The pulse of humanity continues to thump as though nothing changes from day to month to millennium; even nihilism makes sense stretched out over an eternal timeline. Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) [just Birdman for the rest of this essay] is a thrice-meta dialogue between film, a film audience and everyone else. Its message is messy and unkempt and uncomfortable and its style is prolific and unimpeachable. It plays anti- to almost every convention, even the anti-convention of bakers’ dozen favorite Boyhood, which was a deeply boring and inauthentic approach to cinema verité. Its whole gimmick – and yes it was a gimmick – was that it followed the same cast around a coming-of-age, one-size-fits-all approach to growing up. Birdman, essentially and almost certainly accidentally flips it the proverbial bird, daring to ask, “is this it?” Boyhood asks us to inspect the shit, then eat it, while Birdman thumps through it, seemingly at random, slicing life, not into categories bounded by “age,” but into tiny pieces that can’t be ordered.
Birdman the film feels like a culmination of a century of film-making but Birdman the film also acts as a secret joke between friends, which adds a whole order of long-and short-form narrative. Alejandro González Iñárritu directly points at Alfonso Cuarón (director of 2013’s marvel, Gravity, and 2006’s non-nominated Children of Men) and utters something about a “single shot,” chuckles, and collects a trophy to pair with his…trophies. Birdman in turn collects a stunning number of film tropes into a mess of moments: magical realism, the myth of super, Hays impersonations, comedy of remarriage, meta-narrative, among others, and crosses between the World Trade Center with no net. It, for lack of a better word, works. The casting is kinetic: Michael Keaton is electric; Edward Norton is characteristically ugly and charismatic; Emma Stone took a break from the latest Miyazaki to eyeball the world without blinking; Naomi Watts shines like an undying fluorescent bulb. They have summed to triumph, as it wasn’t enough to just have the idea, and execute, but also to electrify.
Birdman the audience demands introspection from this film and it gets the uncanny collusion of collective narcissism and mystified mental health. Together, these conditions mirror the state of the union circa 2014. The world suffocates inside own self-importance and the stigma of “I don’t feel well” is unironically swept under the positivity rug. The everyman, he who would be King, balks at reality, as he can escape to Instagram or Facebook or to the quick-fix brigade. She who would be Queen sees the world in three-by-five, not an index card, but a glass screen, through which she can collect “likes,” “hearts” and texts. It’s not the method that is irksome, but the purpose. The dogma of this self-medicated cynicism is not the drive to be better than one’s current self, tomorrow, but to count to a million. Michael Keaton (as Riggan Thomson) arrives, not twenty years after playing Batman, to be Birdman, the magical superhero, can’t combat like-fever in his head, where his titular character splits from reality and demands more, for better or for suicide. None of these underpinning methods Linklater their way to T.R.U.T.H., but rather ruminate in the graveyard for “likes,” “hearts” and go-fuck-yourself’s.
Birdman the rest of us is the anti-everything, the non-this to that, the creative to the lazy and the yin to the yin and yang. Nothing about this film is supposed to connect to anything else. Setting the Film as a rumination on the Stage, calls ultimate high-art contradiction, and not letting any situation or interaction breathe for fear of drowning is damning above water. Birdman ends on the ultimate 2014 metaphor – cutting off one’s own nose to spite one’s face – as an Inception level twist leaves the world wondering what’s next. Doesn’t matter.
Though the Academy Award for Best Picture (or equivalent) splits its 87 winners apart from its 520 nominees as of 2014, the distinction is more or less artificial: a closed-ballot vote, perhaps separated by a margin of error, ultimately awards the top prize and lifts a film up and over its contemporaries. It is the natural state of things to determine best from great and to order things in terms of relative importance; humans have a predilection for things – anything – to be nonrandom. Locally futile it is to try and reverse or slow entropy, for the reality necessarily determines that we regress to the mean. At the 87th Oscars, held in February 2015, the soothsayers predicted a fierce, if meaningless, showdown between Boyhood and ultimate winner Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), never mind the other six nominees (Selma, The Theory of Everything, American Sniper, The Imitation Game, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Whiplash). If we must pick a winner, as we do, this one should not have been nearly as close as it was.