Oh, lord, not another new year? Another one? Will the line stretch on to the crack of doom? (...you know, I think that it will, by definition.) Oh well, time to lay aside the bloated seasonal blockbusters and engage in the usual cinematic detox, although hopefully this year's serious and worthy awards-trawling films will be a bit less utterly depressing than the crop twelve months ago. Now, more than at any other point in the calendar, we are invited to ask ourselves what constitutes a good film, genuine talent, worthwhile art.
Which makes it a good time for Alejando Gonzalez Inarritu's Birdman to be released, not least because this is a film which seems to be asking those same questions. Very little about this movie is straightforward, but the plot seems pretty easy to grasp, at least initially: Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, an actor struggling for artistic credibility, but overshadowed by a stint playing a superhero in Hollywood back in the 90s. Now he is attempting to stage a Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver story he has written, directed, and is starring in himself – to make the situation even more emotionally charged, also involved in the production are his girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough) and daughter (Emma Stone). However, when the production loses an actor, he takes on brilliant but wildly unpredictable method performer Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) – partly at the suggestion of Shiner’s girlfriend (Naomi Watts) – not quite aware of what he is letting himself in for. As the pressure mounts, Thomson finds the voice of his super-powered alter-ego haunting him – but is he going mad, or is the world itself collapsing into chaos?
Birdman appears to suggest there is no meaningful distinction to be made here, which is surely key to making a film which often seems to be on the verge of losing it itself. It's a movie which demands the viewer to engage with it and think about its ideas, because offers very few cut and dried answers, and in places seems intentional ambiguous. It's pretty clear that at least some of the film is taking place entirely in Riggan's head, but identifying what is real and what is fantasy is a challenge.
In the same way, the film itself blends fantasy and reality, at least for anyone aware of recent cinema history. Riggan Thomson, a man who reluctantly finds his career defined by a series of superhero movies he made over twenty years ago, is played by Michael Keaton, best known for his stints in Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992). Mike Shiner, a brilliant actor but a nightmare to work with, is played by Edward Norton, whose unique approach to collaborating did not exactly earn the gratitude of his colleagues on either American History X or The Incredible Hulk.
The presence in the cast of one-time avatars of Batman and the Hulk, not to mention Gwen Stacy and Tank Girl, has led some critics to suggest that Birdman is primarily a scathing attack on Hollywood's current fixation on making superhero movies by the dozen, instead of ‘real’ films. Certainly an early scene where Riggan tries to hire Michael Fassbender and Jeremy Renner for the play, only to discover they are too busy making new X-Men and Avengers films respectively, seems to support this, along with a moment in which Robert Downey Jr is casually mocked for making the Iron Man series.
I'm not saying there isn't an element of this in the film, but I don't think the films argument is as simplistic as mainstream art = stupid and pointless / highbrow art = worthwhile and important. For one thing, this isn't exactly a glowing portrait of the theatrical world, either, and especially not critics. This dubious profession is represented by Lindsay Duncan, who portrays a critic out of any director's nightmare: untroubled by the need to actually watch a play before reviewing it, she decides which productions to support or destroy based solely on her own entrenched prejudices. Not content with presenting actors as unstable basket cases and critics as vicious harpies, Inarritu goes for the hat trick by having a go at the audience too: at one point the film briefly breaks into a Marvel-style CGI battle sequence, during which Thomson's Birdman alter-ego glares contemptuously out of the screen snarling 'Look at them – this is really what they want to see...'
It seems to me that Inarritu has managed the neat trick of making a film which functions as a sort of distorting mirror, which basically feeds back to you whatever strange prejudices you happen to turn up with – if you turn up with an axe to grind against mainstream superhero movies (which are, let's not forget, often superbly entertaining and technically immaculate pieces of film-making), then you can plausibly interpret Birdman as supporting you. If, on the other hand, you just think theatre actors are all just weird and experimental theatre is a pretentious waste of time, you will probably find Birdman backing you up here too.
If this is the case, then it's a film which asks questions – what is the difference between 'good' and 'bad' art? Is one particular motivation for making art superior to the others? – without presenting any definitive answers. But, fortunately, the film is more than inventive and entertaining enough to make up for this. The film establishes its warped and restless mood through the conceit of seeming to be made in an almost unbroken single two-hour take, and this is achieved in a technically brilliant way (even if some of the transition points are perhaps not quite as invisible as others). But beyond this it is simply very funny, functioning as a bizarre black farce about the fragile minds and egos of actors. There is some winningly scabrous dialogue ('I wish I had more self-respect' 'You're an actress') and the performances are uniformly very strong.
I laughed a lot all the way through Birdman, even as I was trying to work out what the film was actually about or trying to say. It touches on a number of semi-serious topics, but manages to do so without feeling heavy or overly pretentious – although I admit it's a near thing on this last point – and is consistently witty and engaging throughout. Perhaps the satire is just a tad too dark and vicious for this to be the kind of film that does very well when the actual awards start being handed out, but it's still a hugely promising film to start the year with.