The recent win for Birdman at the Golden Globes, under the heading of ‘Best Comedy or Musical’, is somewhat misleading. Frenzied drumming does beat out the feverish pace, there are certainly comic flurries (both psychologically dark and involving misplaced erections) and the film definitely deserves almost any accolade that has ‘Best’ as part of it. But the terms ‘Musical’ and ‘Comedy’ are, in the Hollywood world, somewhat loaded. Birdman is comic, but it is not a fluffy, easy piece, to be lightly enjoyed with popcorn and belly laughs. It is not Mamma Mia, or The Hangover. It is a disorientating whirlwind of a film, a technical triumph and one of the best things to be released to cinemas, in any category, in recent years.
Boyhood is currently garnering much of the conversation concerning innovative cinematic techniques. Admittedly, filming a single piece over 12 years does take some skill and bravado. However, when it comes to the screen, Birdman’s level of cinematic wizardry can only be compared to the overwhelming grandeur of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. And that had the wonders of CGI black holes in its favour. Alejandro González Iñárritu has the dingy back corridors, rehearsal rooms and exposed piping of a Broadway theatre. While some of the most impressive set scenes occur in the open New York streets (Michael Keaton dashing down Broadway in Y-fronts, attempting to avoid fans and a marching band, is a highlight), the majority of the piece is contained within the same claustrophobic spaces. What makes these spaces so spectacular on screen is the supremely skilful camera work, which gives the audience the impression of a single shot. The camera swoops and careers around corners, jumping from character to character and sliding, apparently seamlessly, from scene to scene. It’s disturbingly mesmerising.
All of the performances are equally compelling and technically masterful. Keaton’s career decline post-Batman shadows his central turn as a faded Hollywood superhero almost as much as the bass-voiced, winged figure that actually seems to stalk him. This is for Keaton the triumphant return that his character so achingly desires.
Edward Norton’s hilarious character Mike, a preening Broadway bundle of arrogance and insecurity, makes a claim about “wrestling with complex human emotions”. From his lips this sounds typically exaggerated and farcical, yet Iñárritu has truly created a complex, emotionally and mentally challenging piece that is also entertaining and visually exceptional.