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CineFiles: How BIRDMAN Has the Potential to Fix Hollywood

Birdman, the new film by acclaimed director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Babel, Amores Perros), opened in November 2014. The film stars Michael Keaton as an old super hero actor attempting to once again gain status as a true artist via putting on a broadway show. Quirky, thought-provoking and hilarious are words that come to mind on the surface. Comparing some film history in contrast with the last decade of Hollywood movies, we can comfortably say the Birdman is the final piece in what may be a new renaissance of American cinema.

A Short Review:

Since the late 90s there has been a serious lack of truly inventive, independent filmmaking reaching the mainstream. There have been films which greatly raised the bar of what we expect in the quality of a movie, but not a lot of films coming out trying to do something totally original with the medium. Standing on the shoulders of Inside Llewyn Davis, HerThe CongressUnder the Skin and BoyhoodBirdman swoops in with both style and finesse and screams, “We’re back motherf@#$ers! Did you miss us?” 

Riggan (Michael Keaton) is a washed up movie star trying to rejuvenate his career by writing, directing, and starring in his own stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story, What We Talk About When We Talk About LoveStruggling to put on a meaningful show, reconnect with his daughter and literally keep his sanity proves to be a difficult task for Riggan. Constantly he fights the voice in his head pushing him to go back to being “a God” as his old super hero character. Ironically Keaton makes his comeback role here after being remembered for his role as Batman, yet he claims that he has “never related to a character less.”

Timing is everything in comedy and films often manipulate laughs using smart editing. Birdman is the funniest film since Shaun of the Dead and it contains almost no cuts. The beautiful cinematography by Emmanuel Lubeski (The Tree of Life, Children of Men, Gravity) play out as one seemingly continuous take. This is what makes some of the performances as impressive as they are. They have no editor to make a moment feel more real. It is all their perfect choreography, timing and line delivery that moves us. With a cast including names like Edward Norton, Emma Stone and Zach Galifianakis it is shocking that this is the best performance of all of their careers. Except, perhaps, for Naomi Watts who does wonderfully but has dealt with much more complex characters in the past. 

More than just a good laugh, Birdman has a lot to say about the entertainment industry. Commenting on everything from film criticism to big Hollywood blockbusters, nothing ever seems heavy-handed. It is more of a complete picture of the industry rather than a sermon of what’s wrong with the industry. Though it is from the perspective of the independent artist no message is ever shoved down the audiences throat.

What Makes Birdman Different?:

There was a time in American history (for the sake of this article’s length we will stay in America) when directors attempted to answer the question, “what is cinema?” It was the underlying theme in every movie, the hidden tension pushing experimental filmmaking forward. Great risks were taken in search for the answer. That time was the late 1960’s and 1970’s. This was a time when movies were beginning to fade from popularity in America. Studios were being bought out and things were getting stale. As a result young punks like Martin Scorsese, John Milius, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola and Brian De Palma were hired straight out of film school to work on movies. Pioneers of the modern movie. Unbelievably imaginative these rebellious youths created a new era of filmmaking trying to reinvent the medium. All of these experiments are what keeps the medium alive. However American movies, with few exceptions, have been dead for over a decade.

The final nail in the coffin of American film is, wait for it, Marvel. That’s right. Marvel is the epitome of money driven films. They have made essentially the same movie more than ten times since 2008, presenting it in a fresh and interesting way maybe 3 times. When money drives films we get The Fast and the Furious shoving cheesy dialogue and ridiculous stories down our throats for 13 years. We talk ourselves into buying tickets year after year by saying, “It was better than the last one, so it was good.” This is a fallacy.

The problem is not that these movies are enjoyed. They have their place alongside amusement park rides and other spectacle entertainment. The issue becomes a simple matter of funding. According to Box Office Mojo, the 10 highest grossing films of 2000 consisted of, 7 original films, 2 adaptations and 1 sequel. So far the 10 highest ranking films of 2014 consist of 6 sequels and 4 adaptations or remakes.

There is also a significant decrease in the number of films being made with an increase in the annual gross. Sony/Columbia Pictures, for example, made 29 films with a gross of $681,500,000 in 2000. In 2014 they have released only 17 films and had an annual gross of $1,181,800,000 so far. This means that far less is being invested in low-budget independent films. They are spending more money on fewer blockbusters and the number of inventive and original films have all but disappeared in the public eye.

Birdman is not only wildly entertaining, it also takes risks. Alejandro does things in an unconventional way that pay off big time in the overall experience. A film which encourages its audiences creativity and challenges them to look beyond what TV commercials feed them is in a way taking on this current sequel/reboot epidemic and challenging us to turn our backs on the mundane stories we tolerate for lack of interesting supply. Despite all of this, it has yet to earn back its budget. It seems that more people saw the critical flop Ouija in theaters than people who know Birdman exists. The general public will likely not discover this masterpiece until it is nominated for a bundle of Oscars.

The film has declared the return of true American artists of the silver screen. Hopefully this is just the beginning and a generation of filmmakers will once again attempt to answer the question. Once again push the limits of what is possible with this art form we all love so much. But if not, well at least we will still have Birdman. We can all take comfort in that.

Cover image via

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Categories: Lists and Editorials, Movie Reviews

Author:Oliver Gelleni

Check out more thoughts on movies new and old here: http://letterboxd.com/ogfilms/. I am an Austin based filmmaker with a passion and an eye for quality cinema.

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6 Comments on “CineFiles: How BIRDMAN Has the Potential to Fix Hollywood”

  1. 11/19/2014 at 4:27 AM #

    I hope I get the chance to see this. It’s good to see Micheal Keaton too.

  2. 11/19/2014 at 11:22 AM #

    I love many of the points you have made here. I enjoy studying film and the industry as a whole. There is a cancer in modern movies and, as you said, it’s that sameness. We get a repeat of every type of movie, with little effort put into anything, each summer, and are expected to deal with it. I haven’t gotten the chance to see Birdman, but based on this article I am more intrigued than ever. Very well done my friend.

  3. 11/20/2014 at 7:31 PM #

    Hell, this review is a breath of fresh air in a sea of stale movie reviews. :)

  4. 11/21/2014 at 1:57 AM #

    Thanks all! Your support is appreciated. I am so excited to continue this CineFiles series, bringing lesser known gems and industry studies to the forefront. :)

  5. 08/31/2015 at 10:17 AM #

    Scheduled Recordings – due to the change in channel numbers (and the order of channels), you’ll need to delete and
    reschedule all recordings.

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