Andy Warhol once said, “I’m afraid that if you look at a thing long enough, it loses all of its meaning.” He explored this in extremis in films such as Blow Job, Sleep, Outer and Inner Space, and, especially, Empire. The longer you gaze, it seems, the greater your awareness of your sustained voyeurism. You gradually come to scrutinize the nature, process, and duration of your fixed stare; it feels unnatural, you feel trapped and uncomfortable. Some of this is cultural—owing to social norms and expectations—some of it is instinctive—relating to communicative displays of aggression and power—and some of it is formal, emphasizing the gap between natural perception and the unblinking gaze we are aligned with in these perspectival exercises.
I recently caught up with Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)—the awards-sweeping meta-movie concerning a once-successful, aging superhero blockbuster actor (Michael Keaton exorcising Batman) taking a stab at legitimate art by writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway production of a Raymond Carver novel. Warhol’s sentiment came to mind because Birdman is structured, shot, and choreographed to resemble (for the most part) a single, seamless take. Multiple lengthy passages and roving tracking shots are strung together with the connections smoothed out. Interestingly, at the opposite end of the spectrum, I also found myself considering nouvelle vague pioneer Jean-Luc Godard’s famous backhanded compliment to cinema—“every edit is a lie”—and feeling there is real power in this idea, one that can and should be seized and developed in film like no other medium, and lamenting that Birdman sought to negate it.
Birdman is a minefield of formal inquiry. In its construction, it most resembles Hitchcock’s Rope—his feature-length experiment devised to create a pressure-cooker situation out of a dinner party murder-mystery by shooting the film to resemble a single take. Like Birdman, Rope is not one take but an illusion of a single take. The seams are purposefully smoothed but in this process and an inorganic hucksterism seeps in as a result of the technical strains this approach necessitates—to hide the seams one must condense, squeeze, choreograph, and organize such that events threaten to feel overtly artificial, theatrical, and distancing, rather than organic, immersive, and pressurized. Hitchcock was likely looking to exploit this, but in Iñárritu’s film it feels antithetical to the proceedings.
Issues surrounding long, tracking shots are a hot-button, even controversial, topic in cinephile circles, prompting polarized opinions. Critics and supporters alike hold fast to favorite elaborately choreographed sequences, eager to recount lengthy shots from film history and relate their importance. Film lovers stress these sequences because they stick out, calling attention to the effort involved to create them, signaling clear ambition that is easy to admire. But, arguments have ensued, and continue to, about the legitimacy of these techniques, which are often showy and elaborate for their own sake. At what point does style overwhelm content? And, if and when it does, is this inherently problematic or interestingly self-reflexive? Some will find them an affront to the capacities and strengths of the form while others argue that these sequences represent an expansion of filmic language. It’s an ongoing schism and Birdman finds itself at the vanguard.
Long takes don’t function in the same way that we see the world, despite how it may seem. Granted, they can track real time, and place us in a situation or setting where easy flight is not allowable or possible, but they force a sort of tunnel vision, squaring our sight with that of the camera—fixed, unerring, and direct. It creates a mode of perception that is inhuman, in other words, disallowing the natural editing process that we unconsciously partake in on a second-to-second basis. Typically, films are structured around choreography of perspective, each moment tied to the interplay between different views on events, or tied to a particular character’s vantage through a fragmented continuity that approximates our own patchy surveillance. But in the case of the long take, the camera has its own agency, dancing around the events and approaching something akin to omnipotence.
Birdman’s total structuring around the long take disallows the complete suture with protagonist Riggan’s plight and thus the audience assumes a vantage of watching from a distance, observing as one would a fish in a tank. What could potentially ground the film, exploring the contours and relations of the environments, is precisely the tool that marks its unreality. This omnipotence that Iñárritu conveys seems to be in line with his world view but it never serves to ground the film in character and situation. He is a spiritualist, always seeking opportunities to construct grand, everything-is-connected parables where fate plays a large hand, as in Babel and 21 Grams. But, does this serve the material? Does the how-the-sausage-gets-made view of the creative process, which serves to destabilize fantasy, combine well with a grand-scheme, omnipotent distanciation?
Space is controlled, manipulated, and explored in Birdman but time eludes Iñárritu in relation to style. The film takes place over the course of several days, despite this single-shot technique, so these long durations don’t harbor the same suspense and dread as say the quintessential example of such—Orson Welles’ meticulously choreographed opening to Touch of Evil, where a bomb is planted in a trunk with a precise amount of time attached and we follow the vehicle through and past crowds, traffic, and recognizable movie stars until it finally ticks all the way down. This scene augments our notion of time. We are always wondering how much time has elapsed and try to accurately track the specified duration. We have achieved the foreknowledge of an omniscient onlooker as the roving camera of the tracking shot, and the high crane angles, implies, and the payoff is all the better for the experience. In Touch of Evil, the purpose of the long take is to heighten the suspense and situate our relation to it, but in Birdman the function of the long takes remains uncertain. We are not fully stuck in this environment without an escape, as the long-take method can often foster, because this film is ‘edited’ and we move from place to place, across time, from one situation to the next. The film is refusing to acknowledge editing while trying to use its possibilities. The jarring ruptures that can occur when visual information is stripped away before the eyes of the viewer and replaced with a new palette are suppressed. Elisions are smoothed; the kaleidoscopic, fragmented nature of the medium is reduced.
There is a reason Variety still lists theater reviews under the “Legit” banner—film, and by extension television and new media thereafter, has always been a bastard child of the theater. From the beginning, it has been considered less-than, easy, cheap entertainment for mass-consumption, brainwashing us into submission. The theater is the realm of the artists, of real human emotion, of social issues. This divide has become less important and less relevant in our current day as modern generations have shown little interest in distinctions and antiquated dichotomies. These just don’t make sense in today’s media landscape. This tension between theater and film is leaned on heavily in Birdman. Iñárritu holds to it, and seems to take Variety’s label seriously rather than as tongue-in-cheek, boiling modern film down to a never-ending stream of superhero movies and sequels, and holding up Broadway as a bastion of hope and civility eager to lay waste to dreamers seeking legitimacy where they don’t belong. Birdman paints a world of artists and hacks, but also draws a hard line between creators and critics. These are not modern sensibilities. We live in a media environment of kaleidoscopic opinion, expressed and re-expressed, and this is all part of the landscape, not a vacuum of creation that is experienced and simply appreciated, but rather one that remains alive in the discourse.
The artistry of film and the artistry of theater are situated as competing within the narrative, but on the formal outer layer, Iñárritu attempts a sort of convergence that never seems to cohere—the long takes, likening the film with a theatrical production, are mixed with moments of magical realism and mobility that are not attainable on stage. There is something to this, but any intrigue garnered by fitting the square peg of the narrative into the round hole of the film’s style is upset by the commitment to the gimmick of the single shot instead of expanding on this with an evolving approach. He is also undone by an adherence to grandiose macro concepts of melodrama and redemption over a meticulous dissection of overlaid media, never nearing the operatic, transcendent heights of, say, Fellini’s 8 ½.
As a point of comparison, I was also thinking this week of an excerpt from a recent episode of Louie. In “Sleepover”, Louie takes his oldest daughter to a Broadway show. At the emotional climax of the production, he glances over to find her on her phone. He confronts her after the play, showing obvious distaste and disappointment with her behavior and finding it indicative of larger cultural ills and a generation detached from real emotional connection and legitimate art. She gets the better of him, explaining that she was looking up more information on the play. She proceeds to provide a plethora of background and context on the significance of the themes of the play, the author, and the larger social and cultural atmosphere in which it was created. She doesn’t connect with his perspective; but that doesn’t mean she wasn’t invested and that she didn’t feel the significance. Louie finds himself beaming with pride at the end of this interaction, returning her phone. This is the missing nuance that so often arises when we try to box the concept of legitimate art, art criticism and analysis, and perspectives and experience. It is also a beautiful illustration of finding middle ground for an argument that is so often didactic—with black and white opinions of the right and wrong way to experience something. This is where Birdman gets lost in its own devices. Continuous attention may not always be absolutely necessary. There can be merit in cutting away.
This article was written by Oliver O’Sullivan, a writer for dusk magazine.