does not mean they are not the best things in life.

      If you get a chance, check out The Way with Martin Sheen. It's an independent film that did not get a lot of time in the theater, but is such a good story.

  2. Ahh yes I remember that line from Sean Penn well - when they were huddled together on the snowy mountain. I think it came moments after I recovered from my giggle of his other line, "that hurts" in response to Walter's blunt admission to tossing out the wallet (and contents). Secret Life threw me around like that the whole way through... humorous one minute, deeply profound the next - I enjoyed it so much - it had such a surprising impact on me. I'm in full agreement on the right place, right time theory. I haven't got the DVD copy but I think I'd like to look out for it and I would go as far as to place it in my personal elite "top 5"!!! That's a very big call but, yes, I believe that's where I put it. That last scene... my goodness... it my made jaw drop and it is because of that, that I regard it so highly.

    Thanks for the recommendation on The Way. I'm looking forward to checking both that one and Birdman out, plus Wild. Tuck refuses to waste his time on any standard blockbusters (I tend to agree) and it is not often we watch movies so these three make a great list of quality viewing for the start of this year.


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