Is Birdman Pretending?
Saturday, January 10, 2015 at 11:10AM
Elena Taurke in Clown, Culture, PsychoZen Meets Life, Zen

Even before I saw Birdman, a Facebook debate captured my attention.   One avid intellectual questioned why another would call a movie pretentious if it aspires to be arty rather than sensational.  My first attempt to see it was foiled by a sold-out house, but finally I managed to score a seat.  Already by the opening sequence--so beautiful and evocative--I felt little bubbles of happiness, and then the sight of Michael Keaton's naked back, levitating while meditating, was strangely moving.  

Actually the whole movie was strangely moving, a jazzy percussive score interacting with what looked to be one long moving shot.  The camera zooms around, down the corridors of a theatre in rehearsal, encountering doorways that open into intrigue and conflict, alighting on this duo or that, surprising slumbering technicians here and there.  The plot is simple: a celebrity tries to make a serious play but stuff gets in the way.  At the center is a violent self-debate, enacted by an ongoing conversation between Keaton the serious actor and Keaton the superhero.  Finally, something happens, and he does or doesn't transcend.  Along the way, we are treated to hilarious send-ups of our wacky culture: celebrity, theatrical truthiness, social media, and male dominance.  I just loved it!  It wasn't like anything I'd seen before, which in and of itself is a deep pleasure at my age.

So, I was getting ready to recommend it widely when I heard that a poet of my acquaintance not only wrote it off as pretentious, but when his son, a musician, loved it and wanted to see it again, the poet encouraged him, declaring: "when you see it again, it will be obvious how pretentious it is."  Really?  Off I went to see it again, asking myself what, exactly, it was pretending and failing to be.

Then I read reviews.  Here's a flavor:

"I'm dreading having to hear every would-be intellectual with a framed photo of their High School drama club explaining what a profound statement it is on whichever of its thuddingly on-the-nose longform observations….It's a fairly lightweight premise (has-been movie star arguing with the "ghost" of his most famous role? That's not arthouse -- that's a sitcom!) dressed up for the Grownup's Table with a pocketful of pat observations ("Hollywood is tacky!" "Broadway is pretentious!" "Critics are failed wannabe creatives!") but swaggers around like it's got Cloud Atlas-sized balls and near-total self-awareness."

Uh, so it's a sitcom, not an arthouse movie?  And if we treasured our good times in drama club, then we're not fit for true profundity.   Oh, and we're not Grownups.  Yes, maybe so.  I like sitcoms and I prefer my knowledge nuggets bitesize.  

Here's more:

"González Iñárritu has largely placed regurgitated ideas into the mouths of gifted actors, then dropped them amid a kooky story...a self-reflective work about a self-deluded impresario that doesn't have the empathy or uniqueness of character to feel like a fleshed-out portrait…."  

See, I thought all those "regurgitated ideas" were meant to be just that, a play on the silly ways we try to understand, not an expression of wisdom.   Did critics think the filmmaker is pretending to be wise?    

Mind you, most critics loved it, especially the astounding technical camera work, but even the favorable reviews made mention of pretension, as in "its pretentious parenthetical subtitle," or "Is Birdman a virtuoso masterpiece or hollow, pretentious filmmaking? We debate."

I don't agree that Birdman was overreaching, pretending to be something it isn't.  It isn't subtle and nuanced, like Inherent Vice, and it doesn't deliver a sophisticated message.  But why expect that?  I'm reminded of an acting class I took with a master a long time ago.  Her son, who had not yet learned that he was not the most special of all special people, was in the class, and he asked:  "When will I get to do something more advanced?"  And she answered: "Honey, this is all there is--actions, senses, speaking and listening," or something like that, the point being that truth is not really complex but it is hard to enact.  

Birdman is a crossover movie, not arthouse but also not formulaic, an action movie without fights and car chases. It effectively and affectionately satirizes the culture of celebrity and theatrical truthiness while exposing the silly and even destructive things we do for love.  And because it is such a pleasure to watch, so entertaining (personally, I could watch Keaton and Norton's acting duels all day), it will reach many viewers who wouldn't caught dead in an actual arty film.  And that matters because it delivers a needed message.

As we fly with the soaring, zooming camera, we experience flow and intimate interconnection, and as we laugh at the arrogant man running in his underwear through Times Square, we can feel the absurdity of our craving for celebrity and power.  It's a a Buddhist perspective that is neither hidden nor in the foreground. There are paraphernalia everywhere--a Buddha on the windowsill, beads on Keaton's wrist, and on his mirror is a little card that says "a thing is a thing not what is said about that thing," which apparently was said by Susan Sontag, but which could easily pass muster as a dharma quote of the day.    

We are also treated to some cute paradox.  Everyone is striving and pretending to be real, even as they can't help being real.  And notably, once it gets out of rehearsal the acting in the truthy play is rather bad (even pretentious!), but a real gun and real gin, both instruments of delusion, have important cameos.  So, the wisdom isn't in the words the characters use or in the venture trying to be accomplished or even in the sneaky message at the end; it's in the deft way Iñárritu plays with the struggles of living.

I didn't love everything about Birdman.  As usual, female characters, with the possible exception of the young Emma Stone, lack complexity, and an older woman, a critic, the only woman who has power, is cruelly mocked and attacked:  "shove it up your wrinkly tight ass."   Look, misogyny is a serious and pervasive problem in current cinema and theatre, and it creates myriad problems for women and the men who relate to them, and I wish we could put a stop to it right this instant, but I understand that Iñárritu is a victim of our culture as well as a propagator and he can't do other than enact what he is not conscious of.  But his job, like ours, is not to transcend but to live honestly, share our struggles and change each other a little in the process.

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