(Warning: Inarritu's latest discussed in detail, with plot twists and surprises mentioned and perhaps picked apart. In other words, if you haven't seen the film--watch it first!)
In an interview I did of the late filmmaker Mario O'Hara I asked what foreign films he's seen, and he mentioned Citizen Kane.
"What did you think?"
"It's so radio!"
He was right, of course. Welles introduced the radio sound to cinema: the aural effects that evoke atmosphere and spatial depth (hushed voices, reverberations), the musical and verbal transitions running into the next scene, accelerating narrative pace.
Had a similar reaction watching Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance): after ten minutes I wanted to stand up and yell "it's so theater!"
It is. The picture has been compared to Alexander Sokurov's The Russian Ark, only that film was an honest attempt at capturing Russia's long and complex cultural history in a single hundred-minute shot (Sokurov had the time and budget for at most three takes, and was able to use only the last one); Inarritu's is more like Hitchcock's Rope, a series of takes invisibly (nowadays digitally) joined to give the impression of seamlessness.
The long handheld take liberates the actors--allows them to shape their performances; to freely respond to their fellow actors; to move at their own pace from location to location (and hence from scene to scene); to improvise as they wish. It's the kind of feat Robert Altman might have viewed with envy, if he had lasted long enough (he did manage to digitally add a magic-realist ending to Dr. T and the Women), the kind Altman protege Paul Thomas Anderson often strove to achieve in his own films (Boogie Nights, Magnolia), albeit on 35 mm celluloid.
Inarritu shows some familiarity with the theater stage--when actor-producer-director Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) delivers his monologue, he moves past the camera to confront the audience, half his face glancing back at his co-actors, the other half constantly facing the audience in classic stage blocking style; later a gun with live bullets is introduced onstage, and despite the (very understandable) panic it inspires, you can see the actors struggle to remain in character, to project their voices and keep their faces visible (If I die I die, but god forbid I bore my audience--or worse, turn my face away!).
Then there's the intrigues, the jealousies, the power-plays, the affairs, though nowhere near the level of sex I remember (Filipinos--even Filipino theater folk--seem considerably more uptight (you can't imagine the scandal a locked dressing-room door inspires); still the sense of heat and hormones simmering in an enclosed warrenlike space is there).
Edward Norton's Mike Shiner is the film's John Barrymore / Oscar Jaffe figure, and while Norton doesn't have Barrymore's grand manner he does function as the film's irrepressible id. Scene that involves drinking? Put real gin in the bottle. Bedroom farce lacks sizzle? Attempt real sex (doesn't happen, but Shiner's efforts are so aggressive the scene becomes intensely uncomfortable). Sooner or later of course Riggan takes Shiner's life lessons--keep your acting real--to heart, and his performance to a whole other level of realism.
The film stumbles with the introduction of its New York Times drama critic. For some reason it's difficult to expect an appropriate or even reasonable portrait of critics from filmmakers (the thin skin I suppose), but Inarritu's Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan) feels especially silly for several reasons: 1) Film and theater are more incestuous than ever, with plays adapted to the big screen and vice-versa, and you'd think critics would have accepted the fact by now; 2) Hollywood folk command more name recognition than Broadway folk (if not necessarily more respect), and Dickinson would probably do better to fawn over Riggan than the other way around.
And 3) a pre-meditated putdown--really, is that the best Dickinson can do? Granted artists of stage and screen assume all critics are evil scum-sucking leeches, they could at least give us credit for being brilliantly witty, insidiously evil leeches, my gold standard being Addison DeWitt (George Sanders), the legendarily louche columnist in Joseph Mankiewicz's All About Eve. "I am Addison DeWitt. I am nobody's fool, least of all yours," he warns Eve (Anne Baxter); if Dickinson was worthy of the title she'd seduce Shiner (perhaps already has) and Riggan both, maybe taken control of the production.
The film doesn't quite recover. Yes, Riggan attempts suicide--that's almost de rigueur for the genre--but one serious effort should have been enough. Roy Scheider's Joe Gideon in Bob Fosse's All That Jazz mounted musical number after musical number in an attempt to create the perfect death scene--in the end, dying only once. He was careful not to wear out his welcome.
Talking diminishing returns, how bout all the levitating? Fellini floated Guido in the opening of 8 1/2, and the result was nightmarishly irrational; Tarkovsky raised Alexander and Maria a few feet above their bed in The Sacrifice, and the screen radiated sensuality; Celso Ad. Castillo sent Sunshine Cruz arcing across the sky in Lihim ni Madonna, and suddenly all things seem possible. Levitation used chastely can be startling, powerful; levitate up and down the streets of Manhattan and you wonder how long the batteries will last.
I suggested Altman might've been jealous of Inarritu's long takes. In Come to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, Altman has the camera diving in and out of a mirror (actually a pane of glass), the change in lighting suggesting shifts in time and memory; in Secret Honor he has Richard Nixon ranting in his New Jersey study, a bank of surveillance cameras acting as mute witnesses to his paranoia; he sets the action in The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial in a basketball court, a metaphor for the games the lawyer must play to defend his apparently guilty client. Altman might or might not feel jealous, but he performed miracles with the simplest of theatrical tricks, and nary a pixel in sight.
There's Fosse's All That Jazz: Broadway and an irrepressible death fixation, set to classic pop tunes and Fosse's incomparable filmmaking and choreography--basically Fellini's 8 1/2, choreographed to music.
And then there's Eve. Which is funnier, even sixty-plus years later; which has a more uniformly brilliant cast; which--using a visual style that evokes a stage play (the camera presenting stage realism but (as with the dialogue) subtly sharpened and stylized, to point up the wit and drama)--displays more passion, more malevolence, more sheer throbbing life in any ten of its minutes than all of Inarritu's picture--all Inarritu's filmography, for that matter. Is Birdman the best-ever film about the theater? Best of recent years, I suppose; otherwise I wouldn't know. And I still think Inarritu could've done better without all the digital effects.
First published in Businessworld, 1.29.15