Ever since D. W. Griffith we've accepted editing as the grammar of cinema, yet every so often someone acts as if eliminating editing, or at least the trace of it, is the acme of cinematic art. The long take and the tracking shot are a kind of alternate language that can call itself cinematic for emphasizing the mobility of the camera, yet to trade montage for mis-en-scene arguably is to exchange the cinematic for the theatrical. Projects like Rope and Russian Ark are impressive in both theory and execution, yet ultimately seem more labor-intensive than the results justify. They're masterpieces of a sort, but are more stunts than real classics. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is trying something different in Birdman, but the inherent theatricality of the long-take is still there, as is only fitting for a film about the theater and the mutual envy of theater and film. Inarritu, in a drastic departure from his signature style as the innovator and popularizer of the so-called lasagna movie (intercutting between "layers" of different stories as in Amores Perros, Babel), attempts the illusion, inside very early and very late brackets, of telling his story without a cut, but unlike the Hitchcock and Sokurov experiments mentioned above, he also attempts to sustain the illusion while taking jumps in time. Sometimes he uses devices that are more or less dissolves: the lights go out inside buildings while night turns to day; a video image on a smartphone becomes an image on a barroom TV set. Sometimes he does a kind of in-camera flash-forward, his camera panning across time as well as space. This latter trick is itself very theatrical; you can imagine, if you haven't actually seen, a stage director do something similar, lacking the luxury of the editing room.
Is there a point to this beyond showing off what Inarritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki can do? I'm not sure, but there clearly seems to be a point to Birdman's kulturkampf of theater and cinema, and there may be a clue in the "truth or dare" games played by Edward Norton's pretentious stage actor and Emma Stone as the main character's recovering-skank daughter. The Norton character is obsessed with "truth," though he warns that he's only ever "true" on stage, and refuses ever to take a dare from Stone. Michael Keaton's protagonist, meanwhile, is taking the ultimate dare, risking his savings and his self-respect to prove himself as an actor after years playing superheroes by producing, writing, directing and starring in a highbrow vanity project based on a story by his boyhood idol, Raymond Carver. He's regarded with contempt by the Broadway regulars, barely disguised by Norton, playing a late addition to the cast, and blatantly undisguised by a powerful newspaper critic, a Frank Rich in drag who threatens to ruin Keaton's play by panning it sight-unseen out of resentment of movie stars usurping the legitimate theater. What does this mean to Inarritu and his co-writers? Does he have stage envy? Or had he heard too much about his films being gimmicky in some way or other that put his directorial legitimacy in question? However it works out, the publicity emphasizing the resemblance of Keaton's role, or his character's past, to the actor's own career nicely hides the extent to which the protagonist is more a surrogate for the director, down to the delusions of superhuman omnipotence, than for the star.
I'm afraid my theorizing isn't doing justice to the best and funniest film I've seen so far this year, a film that may owe as much to Mel Brooks as to higher things. The Broadway milieu and the troubled production and its almost accidental triumph automatically evoke The Producers, while Inarritu's occasional acknowledgment on-screen of the drummer providing much of the film's soundtrack -- you wonder sometimes whether this film traded scores with Whiplash -- looks like a nod to the Count Basie band's cameo appearance in Blazing Saddles. You might have expected something more pretentious if you recognized the Godard homage in the way the names in the credits appear a few letters at a time, and I suppose the playfulness on display in Birdman isn't alien to the dread Frenchman, but Godard is rarely this laugh-out-loud hilarious. Much of the credit for this goes to Edward Norton, who should be as much a shoo-in for a supporting actor nomination as Keaton seems deservedly to be in the lead-actor category. In fact, Norton nearly blows Keaton off the screen anytime they're together, even when their byplay is clearly improving Keaton's game. Had the film been made a decade later, the former Incredible Hulk could well have taken the lead, and even though Norton's actual role is crucially different from the actor in his aloof disdain for cinema, it's arguably more painfully closer to the mark than Keaton's in the master thespian's bridge-burning difficulty. More than in Keaton's case, Norton's departure from superhero cinema was a matter of self-sabotage; it may be easier to imagine him tormented by the Hulk's voice than Keaton by Batman's. None of this, however, makes Norton's performance so brilliant funny. The actor would have managed that had he never heard of Marvel. Keaton, too, is good enough to transcend his history; he'd be as good had he never been Batman. That's because Birdman isn't really about superheroes, superhero actors or superhero movies, except to the extent that superheroes give theater chauvinists a new excuse to belittle cinema. Ultimately, Inarritu may have intended his film as a vindication of cinema, a demonstration that it can play by theater rules as well as transcend its bounds. If we see Keaton's character as a representative or embodiment of cinema, rather than as a mere shadow of Michael Keaton, the film's mysteriously wondrous ending makes some thematic sense and the film itself remains a comedy. As a comedy, Birdman is in an ancient, classical tradition. Keaton's run through Times Square in his tidy-whities is something out of Keystone silents when the stars would run amok in public places, and it's set up with a classically simple sight gag. Exploiting the most modern technology, Inarritu in a way takes the art of cinema back a whole century, but if it's funny that's OK. Birdman's comedy, leavened in classic style with a little pathos, does much to redeem any seeming self-indulgence. Ideally, people will enjoy it without even thinking of it as an art movie, if it gets outside the art houses. Here's hoping it will.