Sunday, December 7, 2014

How much is too much?

Birdman, the film, raises some interesting questions, which is one of the highest aspirations for any work of art, in my opinion. One of those questions, however, is whether the film is best appreciated for its significant technical merits (acting, direction, cinematography) or for its unusual and nicely layered story. The former are almost beyond reproach, although one can question the necessity for a couple of the visual allegories, like the fiery atmospheric reentry that both opens and closes the film. But questioning that usage is something that becomes central to the other questions both within the film and about it. Fair warning: There are a couple major spoilers below, so keep that in mind if you haven't seen the film yet.

A few years ago on the board we coined an abbreviation for movies, people, events, whatever that were clearly trying to say or do something and making it so obvious that the original meaning of whatever they/it were trying to express was lost. We called it TTH, for Trying Too Hard. People proffered all kinds of examples and mine was: "Most Woody Allen films, post-Annie Hall." The implication was that Allen had been Trying Too Hard to be 'Woody Allen' with most of his films, even when neither the screenplay nor the story lived up to what was the level of his acknowledged classics. I think there's room to question whether that's the case for Birdman because the film is so clearly trying to deliver a message and using the story as a vehicle for that message, as opposed to simply telling the story and letting that message be absorbed by the audience. In that sense, is Birdman trying too hard? At what point does delivering your message become condescension to your audience? Or are some people simply attuned (or hyper-sensitive) to that method while the majority aren't?

There are a couple of obvious tropes (washed up/typecast actor trying to come back by doing something different; actor having ruined the rest of his life in pursuit of something not quite defined) in the story that are made more interesting by their real-life parallels to Keaton's own career. Once he accepted the Batman films under Tim Burton, he never really managed anything else of real note in the following decades and he had been a pretty marketable talent at that point who had done the standard family films (Mr. Mom) but had also taken on other roles (Beetlejuice) that no one really expected that he could handle and had done well with them. In the film, Riggan Thompson is in similar circumstances and we're frequently given insight into his supposed genuine superpowers as allegory for what he's truly capable of and a continuing nod to the spectre of what is constantly hanging over him (or behind him) wherever he goes.

This parallel to the real world (the struggle to define that being a constant theme in Ed Norton's character, Mike Shiner) is highlighted a few more times when Thompson and his best friend/lawyer, Jake (the excellent Zach Galifinakis) argue over whom should be starring opposite Riggan when their initial choice fails. They mention Jeremy Renner, Oscar nominee, except that he's an Avenger. Riggan rolls his eyes at the TV that shows Robert Downey, Jr. in full Iron Man glory. The point is made that these are capable actors of considerable critical acclaim who are now doing exactly what Riggan did earlier in his life but whom are still receiving accolades, whereas Riggan is not. Given that Marvel Studios has something of a chokehold on Hollywood, the fact that lines are being drawn within Hollywood between films like Birdman and The Avengers makes the lines drawn in this film between "movies/celebrity" and "theater/actors" that much more stark.

But that stark line is also a possible example of hitting your audience over the head with the message, such that you're not telling a story and letting them absorb the message that it carries, but are instead delivering a message, regardless of what happens to the story. So, you're in the writers' room and you're hashing out your screenplay. At what point do you decide that you know the audience is going to "get it"? Do they need to be hit over the head with the message that Riggan is capable of these amazing things and even the hard-bitten theater critic will be won over? The coda, which was the hospital scene post-shooting, was trying to convey that the dream was still alive and that, finally, someone else was beginning to share it with Riggan. Did it need to be that hopeful or would the entire film up to that point have been sufficient, even if the film ended in the hospital with the news that Riggan was dead and not simply wearing the real, medical world version of the mask that has both marked and dogged his career for 20 years? Was that hopeful moment a "Hollywood ending" that gave (presumably) the majority of the public what they would want, ensuring that they went away enjoying the film and that they "got it"? Or could you have avoided the formulaic approach for which movies are often so derided and gone full Death of a Salesman and not been entirely sure that, firstly, the film would succeed and, secondly, people would walk away with the understanding that the goal had still been achieved and the dream was still there?

Most creative people want to expose their work to the widest possible audience. This is the appreciation factor that drives many to do what they do. Some, like Mike, are simply driven. They'll labor away in relative obscurity, convinced that their effort is pure because they're not making the compromises on behalf of the audience (whether needed or not.) But most want as many people as possible to experience their art. This is why a band like Rage Against the Machine was willing to work with a division of the corporate behemoth, Sony. They wanted people to hear their music and absorb the message that it carried. Same thing here, both within the story and without, I think. Riggan initially wanted to be in front of as large an audience as possible (and the money didn't hurt, either.) So he became, in the words of movie critic, Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan), a "celebrity" instead of an actor. The story tells us that he still had talent. It had just been swamped by the demands of the public for more explosions. By the same token, the writers of Birdman had to take into consideration that same audience. Do they stick to the seemingly tragic progression that ends with their central figure giving everything (i.e. his life) for his art or do they avoid that path and leave the audience with something closer to what they're likely expecting and which the majority will doubtlessly appreciate more? Do you entice your audience or do you condescend to them? Is it condescending to them in trying to make sure that they "get it"?

I confess to being a little disappointed in the coda in that respect. I thought the message of the film was plain and had been well delivered up to that point and the fact that Riggan could have died on-stage, while it may be something of a trope unto itself (i.e. break a leg; give everything), would have been a decent resolution to what was a farce about creation, acting, film, and life. The fact that he lived doesn't make it any less an excellent farce, but I felt it detracted slightly from what remains a great film. Riggan's daughter, Sam (Emma Stone in an uneven but still solid performance) could have realized what he had become even if she was standing over his corpse. They wouldn't have been able to continue with the essential mystery of his powers (Was it him flying or was it just a cab ride?) and that may have been another consideration in the final product. The fact that Sam talked more than once about things like Twitter and Youtube being "real power" and which Riggan eventually fully engaged, even unwittingly, with his unexpected tour through Times Square, wouldn't have been necessarily diminished by her later awareness of just what his real powers were. That said, this ending was probably the easier method of conveying that for writers, actors, and audience.

On the technical side, I thought director Alejandro González Iñárritu did a fantastic job in showing what is essentially a play on film. The "one long shot" technique was especially well done in some of the scene transitions that would have been a cut in most films but instead were presented to the audience as an opportunity for them to realize that time had passed without it being explicitly mentioned, as often happens on stage. The first appearance of Mike was a sterling example of this. Clearly, he wasn't just hanging around when Riggan had told Lesley (the always excellent Naomi Watts) to get him, but as the camera follows Riggan from backstage to THE stage, Mike appears. They kept that up through about 2/3 of the film and I was disappointed when they did finally succumb to regular time transitions by having us look up at the buildings as the sky changed colors so that it was obvious that things were moving ahead. It's a tough technique to sustain and they did a good job of it up to that point. Likewise, keeping Riggan's powers just on the edge of believability and maintaining almost constant close-ups for what was a very personal story was the right approach.

Keaton was excellent, even if he remains Michael Keaton, with his trademark hesitation and double-takes in almost every role. Norton, sticking to the "art imitating life" theme, gave us a character who resembles what Hollywood rumor has been about him for many years (difficult to work with, more intensely committed than those around him.) Despite that, he didn't steal scenes from Keaton or Watts or Stone. The cast seems to have found the right touch with each other and that always improves the final outcome. There were a couple weak spots on initial reaction and both of them had to do with the romantic attachments in the film. When Lesley is ranting about Mike to Laura (Andrea Riseborough) until Laura finally kisses her, my first thought was: "Wait. Titillation here?" But then I came to realize that they were perpetuating the trial of the actor theme in that Lesley, like all actors and most humans, just wanted to be loved ("Why do I have no self-respect?" "Oh, honey. You're an actor."), something of which Mike was largely incapable. Of course, in wanting to be loved, you want to be in front of bigger and bigger audiences. Thus, Birdman, losing touch with your art in the name of being loved or mistaking love for admiration, etc. Laura just ended up giving her what they both wanted. By the same token, I was a little put off by Sam and Mike's similar interaction, in that Sam also wanted the love that was absent from her father and Mike was trying to figure out how to love when off the stage, but it felt a little too convenient for the story at that point. By the same token, having done a few plays (way back in the day...), I can confirm that you do develop more intense interactions and relationships over a short period of time, as in most creative ventures (and politics), and the fact that people end up falling together off-stage isn't unbelievable in any sense. At those particular moments, it just felt like the timing was off, perhaps because the overall story was so personally focused around Riggan and he wasn't finding that love that was being offered. One of the most detestable aspects of modern filmmaking is the concept of a "love interest". Neither of these situations was that, but I initially reacted as if they were.

I guess the question at that point is one of truth: Which are real emotions and which aren't (which is a constant acting struggle in the first place)? Did I have that reaction because some of the acting taking place was borderline melodramatic? I don't think it was a fault of the performers or the director, but I wonder if, in their zeal to show a play on film, they were caught in the essential conflict of the two media. The stage requires emoting. You need to blow up those emotions into something that will reach the back of the room because the audience will often not be able to read the expressions on your face and need to feel what you're feeling unless you just want to be shouting all the time. That doesn't translate as well on film because the camera can be right there, with your expressive face filling all 22x52 feet of the screen in front of us. You don't need to emote as much, but you can get caught up in doing so, especially if half of your film is showing you attempting to perform on stage, where it's needed. It's a tricky balance and I think most of the people involved (veterans all) pulled it off.

But that brings us back to our original question: How much is too much? When are you Trying Too Hard to deliver your message? In the end, I think you could nitpick the film about that essential quandary and you could complain that wrapping things up in a (relatively) neat bow detracts from what the film was trying to say (i.e. it's too Hollywood.) My overriding cynicism has me thinking in that fashion, but the film was simply too good and too smart to consider it cripplingly flawed, in my opinion. Be as disdainful as you like about tropes (and I will if you won't) but I think the basic premise of the film as farce precludes a lot of the second-guessing about how much more tragic and serious it could have been. In its earnestness, I think it earns a pass on the TTH estimation, mostly because it dared to tackle a number of very basic questions and arrived at a number of very good answers, most of which the audience has to be left to itself to decide, which is the best ending to any creative work.