Saw Birdman with my son Sam last night, and it really is as extraordinary as they say. Every character, however small, is well delineated and has at least one great scene; Emma Stone is particularly brilliant, as so often.
But from a film buff’s point of view, the most exciting and head-scratching element is that it appears to be shot in one continuous 90-minute take, without a single cut. Ever since Orson Welles pulled off a wonderfully complex 3 min 20 sec tracking shot as the opening to Touch of Evil, directors have vied to outdo him. Gravity raised the bar last year, with Cuarón’s 17-minute opening shot made possible by digital technology. His fellow Mexican Iñárritu has now forever smashed that record with an entire film’s length. (Admittedly Russian Ark got there first, in 2002, but Birdman is filmed in a far more fluid and dynamic style.)
Fiendishly complex as it was to pull off, it is of course a digital trick, with the cuts hidden in digitally blended scenes when the camera pans to one side without a person in view. But beyond a “look ma, no hands!” desire to show off what can be done, why did Iñárritu decide to do this?
My son, who is perceptive when it comes to films, pointed out that Iñárritu’s trademark is the interlocking multiple narrative which was first displayed in Amores Perros, was developed in 21 Grams, and reached its apotheosis in Babel, which is set in four different countries in four different languages. Birdman’s single continuous take goes to the opposite extreme. Perhaps Iñárritu just wanted to do something different. He told Variety, ““It was like I was on a ladder, and I was getting a little too comfortable.”
But what is the technique’s impact on the film, its effect on the viewer? I noticed a weird thing. We are so used to the grammar of film, the cuts between characters and the sudden shifts in time and location, that they are no longer intrusive. In fact, to me, the definition of a great film is one where I lose myself within it completely, where I am no longer aware that I am watching a film but inhabit it completely, and 15 minutes or more can pass before I blink and remember that I am in a cinema at all. That’s why I always sit up close, in the third row, so I cannot see the edges of the screen.
So the long take in Birdman, which you would expect to feel more naturalistic than constant cuts, to me has the opposite effect. It is stylised, it reminds you continually of the artifice of film. The performances, as befits a comedy that is not quite a comedy, are somewhat stylised, too.
And this perfectly suits the theme of the film. On one level it is the story of a mid-life crisis, of a man who is famous for doing something he does not value (grossing billions of dollars 20 years previously in a superhero franchise) trying to achieve self-worth through putting on a “serious” play based on a story by Raymond Carver.
But it is also about the power of dreams, and the nature of truth, and the thin line between reality and fantasy, and how each can inform the other. That the superhero its protagonist used to play is Birdman, whose superpower is flight, is no accident. Nor is it that Iñárritu has cast in this role an actor, Michael Keaton, who himself is burdened with the fame of playing a superhero – Batman – in a blockbuster franchise. That Keaton is putting on a play within the film allows Iñárritu to explore notions of truth and artifice: Edward Norton’s character is a charming and manipulative bastard who can only “be real” when he is acting, on stage. He even tries to have sex with his girlfriend for real in the play’s bed scene, because it is only on stage, in character, that he has managed to get it up in the last six months.
When Keaton stands on a roof ledge, increasingly drawn into his schizophrenic fantasy that he really is Birdman, a woman shouts out: “Is this for real, or are you shooting a film?” “A film!” he says. “You people are full of shit,” she shouts back. His Birdman alter-ego, who whispers in his ear, tells him to make another blockbuster: “People, they love blood. They love action. Not this talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit.” Which, of course, is the kind of film Iñárritu has just made, though smuggled into the multiplexes under the guise of a film about a superannuated superhero, including a gigantic fantasy scene three quarters of the way through of SWAT teams and exploding helicopters and a giant robot bird-villain so it can have its cake and eat it: criticising blockbusters while at the same time benefiting from the action scene’s trailer value.
The result is an intensively artificial film which, through artifice, gets closer to exploring truth and the nature of reality than perhaps any this year. Birdman is also funny, and touching, and something of a masterpiece. Go see.