Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

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Michael Keaton in Birdman

There’s nothing here about technique! There’s nothing in here about structure! There’s nothing in here about intentions!

—Riggan, to a theater critic in Birdman

Now that Birdman is gaining some serious Oscar momentum, with a string of late wins at the guild awards, it’s probably safe for me to admit that I didn’t like it. My hopes were high, and I was giddy with excitement for the first twenty minutes or so. There are extraordinary virtues here: the acting all around, particularly by Keaton and Edward Norton, who does his best work in years, and of course the tremendous technical trick pulled off by director Alejandro González Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who make most of the film look as if it were unfolding in a single continuous take. Yet I slowly felt my enthusiasm begin to deflate. The script feels like less a screenplay than an early outline, with sections marked off for generic beats or situations—a confrontation, a fantasy sequence, a moment of revelation—without much consideration for the specifics of what two human beings might really say to each other. Every scene feels like a placeholder for a more fully realized version, filling a slot in the structure and nothing else, and any insights the movie might have about the creative process, theater, or modern celebrity founder on a bright high schooler’s idea of how people in show business would act and talk.

I’m not all that familiar with Iñárritu: the only previous film of his I’ve seen is Babel, which suffers from many of the same flaws. (It’s a visually arresting movie that isn’t about what it claims to be: it has what sounds at first like an ambitious vision of interconnectedness and misunderstanding, but its plot hinges on ordinary carelessness and stupidity.) And yet I’m not sure I want to blame him for the film’s shortcomings, which are an inevitable result of its unworkable formal constraints. When you look back at the history of movies, you find that films built around long takes usually feel undercooked on the screenplay level. That was certainly true of Hitchcock’s Rope, the most famous early effort in that line, and even of a movie like Gravity, which I loved. Gravity has amazing strengths, and its script is smartly constructed, but few of its fans would point to its dialogue or character development as models to imitate. And it doesn’t take long to figure out why. A continuous shot can be thrilling in the manner of a daring circus performance—although it’s less exciting now, when it’s possible to stitch takes together so seamlessly—and it can be a useful tool when suspense or impact depends on a scene unfolding in real time, as it does in movies as different as Touch of Evil and 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days. But when used indiscriminately, it robs us of a central element of movie art: the cut.

Michael Keaton and Edward Norton in Birdman

Movies are told in cuts. That might sound like an academic point, of greater interest to students of Eisenstein and Vertov than to working directors, but really, it’s intensely pragmatic. Cuts convey and create information that couldn’t otherwise exist: as Lev Kuleshov famously demonstrated, and as Hitchcock later reminded Truffaut, you can take the same shot of a man’s face and give it different emotional connotations, based on whether you intercut it with the image of a bowl of soup, a dead child, or a beautiful woman. Nothing we can do in staging or writing comes close to that kind of concision, and to reject it deliberately, as Birdman does, puts tremendous pressure on every other aspect of the film to do the heavy lifting. And if it falls short, there’s little we can do to fix it. Editing a movie, as I’ve noted many times before, isn’t just a matter of assembling footage, but of finding a film’s true life and rhythm. A boring or unconvincing scene can become compelling once we figure out what to emphasize and remove, and films are often improved by lifting out or transposing entire sections. A movie like Birdman makes this impossible, so everything we see onscreen is the equivalent of a decent second draft, minus that last, essential polish. And we feel it in every scene that meanders without resolution or every line that falls flat and refuses to be removed.

Given all this, I’m almost impressed that Birdman works even as well as it does. To shoot that second draft and end up with a great movie would require the best screenplay in the world, which this isn’t. (Evidently, Iñárritu came up with the idea for the movie’s structure first, then developed the script to fit, which reverses the process that most good movies follow.) In On Directing Film, David Mamet speaks disparagingly of movies that just “follow the protagonist around,” and he writes what amounts to a scathing review of Birdman two decades before the fact:

“Wouldn’t it be nice,” one might say, “if we could get this hall here, really around the corner from that door there; or to get that door here to really be the door that opens on the staircase to that door there?” So we could just move the camera from one to the next?

It took me a great deal of effort and still takes me a great deal and will continue to take me a great deal of effort to answer the question thusly: no, not only is it not important to have those objects literally contiguous; it is important to fight against that desire, because fighting it reinforces an understanding of the essential nature of film, which is that it is made of disparate shots, cut together…It might be nice to have these objects next to each other so as to avoid moving the crew, but you don’t get any sneaky artistic good out of literally having them next to each other. You can cut the shots together.

And that sums it up. Birdman is a great stunt and a technical marvel, but it would have been a better movie if it weren’t. And that’s the unkindest cut of all.

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