The Gun Over the Fireplace in Act One

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2014)

Film has three kinds of meta – the film about the film, which attempts to bite the hand that feeds it without ever really drawing blood (think The Player (Robert Altman, 1992), the film about TV, which is about how inauthentic and cynical that medium is (Network (Sidney Lumet, 1976)), and the film about theatre, which is about a huge cultural cringe and the superior authenticity of the stage. There’s a cameo role on Birdman for Lindsay Duncan, a fine actor, who steals the film as Tabitha Dickinson, theatre critic, in a film full of more acting per square centimetre than is entirely comfortable; she gets to tell Riggan Tomson, former star of three superhero movies, about how awful it is that such folk are taking up space in Broadway Theatreland and that they can’t act for toffee. Ah, one on the chin. A palpable hit.

Tomson is played by Michael Keaton, who was in the first two Batman movies back in the day, and a few movies since but hardly any you could name without looking them up (Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino, 1998), Out of Sight (Steven Soderbergh, 1998), Jack Frost (Troy Miller, 1998) and others, and a lot of voice work, it turns out). Tomson’s long-cherished dream is to repay a debt to unwitting mentor, Raymond Carver, by writing, directing and starring in a Broadway adaptation of a Carver story. The previews are not going well, and there is strife with a male costar Ralph, Jeremy Shamos, who is (un)fortunately knocked out by a falling spotlight. A new actor is brought in, Mike Shiner, played by Edward Norton – who was in the semi successful The Incredible Hulk (Louis Leterrier, 2008). Meanwhile, there are potshots at Robert Downey Jr. (Ironman (Jon Favreau (2008, 2010, Shane Black, 2013) and George Clooney (who killed the 1990s run of Batman films with Batman and Robin (Joel Schumacher, 1997)) and a Man of Steel poster on the skyline. (It’s a neat touch that the theatre chosen is opposite one playing The Phantom of the Opera.) It’s a close-run thing whether any of the actors will make it to opening night, let alone that the play will open.

There’s the ex-wife (Amy Ryan), in town for the premiere, the druggie daughter (Emma Stone), looking for redemption, an ex-girlfriend (Naomi Watts) uncertain of her place, a female costar (Andrea Riseborough) who’s in a relationship with Shine and a best friend/lawyer/agent/producer (Zach Galifianakis) trying to hold it together. Fairly soon, you are ready to concede that Duncan’s critic has a point. Who cares about these people?

What ratchetts up the tension is that Tomson is either going through a major nervous breakdown or has both a Sekrit Identity and super-powers. Todorov eat your heart out. Has he? Hasn’t he? Was the accident with the spotlight an accident? Why can’t he control them better? There’s a sense that this is bordering on horror – I misheard Riggan as Regan (as in The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973)) at first and the endless tracking shots down theatre corridors began to echo The Overlook Hotel. Redrum! Redrum!

Oh yes, the film is composed of endless tracking shots, pursuing characters from room to room, picking up conversations and actions, kicking sand in Hitchcock’s face for pitiful ten minute takes in Rope. I guess there’s a sense of claustrophobia and being trapped and basically the director can. The director of photography, Emmanuel Lubezki, seems to think that this is the first time anyone has done this. Oh dear. The Player is one example, although it abandons the conceits after the first shot.

And then there’s a highly telegraphed climax where the film really has its cake and eats it, parts of which are visible from the first act and most of which is not as clever as it thinks it is. It’s a wonder that everyone doesn’t wake up and realise it’s all a dream. Or maybe everyone else did but me. I have to say I was reminded of the elegance of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing (1982), which folded real life into play into other people’s materials with an eleganc this lacked.

Oh, and in a year where there were complaints about the music soundtrack drowning out the dialogue in Interstellar (Chris Nolan, 2014), we appear to have the soundtrack from Whiplash (Damien Chazelle, 2014) or the longest drum solo in recorded history.

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