Tuesday, September 13, 2016


While Worm has us on the topic of superheroes, I'll review and analyze some of my favorite superhero movies this week. But weird superhero movies. So, starting with Birdman.

It’s about Michael Keaton dealing with life after being a superhero movie star, and struggling to be taken seriously as an artist, and what “being taken seriously as an artist” even means. It’s heavy on monologues and bold cinematography, and has the acting and set-pieces to back that up.

It also says a lot about LARPs, and emotionally losing yourself in transparently artificial art.

The movie elicits comparisons to JCVD, a similar vehicle for Jean Claude Van Damm. It’s pretty good and more people should watch it. http://www.amazon.com/JCVD-Jean-Claude-Van-Damme/dp/B002YGP4MC

The long review contains spoilers. This isn’t a movie ruined by spoilers, so feel free to read on if you haven’t seen it. But just to warn you. 

I find it interesting that both movies were critically successful, so, I guess their creators got what they wanted? (The story about a plea to be taken seriously artistically becomes a literal plea by that actor to be taken seriously by us. Do we? Yeah, probably after seeing these.)

It functions well in terms of this quest to be “taken seriously”, but has a number of problems-or-features I want to explore. Do they add or detract from Keaton’s journey? And can they help us make sense of the ending?

First off, the title. “Birdman” refers to the superhero Keaton used to play, which is a play on Batman (who Keaton utterly defined in two 80’s era movies, only to be eclipsed recently by the overall superhero movie phenomenon in general, and Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy in specific). Keaton presumably felt they couldn’t just say “Batman”, and Birdman sounds the closest while actually sounding somewhat comical, emphasizing the absurdity of comic book movies.

Except, birds mean something? Like, a bird is a symbol of freedom. This is emphasized by the bird imagery that occurs periodically, watching them fly free against an open sky. So if Keaton is trying to escape from his history as Birdman, is that escaping from freedom? This sort of paradox is exaggerated when he fantasizes flying across the cityscape, and in the final shot when he jumps out a window to chase after a flock of birds.

(A bird can be a symbol of being trapped of course, by being in a cage. A birdcage is pretty blatant. But this movie doesn’t have any cage imagery, let alone associating it closely with birds.)

This is relevant because of the cinematography. The entire movie is shot as if it was one long shot, with no cutaways (though characters often step out of frame, allowing time to pass quickly before they return seconds later.) This functions in the “take me seriously” sense because it allows a lot of critics to go “oh my god! one shot! so bold!”, but we should ask what it does. Well to me it makes the movie feel extremely claustrophobic. A lot of the screentime is spent on the narrow corridors behind a broadway theater, but the single myopic shot carries that perspective over everywhere. On a rooftop, on a stage in front of hundreds, outside walking the streets, where we should feel openness and freedom, instead we continue to feel this limited narrowness which a simple shot reverse shot would dispel.

So, desperate clawing for relevance actually means you leave freedom and embrace trapped spaces? Huh.

Btw, I have to mention how much I love the early scene where Keaton sits with three interviewers simultaneously to answer questions about his career, each of them showing the exaggerated tendencies of their school. One gossip-blogger asks him to confirm or deny a tweet that he injects his face with baby pig semen to look young. One is an east asian reporter who only hears the words “Birdman 4” in a sentence from someone else, and becomes excited at the prospect of a prodigal sequel. The last is an intellectual in a tweed jacket who tries to engage him in a discussion about Barthes and the real value of superhero sagas.

This is a great scene because we’re shown why Keaton doesn’t care about what most media would say about him anyway. He’s not unaware of, say, the academic analysis of comic books that believes in their value as art. He just doesn’t buy it, nor the rest of media and traditional forms of validation.

(His inner voice at one point tells him that his movies made a billion dollars. He contends that a billion flies eat trash and that’s still nothing. And yet, he frets about money frequently.)

The obvious source of validation he is aspiring for then is the critic from the New York Times, who will watch his play on opening night and then make or break his play. She’s built up a lot, only to reveal her intention to destroy the play regardless of quality to maintain the elitist protection of her “theatre” from vulgar celebrities. She’s hated him all along, and her validation is never something he could have realistically achieved. Her artistic concern is purely politics.

(He rebuts her by saying that criticism is only empty words, while creating art takes real effort, and cost, and sacrifice. At the end she praises his play solely on the basis that… he spilt his own blood on the stage.)

So who can validate Keaton then? Both Birdman and JCVD feature the daughter of the protagonist-star. In JCVD, Jean Claude is losing his daughter in a divorce settlement, where she testifies that she’s embarrassed of him because her friends make fun of his bad action movies to her. Jean Claude’s main goal is to get enough money to pay his lawyer to continue waging this legal battle. This superstar’s entire angst and motivation comes down to the schooldyard taunts of a girl and her generic friends. That’s who his audience is, not critics, and much harder to impress.

So who is Keaton’s daughter? She’s a millennial. Instead of possibly leaving him, she’s trapped with him because she can’t get any job except as his personal assistant (which is demeaning and she hates). She’s been buffeted by hostile economic forces, got addicted to drugs, went to a facile rehab, and is now completely at a loss for what to do. Other cast describe her as “just standing around watching creepily all the time.” She also represents social media, as the characters directly ascribe any social media trends to “her friends” and later she’s the only person who brings out an iphone or tweets. This is the new audience of the twenty-first century: dysfunctional, adrift, self-aware (she has a pretty good monologue about herself and Keaton), nihilistic, and trapped in here with the actor as much as the actor is stuck with them.

She represents who he wants to “take him seriously”, but at the same time he pays almost no attention to her. Instead Keaton spends his time on the extremes of inner turmoil (vs a Birdman-costumed devil on his shoulder) or grasping after these critics who he knows are meaningless.

In the end, he goes insane, and this mildly amuses her, and that’s the best he can do. The movie closes on her girlish giggle.

Insane? There’s the recurring magical realism of Keaton displaying telekinesis, which he uses to break things in frustration, play with objects idly, bean a bad actor in the head with a falling light, or to fly. All of these occur when Keaton is feeling extremely depressed, and represent him giving into insanity. (The flying follows the suicidal imagery of jumping off a ledge.) It also represents a jump from this “artsy” film to the supernatural blockbusters that tempt him. The telekinesis is real within the movie, but the movie itself is about his insanity (and other parts of his emotional journey.) So the movie ends with him jumping out a window, and either dying or fully embracing insanity.

(It’s worth noting that Keaton is not the only one with superpowers in this movie. Just like he jokes to others “oh yeah I made a light fall”, two other people joke about their powers. Ed Norton’s character spontaneously starts delivering the lines of the play without looking at a script, says its his gift… and then laughs it off with a different explanation. Zack Galifianakis’ character pompously claims to see the future. These can be dismissed by the audience, but really reveal that they too are going insane like Keaton. We all have superpowers in this sort of metaphor.)

There’s a lot about the relationship between artists and their audience/critics being sexual in nature, particularly focusing on Keaton’s rival played by Ed Norton. There’s a bawdy joke about critics wanting to perform a sexual act on him. He has a very intense scene arguing with the NYT critic that his a strong physical chemistry. And he makes out with Keaton’s daughter. And there’s a lot of discussion about his… manhood. But beside saying “yep, this sexual relationship exists”, the movie doesn’t say much about what that means. (In fact, despite Norton being an incredibly entertaining scenery-chewer, his character disappears about two-thirds of the way in and doesn’t have much relevance to the resolution of Keaton’s problems.)
There’s a brief scene where two actresses offer each other emotional and professional reassurance, and then abruptly begin making out. So I suppose the movie is saying that “artists praising each other is akin to a gratuitous homosexual relationship.” Uh okay, weird.

Anyway, there’s a lot of suggestive scenes and dialogue that can be further analyzed. The constant suicide depictions. Pretty much every line of dialogue in the play-within-the-movie (“I thought I couldn’t be loved without being admired.”) The false pregnancy. The repetitive “preview nights.” Andrea Riseborough’s performance as the most purely humane character. The constant depictions of modern superhero movies, including the weird ballet at the end. But I think this is enough for starting a discussion.

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