American cinema has stopped asking the question, what does it mean to be human, and has instead become fixated on the question of what it would mean to be super-human. The former question is concerned with the low-mimetic—our world as it really is; the here and now. The latter is tied to the high-mimetic—the world of gods and monsters—a world that is both long past and distant future. Where the high-mimetic may once have been the realm of myth, it’s now the realm of the blockbuster film: dystopias, comic book adaptations, villains, and superheroes.
2014 gave us Birdman, a film that sought to legitimate the high-mimetic spectacular populism of superhero movies. The film lays claim to a variety of aesthetic revolutions, but a closer look at its formal techniques– which repeatedly claim to critique (what, it hardly matters: masculinity, low art, the unartful visual effects of blockbuster films)—reveal an unadventurous conventionality woven into the very fabric of this film.
Birdman performed its own legitimation by proposing all kinds of things: a critique of Hollywood and mainstream filmmaking, a fluid relationship between popular culture and high art, and a re-evaluation of the masculine ideal. It presents itself as a dissenting voice against the current predominance of tentpole films and was largely embraced as such by audiences, critics, and Hollywood alike. But through both its formal and narrative strategies, Birdman contradicts each of these proposals. Its “true ignorance” lies in the fact that while attempting to overturn the superhero paradigm, it neatly wraps itself back up in the status quo.
The film pits the individual artist against the industrial art complex. It’s not an original idea, but it is one that resonates. Michael Keaton’s Riggan is a man who has been broken down by the blockbuster machine—made both obsolete and conspicuous by his former portrayal of the superhero Birdman. We follow his attempt to gain legitimacy through the staging of a play he has written, directed and stars in, based on the literary work of Raymond Carver. Riggan’s endeavor feels misguided yet inevitable, the primal scream of every human alone in the world, and his rejection by both the low art of Hollywood and the high art of Broadway seems assured. His suicide attempt on opening night is meant to be the decisive moment that will bring down the establishment. This bid to reorder the art world’s hierarchy does result in a front page write-up in the New York Times, allowing him to ascend once more to the world of A-list celebrity. But the Times article is only a sensational moment, what we now call a trending topic, and the art establishment remains untouched. The film lays claim to a revolution that is hollow and ultimately conforms to the way in which superhero films are not grounded in realism through their formal structures, nor do they challenge our assumptions about masculinity.
Birdman’s formal structure– its presentation of itself as one continuous long take– has been celebrated as innovative and flawlessly achieved. We know by now that the long take exhibits cinema’s capacity for verisimilitude. Cutting equals spatial discontinuity and editing is what big budget action movies do to cover up their strategies for manipulating the image. By refusing to cut even once over its entire runtime, Birdman holds fast to a sense of realism, an enactment of mis en scene that allows real time to unfold. The relationship between space and time is preserved and therefore the relationship to the truth is also preserved. We are meant to believe that this is a story that is happening now; not in the past, nor in some speculative future. Now—slowly and truthfully.
And yet an accurate discussion of Birdman must acknowledge that the strategy the film employs is not the long take, but something akin to a hyper edit: a manipulation of the image that happens at the level of the pixel. Of its 113 minute runtime, fully 90 minutes were constructed using high end visual effects. The floating camera moves seamlessly because it is not a real camera. It is a virtual camera set in front of green screens. Photogeometry and heavy rotoscoping mask the cinematic apparatus with CG mirrors. Digital sets fill in the gaps. The most sophisticated CG props in the film were not the helicopter and flying super hero which call attention to themselves, but the pieces of furniture Riggan destroys in a rage in his dressing room. The use of deep focus down dark hallways and of course the stitching of cuts between all these separate scenes appear to us as one single take.
The invocation of Raymond Carver attempts to ground the film in the realm of gritty realism. But what the medium reveals is that this is not possible. It is interesting to note that until awards season was over, the studio maintained, “Everything you see in the film is real.” This is an outrageous claim by today’s filmmaking standards. If, as Jean-Luc Godard once said, cinema is truth twenty-four times per second, then Birdman is the lie ad nauseum. The disjuncture between the film’s formal strategies is echoed in its thematic concerns. What begins as a thoughtful exploration of gender—Riggan’s inability to live up to the expectations of all the women in his life—results in an unfocused critique of the masculine ideal.
True to superhero tropes, Birdman himself is a caricature of masculinity—his voice, his omnipresence, his relentless aggression—these things, in contrast with Riggan’s escalating failures and humiliation, appear to speak to the idea that this is a film about the crisis of hypermasculinity that should cause us to step back and evaluate the problematic nature of what blockbusters tell us it means to “be a man.”
When examined closely however, Riggan conforms to the conventions which govern the superhero narrative. A hero is a man who is superior to other men, but who falls victim to some hostile environment in which he is placed, often through no fault of his own. After some struggle, the hero ultimately prevails through his embodiment of masculine traits: violence, aggression, courage.
It is true that Riggan is superficially presented to us as a man who exhibits weakness of character. At every turn, we are encouraged to question his sanity, his talent, his physical virility. And yet simultaneously, he embodies each of the male characteristics in question. He is violent, in his dealings with Mike, his outbursts in his dressing room, and ultimately in his suicide attempt. He is confrontational in his relationships with other characters, and in the end he is respected, the most celebrated masculine trait of all.
In the schizophrenic nature of this presentation of masculinity, a clear message emerges: that the everyman is the hero; the same great white male trope we see again and again in fiction. Even as the film attempts to reject machismo, it embraces it.
The opening shot of the film says everything that needs to be said. We see Riggan cross-legged and shirtless, his doughy torso sagging over his discolored tight white underwear. Even as we feel a sense of revulsion at his grotesque humanity, at the weakness we recognize in ourselves, we marvel at the fact that he is floating in mid air, an explicit statement that while this man may be average, he is also superior. Allowing every man in the audience to say to himself, this man is me.