"Birdman:" A Triumph of Self-Consciousness

If there were an Academy Award for self-conscious film direction, Birdman would win hands down. The movie is shot as if in one continuous, nearly-two-hour take, with occasional changes of scene, but no actual cuts or normal cinematic transitions. This highly contrived and artificial technique necessitates that the camera incessantly follow characters from one location to another, with copious quantities of close-ups, inducing a claustrophobic effect. The net effect is to make the viewer continuously conscious of the camera, rather than the subject matter of the film. It is as if the director is insisting that we acknowledge his artsiness and technical expertise, rather than allowing the camera to work without forcing us to give our attention to it, and therefore to him.

Alejandro Inarritu's self-conscious direction takes other forms as well. His lead character is given to feats of occult prowess, including levitation and telekinesis. For most of the film, these acts occur only when he is alone, which allows the viewer to assume that they are acts only imagined by the character ostensibly performing them. But we cannot know for sure, since the actions are filmed as if they are real, so we are forced to think about the director and wonder what he intends. Later in the film, the character flies through the sky in public, and people in the street notice him. Is this too intended to be the character's imagination? In his coy self-consciousness, Inarritu never lets us know for sure.

Nothing in this film allows us to feel any actual emotional engagement with the characters. All of the actors give outstanding performances, especially Keaton, Norton, and Stone, and much of the dialogue is clever, but no one is sufficiently appealing or authentic to allow the audience to care much what happens to them. The film portrays an abundance of stormy emotion, and yet it is curiously lacking any real heart.

Inarritu self-consciously toys with the audience above all in the concluding scenes. In a cynical ploy, he manipulates the viewers' reaction by presenting an apparent suicide in a particularly dramatic form -- but he does so in a way that the audience is left for long moments not knowing for sure whether the suicide was real or not. This motif would be bad enough if it occurred only once, but Inarritu manages to employ it three times in the last 30 minutes of the film. Once again our attention is drawn to the director rather than to the substance of the film.

Birdman is a feat of technical expertise in search of any real meaning. Its deepest intention seems to be to make us admire Inarritu, and some of the awards the film has won suggest it may have succeeded in that purpose. If so, let us hope he may be satisfied, and may in the future employ his skills in the service of his art, rather than his ego.