Joint reviews may not do justice to any given film, but there is certain merit to be derived from lining up two films side by side and really doing a good, old fashioned, metaphorical “who’s got the best rack” competition. Today, the choice was easy. Dropping a film like American Sniper next to Birdman juxtaposes two completely different elements of modern red carpet cinema. The former conforms to the more traditional Hollywood standard for critical acclaim – a complex yet ultimately heroic story with trial, tribulation, and an aggressively strong basis in late 20th Century ethics. It’s the kind of crowd that still throws parties where they hors d’oeuvres on silver platters and jive to Born To Run. And by the way, Clint Eastwood has been on the guest list for every single goddamn one of these functions since the Red Scare (the first one). In other words, he’s an old bastard. And thus, talented as he is, Dirty Clint finds himself increasingly left in the dust as the 21st Century powers forward. American Sniper is not the reckless-slash-racist star spangled tribute to the American hero that some have claimed. But we’ve seen it all before. The emotions are timeless, the feats are universal, and the story falls so cleanly on the beaten path that it doesn’t even need to bring a map and mosquito repellant.
And that’s why Birdman is in a different league. Alejando Gonzales Inarritu’s new film is the exploration of a hero well below the visible plane of reality. It’s a film that bends and distorts our perception of the human experience, art that truly transcends its medium by never quite fitting cleanly within it. The trajectory of Riggan Thompson and Chris Kyle is not so different. Both struggle with demons. Both lie to themselves about the nature of the world and the place they occupy within it. Hell, they even meet the same end. In the last three seconds of Birdman, Riggan receives a magical a send off from his daughter, emotionally on par with Chris Kyle’s Cowboy Stadium extravaganza as the two protagonists pass into Kingdom Come. But Kyles journey is one we’ve seen before, and have since the invention of storytelling. In the same way that literature was able to leap to a new level of meaning and twist the concept of the narrative process long after its inception as a medium, film has finally reached the level of technical proficiency to do the same. And though far from the first to do so, Birdman consistently amazes with brazen experimentation, leaving hardly anything to be desired. 2014 has truly been a landmark year for cinema, arguably the first that our millennial generation has been privilege to witness. And hopefully, things just keep on getting better from here.
American Sniper is not a bad film. Bradley Cooper delivers a solid performance. Sienna Miller is either adorable or sexy for 95% of her considerable screen time. Clint Eastwood does his typical Eastwood tricks, digging into the fabric of an American hero as if he’s desperately and introspectively studying his own status as a timeless icon. But theres always something more you want from the film, and its always just out of reach. Various interesting elements bounce in and out of the narrative, some abandoned entirely or forgotten and some that almost seem to appear randomly. Teasing to break open at any moment, American Sniper spends the first 2 minutes heating up like wildfire – then fails to do so again. And when you step back to consider the story of Chris Kyle in retrospect, you wonder whether it’s a devoutly factual story unwillingly crammed into a model better fitted for films with ten times more creative license. In other words, I’m not rushing to read the book. Incredible as Kyle’s achievements are, the film failed to provide an adequate antagonist to match its compelling protagonist. It should have been the classic tale of man versus self, the struggle between a trained killer and the inner demons that nag at him. Instead, it was man versus a guy he never met, an antagonist who had about 2 minutes of total screen time, most of which is just the stunt double leaping between Iraqi buildings. The bad guy has to meet the good guy, Clint. Thats how it goddamn works.
Whether Riggan Thompson or Michael Keaton himself, the material accomplishments of Birdman‘s protagonist pale in comparison to those of Chris Kyle. And yet his story is infinitely more compelling. Maybe it’s the bizarre elements of comedy, horror, fantasy, realism, drama, musical, action adventure, superhero, documentary and even found footage that creep around the films many thematic layers. Maybe its the incredible camera work, the brilliantly technical ancestor to the long take technique popularized in Orson Welles’ A Touch of Evil. Maybe its the acting performances that stubbornly refuse to disappoint. But more than anything, its the question posed to us from the opening seconds, the one we only fully understand as the screen goes black 119 minutes later.
And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?
Michael Keaton tries to give Carver an answer in Birdman. And it’s magnificent. Norton deserves plenty of praise for his role, as does Emma Stone and Zack Galifianakis. But they pale in comparison to Keaton, an actor digging into his own world and exposing the frightening results. Keaton’s performance is so brilliant, and his casting so perfect that the film triumphantly accomplishes its ambitious pursuit of social commentary. By holding a mirror up to the very place where it was both born, raised and acclaimed, Birdman serves to parody the Hollywood star machine just as much as the New York intellectual art scene. And more than anything, it parodies our terrible generation. In one incredible scene, Riggin walks through Times Square in his underwear chased by a crowd of cell phones, a faceless mass viewing the world through a million digital screens. And if that scene doesn’t frighten you, it should.
To watch American Sniper is to watch a well made portrait of a true hero. But you never once question what you’re watching. Maybe, to some people, thats an asset. And in the traditional sense of entertainment, those people might be right. But Birdman chooses to do something different, casting aside convention in the pursuit of progress. It’s meta-filmmaking in disguise. It’s commentary on its own art form that exists well before it has any right to exist. And if you don’t buy all that, and you choose to refute it as conceptually simple or gimmicky, you must still bow down to the awe inspiring technical accomplishments. As an objective viewer, it is nothing less than your duty.
In a bar, Keaton and Norton (as Riggins and Shiner) discuss the author of the opening quote, Raymond Carver. Carver was a writer and a fierce alcoholic, and at one point, the film subtly questions his artistic integrity. I couldn’t help but dig into my own past, and thought about my own reaction to his infamous short, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. When you walk away from this bizarre and miserable little story, you can’t help but wonder whether the warped, dizzy and dark reflections on humanity are really genius at all, or merely the result of Carver’s tolerant view of the alcoholic beverage. Birdman, in its own strange and warped way, refuses to ever give us an answer. And while the poignant themes in the film may be challengingly complex, one thing isn’t. The emotional impact is crystal clear.
To call myself beloved, to feel beloved on the earth.
Well done, Alejandro. Well done.