Wednesday, January 14, 2015

CINEMA FLIES PAST COMIC REALITY IN ‘BIRDMAN’

By Dominique Paul Noth


A bored Alfred Hitchcock some 66 years ago decided to push the technical envelope of film as it existed, which was limited to 10 minutes for a continuous take, so he wheeled actors, cables and drama around furiously to make “Rope.”

Today Alejandro González Iñárritu is making Hitchcock look like a wussy. 



'Birdman' Michael Keaton exposed in Times Square
Famous as one of the Three Amigos whose magical visions and technical prowess have changed international cinema, he has set out to stretch patrons’ minds and expectations with “Birdman,” pushing what cinema can now do to imaginative extremes.

“Birdman” (subtitled “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance”) is filmed as if it were a single continuous shot careening down the narrow corridors, cramped dressing rooms and walkways of Broadway’s St. James Theater, then wheeling high above the city through day and night (an homage to Truffaut?) and through windows (an homage to Michelangelo Antonioni?).

The single take styling combined with long walking-talking dialog dominates to create such vertigo and claustrophobia as to mesmerize viewers.

It’s not just a technical style but a way of forcing us into “no time to escape” and little time to evaluate the meanings, It also, unintended, takes away from our ability to laugh, empathize and understand.  We are just supposed to give over to a great throbbing  ride. The drum score of Antonio Sanchez should win every award in sight, the unknown SteadiCam operators deserve huzzahs and the technical accomplishments including costuming are simply astounding.

Iñárritu has also sought out remarkable actors and challenged them into impossible elongated sequences and surprise peeks around the corner interplay, attempting black comedy without the crutch of cuts and inserted close-ups, taking his second language (English) to endlessly winding heights of commentary on celebrity, tweets, randiness and artistic intents.

He has created a deliberate tour de force not just for himself, but his crew and cast -- and for the public at awards time that means the cast is getting the salute for Olympic endurance and degrees of difficulty, surpassing what the rating judges could expect.

Those with the clearest through-line and most understandable desires strike the hardest:  Naomi Watts as a would-be Broadway star, Emma Stone as a drugged-out daughter, Zach Galifianakis as the ultimate say-anything do-anything agent, Andrea Riseborough as the on-again off-again pregnant interest, Amy Ryan as the injured but enduring wife. All grab their moments in a hurricane of motion as opening night disaster approaches, echoing the passionate excesses of the play they are doing. 

Popping in constantly as the last-minute stage replacement, a Broadway draw  trying to take over the play,  is Ed Norton, having the time of his acting life as the most outrageously methody actor in captivity  who can never decide whether his ego or his penis controls his behavior.

But the tour de all tours most  remarkably relied on and carried out belongs to Michael Keaton as Riggin, once a Hollywood star as an aviary  superhero now  trying to reclaim artistic greatness as director and star on Broadway. Except the voice and powers of Birdman, the hero he abandoned, pound in his head and on his doubts and behavior.  Few actors have even been asked to show such range so interminably. Other actors can only admire how deftly and intensely Keaton rises to not just endure but succeed in a role that is meant to be deliberately destructive and myth bending.

Intellectually as well as emotionally, Iñárritu is attempting suggestive layers upon layers – Mexican colors in a liquor store, Macbeth echoing in the interior voice as well as from a madman on the street, a gun motif that turns realism into horrific unreality, metaphors for every actor’s worst nightmares (such as running near naked through Times Square), the inner jokes about George Clooney, Robert Downey and even Broadway’s Spiderman, all cases of  people moving back and forth in media comfort between art and commerce.

I think Iñárritu is also laughing at the pretensions of faux artiste fascination with super-realism (the entire film smells like a riff on the pretentious).  The messaging suggests we all really live in a fantastical interior life that must cope with the physical earthbound. The device of the one-shot tricks us into a finale of flight into the comets anchored almost casually by the real world. It may be advertised as a comedy but only in the same way “Tempest” is a comedy. It is a dream of what fools we mortals be over what we consider success.

Ten years after “Rope,” Hitchcock dismissed his incredible planning as a stunt. I doubt that 10 years from now Iñárritu will admit the same. But he is expanding our concept of what cinema can be even more than what it can reveal.  For him over-the-edge existence is the revelation -– and fascinating to watch. 

Other notable end of year reviews:  Whiplash, Wild, Into the Woods, Unbroken, Boyhood,  Theory of Everything. 



Film and drama critic for The Milwaukee Journal for decades, Dominique Paul Noth began his journalism career in the 1960s, first as international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then an editor at the Green Sheet, then combining criticism with stints as arts editor and later senior features editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combined Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and to serve as the first online news producer. He left voluntarily to run online seminars and write about Internet journalism and online newspapers, then served from 2002 to 2013 as editor of the Milwaukee Labor Press and its online portal, milwaukeelabor.org.  The culture-focused Doms Domain has a political counterpart, domsdomainpolitics, and he also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee.