Posts Tagged ‘Birdman’
Sometimes a great film takes years to reveal its full power. Occasionally, you know what you’ve witnessed as soon as the closing credits begin to roll. And very rarely, you realize in the middle of the movie that you’re watching something extraordinary. I’ve experienced this last feeling only a handful of times in my life, and my most vivid memory of it is from ten years ago, when I saw Children of Men. I’d been looking forward to it ever since seeing the trailer, and for the first twenty minutes or so, it more than lived up to my expectations. But halfway through a crucial scene—and if you’ve seen the movie, you know the one I mean—I began to feel the movie expanding in my head, as Pauline Kael said of The Godfather Part II, “like a soft bullet.” Two weeks later, I wrote to a friend: “Alfonso Cuarón has just raised the bar for every director in the world.” And I still believe this, even if the ensuing decade has clarified the film’s place in the history of movies. Cuarón hasn’t had the productive career that I’d hoped he would, and it took him years to follow up on his masterpiece, although he finally earned his Oscar for Gravity. The only unambiguous winner to come out of it all was the cinematographer Emmanuel Lubzeki, who has won three Academy Awards in a row for refinements of the discoveries that he made here. And the story now seems prescient, of course, as Abraham Riesman of Vulture recently noted: “The film, in hindsight, seems like a documentary about a future that, in 2016, finally arrived.” If nothing else, the world certainly appears to be run by exactly the sort of people of whom Jarvis Cocker was warning us.
But the most noteworthy thing about Children of Men, and the one aspect of it that its fans and imitators should keep in mind, is the insistently visceral nature of its impact. I don’t think I’m alone when I say that I was blown away the most by three elements: the tracking shots, the use of music, and the level of background detail in every scene. These are all qualities that are independent of its politics, its message, and even, to some extent, its script, which might be its weakest point. The movie can be refreshingly elliptical when it comes to the backstory of its characters and its world, but there are also holes and shortcuts that are harder to forgive. (Its clumsiest moment, for me, is when Theo is somehow able to observe and overhear Jasper’s death—an effective scene in itself—from higher ground without being noticed by anyone else. We aren’t sure where he’s standing in relation to the house, so it feels contrived and stagy, a strange lapse for a movie that is otherwise so bracingly specific about its geography.) But maybe that’s how it had to be. If the screenplay were as rich and crowded as the images, it would turn into a Christopher Nolan movie, for better or worse, and Cuarón is a very different sort of filmmaker. He’s content to leave entire swaths of the story in outline form, as if he forgot to fill in the blanks, and he’s happy to settle for a cliché if it saves time, just because his attention is so intensely focused elsewhere.
Occasionally, this has led his movies to be something less than they should be. I really want to believe that Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the strongest installment in the series, but it has real structural problems that stem precisely from Cuarón’s indifference to exposition: he cuts out an important chunk of dialogue that leaves the climax almost incomprehensible, so that nonreaders have to scramble to figure out what the hell is going on, when we should be caught up in the action. Gravity impressed me enormously when I saw it on the big screen, but I’m not particularly anxious to revisit it at home, where its technical marvels run the risk of being swallowed up by its rudimentary characters and dialogue. (It strikes me now that Gravity might have some of the same problems, to a much lesser extent, as Birdman, in which the use of extended takes makes it impossible to give scenes the necessary polish in the editing room. Which also implies that if you’re going to hire Lubzeki as your cinematographer, you’d better have a really good script.) But Children of Men is the one film in which Cuarón’s shortcomings are inseparable from his strengths. His usual omissions and touches of carelessness were made for a story in which we’re only meant to glimpse the overall picture. And its allegory is so vague that we can apply it to whatever we like.
This might sound like a criticism, but it isn’t: Children of Men is undeniably one of the major movies of my lifetime. And its message is more insightful than it seems, even if it takes a minute of thought to unpack. Its world falls apart as soon as humanity realizes that it doesn’t have a future, which isn’t so far from where we are now. We find it very hard, as a species, to keep the future in mind, and we often behave—even in the presence of our own children—as if this generation will be the last. When a society has some measure of economic and political security, it can make efforts to plan ahead for a decade or two, but even that modest degree of foresight disappears as soon as stability does. In Children of Men, the childbirth crisis, which doesn’t respect national or racial boundaries, takes the sort of disruptions that tend to occur far from the developed world and brings them into the heart of Europe and America, and it doesn’t even need to change any of the details. The most frightening thing about Cuarón’s movie, and what makes it most relevant to our current predicament, is that its extrapolations aren’t across time, but across the map of the world as it exists today. You don’t need to look far to see landscapes like the ones through which the characters move, or the ways in which they could spread across the planet. In the words of William Gibson, the future of Children of Men is already here. It just isn’t evenly distributed yet.
Forty years ago, the cinematographer Garrett Brown invented the Steadicam. It was a stabilizer attached to a harness that allowed a camera operator, walking on foot or riding in a vehicle, to shoot the kind of smooth footage that had previously only been possible using a dolly. Before long, it had revolutionized the way in which both movies and television were shot, and not always in the most obvious ways. When we think of the Steadicam, we’re likely to remember virtuoso extended takes like the Copacabana sequence in Goodfellas, but it can also be a valuable tool even when we aren’t supposed to notice it. As the legendary Robert Elswit said recently to the New York Times:
“To me, it’s not a specialty item,” he said. “It’s usually there all the time.” The results, he added, are sometimes “not even necessarily recognizable as a Steadicam shot. You just use it to get something done in a simple way.”
Like digital video, the Steadicam has had a leveling influence on the movies. Scenes that might have been too expensive, complicated, or time-consuming to set up in the conventional manner can be done on the fly, which has opened up possibilities both for innovative stylists and for filmmakers who are struggling to get their stories made at all.
Not surprisingly, there are skeptics. In On Directing Film, which I think is the best book on storytelling I’ve ever read, David Mamet argues that it’s a mistake to think of a movie as a documentary record of what the protagonist does, and he continues:
The Steadicam (a hand-held camera), like many another technological miracle, has done injury; it has injured American movies, because it makes it so easy to follow the protagonist around, one no longer has to think, “What is the shot?” or “Where should I put the camera?” One thinks, instead, “I can shoot the whole thing in the morning.”
This conflicts with Mamet’s approach to structuring a plot, which hinges on dividing each scene into individual beats that can be expressed in purely visual terms. It’s a method that emerges naturally from the discipline of selecting shots and cutting them together, and it’s the kind of hard work that we’re often tempted to avoid. As Mamet adds in a footnote: “The Steadicam is no more capable of aiding in the creation of a good movie than the computer is in the writing of a good novel—both are labor-saving devices, which simplify and so make more attractive the mindless aspects of creative endeavor.” The casual use of the Steadicam seduces directors into conceiving of the action in terms of “little plays,” rather than in fundamental narrative units, and it removes some of the necessity of disciplined thinking beforehand.
But it isn’t until toward the end of the book that Mamet delivers his most ringing condemnation of what the Steadicam represents:
“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 movie 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 this desire, because fighting it reinforces an understanding of the essential nature of film, which is that it is made of disparate shorts, cut together. It’s a door, it’s a hall, it’s a blah-blah. Put the camera “there” and photograph, as simply as possible, that object. If we don’t understand that we both can and must cut the shots together, we are sneakily falling victim to the mistaken theory of the Steadicam.
This might all sound grumpy and abstract, but it isn’t. Take Birdman. You might well love Birdman—plenty of viewers evidently did—but I think it provides a devastating confirmation of Mamet’s point. By playing as a single, seemingly continuous shot, it robs itself of the ability to tell the story with cuts, and it inadvertently serves as an advertisement of how most good movies come together in the editing room. It’s an audacious experiment that never needs to be tried again. And it wouldn’t exist at all if it weren’t for the Steadicam.
But the Steadicam can also be a thing of beauty. I don’t want to discourage its use by filmmakers for whom it means the difference between making a movie under budget and never making it at all, as long as they don’t forget to think hard about all of the constituent parts of the story. There’s also a place for the bravura long take, especially when it depends on our awareness of the unfaked passage of time, as in the opening of Touch of Evil—a long take, made without benefit of a Steadicam, that runs the risk of looking less astonishing today because technology has made this sort of thing so much easier. And there’s even room for the occasional long take that exists only to wow us. De Palma has a fantastic one in Raising Cain, which I watched again recently, that deserves to be ranked among the greats. At its best, it can make the filmmaker’s audacity inseparable from the emotional core of the scene, as David Thomson observes of Goodfellas: “The terrific, serpentine, Steadicam tracking shot by which Henry Hill and his girl enter the Copacabana by the back exit is not just his attempt to impress her but Scorsese’s urge to stagger us and himself with bravura cinema.” The best example of all is The Shining, with its tracking shots of Danny pedaling his Big Wheel down the deserted corridors of the Overlook. It’s showy, but it also expresses the movie’s basic horror, as Danny is inexorably drawn to the revelation of his father’s true nature. (And it’s worth noting that much of its effectiveness is due to the sound design, with the alternation of the wheels against the carpet and floor, which is one of those artistic insights that never grows dated.) The Steadicam is a tool like any other, which means that it can be misused. It can be wonderful, too. But it requires a steady hand behind the camera.
Frankly, I don’t think anyone needs to read an entire blog post on how I felt about the Oscars. You can’t throw a stone—or an Emma Stone—today without hitting a handful of think pieces, of which the one by Dan Kois on Slate is typical: he hyperbolically, though not inaccurately, describes the win of Birdman over Boyhood as the ceremony’s greatest travesty in twenty years. So I’m not alone when I say that after an afternoon of doing my taxes, the four hours I spent watching last night’s telecast were only marginally more engaging. It wasn’t a debacle of Seth MacFarlane proportions, but it left me increasingly depressed, and not even the sight of Julie Andrews embracing Lady Gaga, which otherwise ought to feel like the apotheosis of our culture, could pull me out of my funk. It all felt like a long slog toward the sight of a movie I loved getting trounced by one I like less with every passing day. Yet I’m less interested in unpacking the reasons behind the snub than in trying to figure out why this loss stings more than usual, especially because indignation over the Best Picture winner is all but an annual tradition. The most deserving nominee rarely, if ever, wins; it’s much more surprising when it happens than when it doesn’t. So why did this year’s outcome leave me so unhappy?
I keep coming back to the idea of the uncanny valley. You probably know that Masahiro Mori, a Japanese roboticist, was the first to point out that as the appearance of an artificial creature grows more lifelike, our feelings toward it become steadily more positive—but when it becomes almost but not quite human, small differences and discrepancies start to outweigh any points of similarity, and our empathy for it falls off a cliff. It’s why we can easily anthropomorphize and love the Muppets, but we’re turned off by the dead eyes of the characters in The Polar Express, and find zombies the most loathsome of all. (Zombies, at least, are meant to be terrifying; cognitively, it’s more troubling when we’re asked to react warmly to a digital Frankenstein that just wants to give us a hug.) And there’s an analogous principle at work when it comes to art. A bad movie, or one that falls comfortably outside our preferences, can be ignored or even enjoyed on its own terms, but if it feels like a zombified version of something we should love, it repels us. If a movie like The King’s Speech wins Best Picture, I’m not entirely bothered by this: it looks more or less like the kind of film the Oscars like to honor, and I can regard it as a clunky but harmless machine, even if it wasn’t made for me. But Birdman is exactly the kind of movie I ought to love, but don’t, so its win feels strangely creepy, even as it represents a refreshingly unconventional choice.
The uncanny valley troubles us because it’s a parody of ourselves: we’re forced to see the human face as it might appear to another species, which makes us wonder if our own standards of beauty might be equally alienating if our perspectives were shifted a degree to one side. That’s true of movies, too; a film that hits all the right marks but leaves us cold forces us to question why, exactly, we like what we do. For me, the classic example has always been Fight Club. Like Birdman, it’s a movie of enormous technical facility—ingenious, great to look at, and stuffed with fine performances. To its credit, it has more real ideas in any ten minutes, however misguided, than Birdman has in its entirety. Yet I’ve always disliked it, precisely because it devotes so much craft to a story with a void at its center. It’s the ultimate instance of cleverness as an end in itself, estranging us from its characters, its material, and its muddled message with a thousand acts of meaningless virtuosity. And I push back against it with particular force because it’s exactly the kind of movie that someone like me, who wasn’t me, might call a masterpiece. (It may not be an accident that both Birdman and Fight Club benefit from the presence of Edward Norton, who, like Kevin Spacey, starts as a blank but fills out each role with countless fiendishly clever decisions. If you’re going to make a movie like this at all, he’s the actor you want in your corner.)
As a result, the Oscars turned into a contest, real or perceived, between Boyhood, which reflected the most moving and meaningful memories of my own life despite having little in common with it, and Birdman, which confronted me with a doppelgänger of my feelings as a moviegoer. It’s no wonder I reacted so strongly. Yet perhaps it isn’t all bad. Birdman at least represents the return of Michael Keaton, an actor we didn’t know how much we’d missed until he came roaring back into our lives. And if David Fincher could rebound from Fight Club to become one of the two or three best directors of his generation, the same might be true of Iñárritu—although it isn’t encouraging that he’s been so richly rewarded for indulging in all his worst tendencies. Still, as Iñárritu himself said in his acceptance speech, time is the real judge. The inevitable backlash to Birdman, which is already growing, should have the effect of gently restoring it to its proper place, while Boyhood’s stature will only increase. As I’ve discussed at length elsewhere, Birdman is an audacious experiment that never needs to be repeated, while we need so many more movies like Boyhood, not so much because of its production schedule as because of its genuine curiosity, warmth, and generosity towards real human beings. As Mark Harris puts it, so rightly, on Grantland: “Birdman, after all, is a movie about someone who hopes to create something as good as Boyhood.”
Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What movie scene would you have wanted to be on set for?”
“The most exciting day of your life may well be your first day on a movie set,” William Goldman writes in Adventures in the Screen Trade, “and the dullest days will be all those that follow.” Which isn’t to say that filmmaking is more boring than any other kind of creative work. Vladimir Mayakovsky once compared the act of writing poetry to mining for radium—”The output an ounce, the labor a year”—and that’s more or less true of every art form. Moments of genuine excitement are few and far between; the bulk of an artist’s time is spent laying pipe and fixing the small, tedious, occasionally absorbing problems that arise from an hour of manic inspiration that occurred weeks or months before. What sets the movies apart is that their tedium is shared and very expensive, which makes it even less bearable. If star directors have an annoying habit of comparing themselves to generals, perhaps it’s because war and moviemaking have exactly one thing in common: they consist of hours of utter boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. (You could argue that the strange career of Werner Herzog can be explained by his determination to drive that boredom away, or at least to elevate the terror level as much as possible while still remaining insurable.)
In general, there are excellent reasons for members of the creative team who aren’t directly involved in the production process to keep away. Screenwriters don’t like being around the filming because it’s all to easy to get caught up in disputes between the actors and director, or to be asked to work for free. Editors like Walter Murch make a point of never visiting the set, because they need to view the resulting footage as objectively as possible: each piece has to be judged on its own terms, and it’s hard to cut something when you know how hard it was to get the shot. And while a serious film critic might benefit from firsthand knowledge of how movies are made, for most viewers, it’s unclear if that experience would add more than it detracts. The recent proliferation of special features on home video has been a mixed blessing: it can be fascinating to observe filmmakers at work, especially in departments like editing or sound that rarely receive much attention, but it can also detach us from the result. I’ve watched the featurettes on my copy of the Lord of the Rings trilogy so many times that I’ve started to think of the movies themselves almost as appendages to the process of their own making, which I’m sure isn’t what Peter Jackson would have wanted.
And a thrilling movie doesn’t necessarily make for a thrilling set, any more than a fun shoot is likely to result in anything better than Ocean’s 13. Contrary to what movies like Hitchcock or The Girl might have us think, I imagine that for most of the cast and crew, working on Psycho or The Birds must have been a little dull: Hitchcock famously thought that the creative work was essentially done once the screenplay was finished, and the act of shooting was just a way of translating the script and storyboards into something an audience would pay to see. (So much of Hitchcock’s own personality—the drollery, the black humor, the pranks—seems to have emerged as a way of leavening the coldly mechanical approach his philosophy as a director demanded.) Godard says that every cut is a lie, but it’s also a sigh: a moment of resignation as the action halts for the next setup, with each splice concealing hours of laborious work. The popularity of long tracking shots is partially a response to the development of digital video and the Steadicam, but it’s also a way of bringing filmmaking closer to the excitement of theater. I didn’t much care for Birdman, but I can imagine that it must have been an exceptionally interesting shoot: extended takes create a consciousness of risk, along with a host of technical problems that need to be solved, that doesn’t exist when film runs through the camera for only a few seconds at a time.
Filmmaking is most interesting as a spectator sport when that level of risk, which is always present as an undertone, rises in a moment of shared awareness, with everyone from the cinematographer to the best boy silently holding his or her breath. There’s more of this risk when movies are shot on celluloid, since the cost of a mistake can be calculated by the foot: Greta Gerwig, in the documentary Side by Side, talks about how seriously everyone takes it when there’s physical film, rather than video, rolling through the camera. There’s more risk on location than in the studio. And the risk is greatest of all when the scene in question is a crucial one, rather than a throwaway. Given all that, I can’t imagine a more riveting night on the set than the shooting of the opening of Touch of Evil: shot on celluloid, on location, using a crane and a camera the size of a motorcycle, with manual focusing, on a modest budget, and built around a technical challenge that can’t be separated from the ticking bomb of the narrative itself. The story goes that it took all night to get right, mostly because one actor kept blowing his lines, and the the shot we see in the movie was the last take of all, captured just as the sun was rising. It all seems blessedly right, but it must have been charged with tension—which is exactly the effect it has on the rest of the movie. And you don’t need to have been there to appreciate it.
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.
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.