Film / Reviews

Robert Altman has his fingerprints all over 'Birdman'

by Giovanni Fazio

Special To The Japan Times

In 1992 Robert Altman made “The Player,” a scathing satire on how shallow Hollywood filmmaking had become, and it came damn close to winning him an Oscar for best director. The next year, he made “Short Cuts,” based on the stories of Raymond Carver, and again came up short at the Oscars.

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu — who has proven himself an acolyte of Altman with films such as “Babel” and “Amores Perros” — combined Hollywood-shaming comedy and Carver and went home with a fistful of Oscars for “Birdman.”

The connection runs even deeper than that: Altman opened “The Player” with a bravura eight-minute continuous tracking shot, and Inarritu ups the game by shooting his entire film in a sequence of long shots edited together with such skill that you feel like the film is one continuous take. And, of course, Altman also made a film (“Brewster McCloud”) about a guy who — like Inarittu’s protagonist — dreamed of flying on bird wings.

Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Birdman Aruiwa [Muchi ga Motarasu Yoki Senu Kiseki])
Run Time 119 minutes
Language English
Opens April 10

The fact that Altman lost at the Oscars while Inarittu won might mean that “Birdman” is the better film, or it could mean that, two decades on, the Academy is even more sick to death of the superhero/fantasy pablum the studios are churning out. There was some snarky commentary in the media about how all the box-office winners, such as “Transformers” and “Avengers,” were snubbed by the Oscars, but Inarittu’s win was nothing less than a collective flipping of the bird at movies such as those. This is a film that describes Hollywood’s current output as “apocalyptic porn,” with a line — written by the director himself — saying, “You guys know that if you crank out any toxic piece of crap, people will line up and pay to see it.”

If “Birdman” was merely an insider’s anti-Hollywood rant, it would be amusing but not necessarily great. Yet “Birdman” digs deep into an actor’s psyche, examining the love-hate relationship between performer and audience, star and self, while also taking aim at exactly the sort of navel-gazing that comes from a life in the spotlight.

In the most meta piece of casting since “Being John Malkovich,” Michael Keaton plays an actor named Riggan, a former Hollywood A-lister known for playing a masked superhero named Birdman. (The resemblance to Batman is hardly coincidental, but Keaton insists the role is in no way based on the Dark Knight.)

Riggan is trying to be taken seriously by producing and performing in a Broadway play based on a Carver story, but he’s beset by difficulties: a wiggy supporting cast (Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough); a truculent daughter out of rehab who’s working as his PA (Emma Stone); and the critics who are out for blood. And then there is the deep voice inside his head — his former screen persona, Birdman, who constantly prods him to ditch the prima donna crap and give the people what they want: superheroes and explosions.

Tempers fray, mishaps mount and Riggan finds himself wondering why exactly he’s putting himself through all this. His daughter doesn’t mince any words: “You are not doing this for the sake of art . . . you’re only doing this because you’re scared you don’t matter.”

Yet describing “Birdman” in print only hints at its manic restless flow, driven by Antonio Sanchez’s score of weird drum soloing, the constant fluidity of Emmanuel Lubezki’s camerawork and the sharp one-liners traded between Keaton, Norton, Stone and Zach Galifianakis, who plays Riggan’s agent.

There’s something about those long takes — where one misstep would mean redoing not one scene but many — that gives the film its electric tension. As Inarittu himself put it: “From now on, I don’t want to do anything that doesn’t scare me. It pushes you to the edge of your safety net, and it makes you feel more alive.” Altman would approve.

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