The Strawberry Criterion: Birdman

still fly

The (clearly discontinuous) continuous take that presents all of Alejandro G. Inarritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) as a single, unbroken shot is meant to recreate the effect of live theater, a literally ancient storytelling medium empowered by constraints that most of modern moviemaking seems to exist to ignore–Olympian feats of line memorization that digital’s infinite film stock renders unnecessary, utilitarian set design at which Michael Bay wouldn’t deign to blink, the many meticulously orchestrated in-person miracles that must occur, in sequence, to stage a play successfully; these are but some of the theater’s specific wonders that Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) attempts to capture on screen–and much of the considerable joy that the film affords its audience arises from its adherence to and wild deviations from the governing laws of drama, how the technical possibilities of film imbue those laws with an elasticity that seems infinitely bendable and, as a consequence of physics, excitingly unbreakable, and so, in what technically constitutes a single shot, we see Icarus plummeting toward the earth in a ball of flame, Michael Keaton levitating in the lotus position in tighty whities, Emma Stone buying bodega flowers, Edward Norton trying to fuck Naomi Watts in front of a packed St. James Theater, bucket drummers, jazz drummers, Times Square at its most overwhelmingly neon, a giant mechanical bird, monologues that wax poetic on art, Twitter, family, Emma Stone’s ass, Raymond Carver, the meaning of life, the inevitability of death, the life-affirming meaning or life-eradicating meaninglessness of all the aforementioned, among nearly un-listable scores of other topics, like superhero movies and celebrity worship and substance abuse, like criticism and artistic integrity and suicide, and the fact that Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is partly able to arrange these disparate elements into a comprehensible whole is reason enough to buy a ticket (as you would for a play) and see the damn thing (as you would a play) to marvel at how human beings no different than you somehow pulled this off…


…but with the inherent complexity of the clever conceit and surfeit of subjects in Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) comes a narrative speed that doesn’t allow for considered development, which flattens characters into types and muddles arguments into bullet points, leaving a lot of the emotional heavy lifting to the audience’s meta-understanding of the actors playing the characters (i.e. the automatically triggered emotional investment one feels watching Michael Keaton play a semi-forgotten superhero actor), and once this gets combined with the recognizability of Emma Stone’s Troubled Daughter With Substance Abuse Issues and Amy Ryan’s Emotionally Scarred But Ultimately Forgiving Ex-Wife and a Chekov’s Gun If There Ever Was One, the film places itself on shallow emotional and intellectual paths that diverge a smidgen too much from its wildly inventive structural path, occasionally reducing its magic from awe-inspiring to parlor trick, which is to say that it is sometimes difficult to parse what Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is saying about the endless things that it seems to have stuff to say about, a vagueness (not an ambiguity) of intellection that throughout troubles the film without entirely undermining it, until the final scene, after Keaton has staged his adaptation of “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” (a choice of source material whose on-the-nose-ness is indicative of the movie as a whole), Keaton and Stone have their requisite moment of partial reconciliation, and it turns out to be an anachronistically affecting exchange that elevates the film’s easy critique of superhero movies into a more interpretable, human space, one that celebrates the genre while smartly disparaging it…


…because if Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) distills one clear meta-comment on superhero movies out of its endless sea of meta-comments on superhero movies, that comment seems to be that what’s most missing from the dominant genre in popular cinema today isn’t so much originality, artistry, or imagination, but emotional intelligence (what’s missing is heart), an emotional connection fueled not by exogenous brand loyalty and PR campaigns but by genuine care for the individual fates and wellbeing of these fictional characters, in other words, we shouldn’t give a shit about superheroes saving the world as much as we should give a shit about them saving themselves, since that is one of the few powers we, as people who actually exist, share with them, so Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) becomes a simple story of a father winning his daughter’s respect, and its two-part title becomes a choice, because while there is an unexpected amount of virtue in (emotional) ignorance, there is far more to be found in Birdman.

Final Strawberry Verdict: 4.25 out of 5 Strawberries