Birdman: The Unexpected Virtue of Ambiguity – Amazon Review (Day 9)

A former superhero actor puts his career back on track by reminding people that he’s a heck of an actor.

SUMMARY

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is an actor and the former star of the Birdman superhero series in the 1990s. He has started to go insane and hears the voice of Birdman telling him how he’s wasting his potential in his current venture: writing and starring in a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” with his girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough). Riggan appears to display telekinesis and levitation superpowers, but only when alone. When a lighting fixture hits Riggan’s male co-star, Ralph (Jeremy Shamos), a day before previews are supposed to start, one of the leads, Lesley (Naomi Watts), recommends replacing him with her boyfriend, method actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton). 

Bit of a generation gap.

The previews go horribly. Mike wants to drink real alcohol during the show and gets into a fight with Riggan while onstage, while the next night Mike attempts to have sex with Lesley onstage despite her refusal and ends up showing his erection to the audience. When Mike does an interview with the New York Times and steals a story he heard from Riggan, Riggan attacks him and tries to fire him. Riggan’s lawyer and producer Jake (Zach Galifianakis), convinces him to continue. Riggan’s daughter and assistant,  Sam (Emma Stone), who is fresh out of rehab, gets caught smoking pot by Riggan and proceeds to insult his entire life and ambition. She and Mike then start to flirt and eventually sleep together. 

When your daughter has a five-minute monologue to attack you with, that’s bad.

During the last preview, Riggan gets locked out of the theater in his underwear and walks through Times Square, becoming a viral sensation. Riggan goes for a drink and encounters critic Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan), who tells him that she hates Hollywood celebrities pretending to be real actors and promises to kill his play. Riggan then insults her and claims she’s just biased. Riggan then gets drunk and passes out on a stoop. While heading back to the theatre, Birdman appears to him and tries to convince Riggan to do another Birdman movie because audiences love spectacle and will praise him as long as there are big action scenes. Riggan flies to the theatre… or takes a cab, maybe.

Okay, I admit that I would see this movie.

On opening night, Riggan gives a command performance and apologizes to his ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan) for his behavior during their marriage, admitting that he tried to kill himself once out of guilt. As Sylvia wishes him luck, Riggan grabs a real gun and does the final scene in which his character kills himself, shooting himself in the head to applause. Riggan wakes up the next day in the hospital with a new nose and a glowing review from Tabitha, who claims Riggan’s suicide to be “super-realism.” Sam visits with flowers and new respect and love for her father. Riggan goes to the bathroom and tells Birdman goodbye before climbing out on a ledge to watch the birds. When Sam comes into the room, she runs to the window and looks down to see Riggan’s body, but then, confused, looks up and smiles at something she sees.

END SUMMARY

When I saw that the prompt was “Film with Great Cinematography,” I immediately knew that it had to be this movie. Not only are almost all of the shots in this film perfectly constructed, but the film itself is designed to seem like it’s mostly only a single take. It serves as a way to give the experience a feel more akin to a theatrical performance. While there are a few visible cuts, they roughly correspond to the “dream sequences” that apparently Riggan worked into the stage production. The single shot nature of the film is reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s film Rope, which used a number of long-cuts and editing tricks to disguise the fact that the movie was shot on reels that could only hold 10 minutes of film at a time. While Rope is depicted as taking place mostly in real-time, Birdman instead uses transitions between parts of the theater or the city to move us forward in time, often connecting the shots thematically. 

Such beautiful framing even in seemingly unimportant scenes.

Similar to a play, too, the film will often focus on interactions between side characters, such as Lesley and Laura or Mike and Sam, in order to allow for Riggan’s story to move forward. Some of those scenes, while they are interesting and well-performed, often wind up reminding me more of a Shakespearean monologue crafted to buy an actor time for a costume change. They end up seeming even more blatant on re-watch when you realize that many of these side stories have no real resolution. Laura and Lesley begin to seemingly find an attraction to each other, but nothing further comes of it. Mike has no character arc and his relationship with Sam doesn’t move anything forward for either of them, aside from setting up the scene of Riggan getting locked out of the theatre. This makes the movie feel like everyone really exists to support Riggan’s story, which is exactly what his daughter accuses him of believing.

Jake makes stuff go away, somehow.

Keaton was really the perfect pick for this and, honestly, I can’t imagine it working with anyone else. Riggan Thomson is a thinly-veiled substitute for Keaton and Birdman for Batman. I was shocked to find out that this movie was in production without Keaton in mind at first. Riggan, like Keaton, is a great actor whose career suffered due to being typecast as a superhero. Despite the fact that superhero films are no longer treated as complete popcorn fare, with some getting critical acclaim or even Oscar wins, Riggan still hasn’t been allowed back in bigger dramatic roles. Birdman seems to represent Riggan’s love of celebrity, wanting Riggan to abandon his dreams of “real acting” and instead focus on spectacle. 

Which is what we see him constantly imagine, amidst a ton of flashy ads for plays.

The characters in the film tend to try and draw a distinction between spectacle films and real dramatic acting. Birdman even delivers a monologue directly into the camera during a fake action sequence, saying “[the audience members] love this shit. They love blood. They love action. Not this talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit.” When Tabitha tells Riggan that she intends to close his play, she describes it as being because she hates what he represents, film actors trying to appear on Broadway. Without any regard to whether or not Riggan actually can act, the fact that he once appeared in a popcorn film disqualifies him from any claim to actual artistry. This actually works even better under the final cast, because most of the leads in the film had all appeared in superhero/comic films (Norton – The Incredible Hulk; Keaton – Batman; Emma Stone – The Amazing Spider-Man; Naomi Watts – Tank Girl) and yet all of them give command performances in this film. Despite pointing out that studios will often conflate art with spectacle (they aren’t mutually exclusive, though), the film makes a point of showing that actors can do both. 

These men have range.

Overall, this movie is a masterpiece. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Rent, steal, whatever you need to do.

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All TimeCollection of TV EpisodesCollection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.

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35) Man From the South (Alfred Hitchcock Presents)

AlfredHitchcock.jpg
And tied with Kubrick and Michael Bay for Oscar wins.

You know who Alfred Hitchcock is. He’s one of the probably 5 directors that have managed to become household names. He directed some of the most innovative and brilliant films of all time. But, he also hosted a television program for 10 years in which he would produce short films for other directors, or, occasionally, himself. It was very similar to the format of The Twilight Zone, with Hitchcock himself introducing the episode, and then appearing again at the end to close out the episode, often tying up loose ends in the closing monologue. Interestingly, 2 versions of the opening monologue were shot for each episode. One, for the American broadcast, would include jokes or contemporary pop culture references. The other, for the British broadcast, would mostly joke about the fact that Americans needed contemporary pop culture references in order to enjoy someone introducing artistic short films. Yeah, even 10 years after WWII, the British were taking shots at our lack of culture. Things never change.

Britain

This episode stands out because it was a combination of talents coming together to produce something greater than the sum of its parts. This episode was written by Roald Dahl, famed for his twisted mind, and directed by Norman Lloyd, a longtime collaborator of both Dahl and Hitchcock. It starred a young Steve McQueen, a man who was literally given the title “the King of Cool,” and Peter Lorre, a man who was so iconic in his creepiness that you’ve definitely heard a character do an impersonation of him at some point.

AlfredHitchcockCast
I’ll let you guess which is which.

Rather than put it at the end, I’m going to go ahead and put the episode here, and advise you to watch it now (30 Minutes long):

SUMMARY

McQueen is a down on his luck gambler, commiserating with a young woman (played by his real-life wife Neile Adams). They’re joined by the Man from the South (Lorre), and over the course of a conversation, Lorre asks if McQueen would accept a little wager: If McQueen can light his lighter 10 times in a row, then Lorre will give him his convertible. If McQueen cannot, then Lorre will cut off the little finger on his left hand. Eventually, McQueen accepts.

Normally, the show would jump to the execution of the wager at this point, but not this episode. It shows all the details of how Lorre sets the scene of the bet. He asks for a specific kind of knife. He selects a referee for the wager. He ties down McQueen’s arm. And throughout it, you can see exactly how excited Lorre is to do this. He’s so filled with a combination of sadistic glee and perfectionism that instead of being slow, the scenes are nauseatingly suspenseful, despite the fact that, objectively, almost nothing happens.

AlfredHitchcockSceneFinally, the bet starts. McQueen starts flicking his lighter, with the room containing himself, Lorre, the referee (Character actor Tyler McVey), and Adams. Adams moves around in the background, trying to both watch and avoid watching. The referee forcefully and tensely counts the lightings, managing to convey discomfort but also determination to see this through. McQueen’s performance, however, is a little subtler. His face shows a slight glimmer of fear under a façade of confidence. Even when he throws a glance at Lorre to show some dominance, it slides back into anxiety. Lorre, meanwhile, manages to play between hopeful and disappointed with each lighting, even starting to look longingly at McQueen’s hand with its outstretched pinkie.

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To be fair, it is a luscious pinkie.

McQueen makes it to 7, at which time another woman breaks into the room and reveals herself to be Lorre’s wife. She reveals something even more horrifying: This is what Lorre does for fun. He has done it more than 50 times, and has taken dozens of fingers. They had to flee from their homeland because he was going to be locked up. Moreover, he doesn’t even have a car to lose. The car belongs to her, along with all of his other property, because she won it all from him over the years. The last shot reveals that she only has 2 fingers remaining on her left hand. As she is revealing this, McQueen goes to light a cigarette… only to have his lighter fail on the next strike. He would have lost his finger, and Lorre didn’t even have the car to satisfy his end.

AlfredHitchcockFingers

END SUMMARY

The acting is amazing, the tension building during the set-up is phenomenal, but what really sells it in some ways is the last 30 seconds when the wife shows up. She refers to Lorre as a menace. She says that she regrets any time she leaves him alone. He’s ruined her life. But SHE’S STILL WITH HIM. She feels responsible, not for him, but for anyone he hurts. Responsibility is a theme within the episode. The woman follows McQueen because she feels responsible for not talking him out of it. The referee hesitates to start and thanks the wife for stopping it because he felt he would be responsible for what happened.

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SHE LITERALLY HAS A CLEAVER-GRABBING ROUTINE

This episode itself is only 25 minutes or so long, but at the end of it, you’ll feel you aged a year. If that’s not the mark of good suspense, I don’t know what is.

PREVIOUS – 36: Newhart

NEXT – 34: The Sopranos

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews

If you enjoy these, please, like, share, tell your friends, like the Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/JokerOnTheSofa/), follow on Twitter @JokerOnTheSofa, and just generally give me a little bump. I’m not getting paid, but I like to get feedback.