Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)



(The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)




It’s my own fault, really:  when I saw that many Oscars being waved in its direction I should have guessed that Birdman was going to turn out to be a self-important load of old monkey-spunk; but for heaven’s sake don’t tell the critics that.

In the mid- to late-seventies, around the time that I was discovering just what exactly cinema was capable of achieving, I also had my first real experience of the theatre.  Eventually I was catching the train from Ayr to Glasgow once a week, to take in a mainstream movie in the afternoon, followed by a trip to the Glasgow Film Club in the evening.  I was a pretty solitary young fella and they were happy days.

One evening I varied my routine and went instead to see a play, an adaptation of a book by the then-popular (certainly with my dad) pulp crime writer, James Hadley Chase.  It was called No Orchids for Miss Blandish and it just knocked me out.

At the end of the play, the private eye character stood alone on the stage, reflecting through a monologue on what he had seen. And as he finished talking he scraped a match against his shoe, lit a cigarette and stood there smoking as the theatre went gradually dark and the curtain came down, leaving this young bloke in the audience thinking that he had learned something profound about the human condition…or something.

I loved it so much that I went back the next week.  And at the end of that closing monologue the actor bent down with his match, scraped it against his shoe – and it broke.  He stood there as the lights went down, broken match in hand and said:  “And you can’t even get a decent match anymore”.

If you hadn’t been there previously you wouldn’t have known it was supposed to be any different; and you still felt that you had learned something about the human condition…or something.  This sense of immediacy – this ‘here and now’ – was what seemed to be part of the difference between cinema and theatre; but both seemed to me to be valid and I never took one art-form over the other in the years that followed.

This came back to me last night as I watched director Alejandro G.  Iñánder’s hugely praised Birdman.  In what might have been reasonably entertaining as a fifty-minute piece, here we look at some of the differences in how cinema and theatre are measured, with supposedly cinema coming up wanting, or something that is ‘mere’ entertainment for the masses.

[As an aside, it took two years and four screenwriters to produce this ‘masterpiece’.  The above mentioned James Hadley Chase, who could turn out two or three hugely entertaining novels a year must be Up There giving his head a wry shake.  Come to think of it, so must Shakespeare.]

The basic idea of course sounded great:  a slightly over-the-hill actor called Riggan Thompson is trying to make a comeback through a play that he has adapted from a Raymond Carver short story and is also acting and directing it.  Years before, he had been famous for his portrayal of the iconic costumed hero, Birdman; but had walked away from the franchise in 1992.

Of course the nice touch here is that Riggan is played by Michel Keaton, a slightly over-the-hill actor who once played an iconic costumed hero called Batman and who walked away from the franchise in 1992.

On paper this sounded to me as if it would be hugely entertaining; but that was before I had suffered through Thompson and every other character’s emotional angst (yes, it’s the kind of film that makes you write ‘angst’).

No cliché is left unturned as Iñánder presents us with Lesley (Naomi Watts), who is fulfilling her dream by appearing on Broadway for the first time; Samantha (Emma Stone), who is –what else—a recovering addict; Mike, a method actor who is –again, what else — volatile and aggressive, played by Edward Norton.

And all of these are fine actors. I just can’t understand why they thought this script was worth their time.  With its gimmicks (everything in apparently one take; the hallucinations) it has to be one of the most ‘look-at-how-clever-I-am’ movies I’ve seen since…oh, maybe The Grand Budapest Hotel, which it manages to make look like the height of entertainment.

It is rescued slightly for me by the appearance of Lindsay Duncan, a beautiful and talented actress who we don’t see enough of on screen.  Of course, her character Tabitha is –what else—an embittered stage critic who really resents uppity cinema stars taking up theatre space and during the film’s best scene, I got the idea that this real stage actress was enjoying her speech.  Of Riggan’s play, she tells him:

“I haven’t read a word of it or even been at the preview; but after the opening tomorrow I’m going to turn in the worst review anyone has ever read. I am going to destroy it.  Because I hate you and everyone you represent:  entitled, selfish, spoiled children blissfully untrained and unversed, handing each other awards for cartoons and pornography.”

Heh.  God, that makes me laugh. I wonder if the Academy of Luvvies thought that they would let us see that they were in on the joke; or did they just not get it?

Yet this speech epitomizes everything I dislike about Birdman.  It is a case of the film makers trying to have their cake and eat it:  disparaging cinematic entertainment on the surface; mocking the pretensions of theatre on the surface.  Yet never going deeper than the gimmicks and clichés.

It really burns me up that critics who have long ago disappeared up their own asses will laud an empty piece of work like Birdman whilst completely ignoring a masterpiece like Predestination which at the very least should have seen a nomination for Best Actress with Sandra Snook.

Then again, why wouldn’t Predestination get ignored?  After all, it’s thought provoking and brilliantly acted but it’s also science fiction.  Birdman, on the other hand, is Art.





Author: Charley Brady

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