I’ve seen a lot of discussion about the Best Picture Oscar win for Birdman, and my friend Jakebe wrote a lovely and impassioned argument for Boyhood as Best Picture. And Lance Mannion points out that if you’re worried about a movie surviving the test of time, think about its quotability rather than its Best Picture win (a category where I think both Boyhood and Birdman fall slightly short, although truth be told, I can’t remember many lines from Mannion’s favorite, The Grand Budapest Hotel; I think the most quotable movie of the bunch this year was Whiplash, to be honest, and Oscar host Neil Patrick Harris I think proved me right by including one iconic quote in his telecast: “Not quite my tempo.”).
In any event, I was perfectly happy with Birdman as the Best Picture. My favorite movies of the nominees were, in some order, the four mentioned above. I think I would rank Birdman first, with the other three shifting places depending on my mood and the immediacy of them. So in something of a response to Jakebe’s assertion that Boyhood was the perfect movie for our times, I am going to argue, not that he’s wrong, but that Birdman is just as appropriate.
What I loved about Birdman was the magical flow of it, the visual storytelling and the razor-sharp acting, the tension and the sets and the breathless mimicry of single-camera shooting, which is sort of to filmmaking what present tense is to writing (and we know how I love that). I think that present-tense storytelling is very emblematic of today’s hurry-up twenty-four-hour news cycle Twitter/Facebook/Snapchat/Instagram culture, and the writers are aware of this: the first time we see Riggan converse with Sam is over Skype.
And that filmmaking works for this story because one of the things the story is about is just the opposite, how everything that happens becomes part of us, how our reputations are built on the way people perceive us and how it is so hard to change that. Riggan is, of course, trying to amend his own reputation (and while we don’t know whether Keaton is trying to amend his own through the film, certainly a lot has been made of his similar circumstances, minus the haunting voice, one would hope); Mike Shiner’s reputation (which he seems a little less concerned with) is that of a brilliant but difficult actor (and Edward Norton, Jr. is also a match for that role, which he plays perfectly–as an aside, I remember getting giddy over going to see movies just because he would be in them, and then I saw him in The Hulk and sort of forgot that feeling, but he is such a joy in this movie that I wanted J.K. Simmons to get co-Lead Actor billing in Whiplash so Norton could win for his supporting role here). Reputation and history, in Birdman, are things that follow us around and talk to us, that linger and change and that ultimately may either save or destroy us.
More and more we find ourselves trapped by those narratives, and though that has happened for as long as people have been talking about each other, the fluid, fast-paced nature of information in our current society means that we have the chance to escape, to reform. But then again, that chance may be an illusion. The question of what is real is not just explored in the magical realism of the film, but in other ways: what people say about everyone online, Mike tossing out the fake props, the final scene of the play and how it evolves over the course of the movie. The Internet brings us closer to more of the world than ever before, but how much of that closeness is real? How much of the real person are we actually seeing? We are getting more information and therefore we feel closer, but are we really?
These are all questions that are a product of our times, and Birdman, I think, is as good an indicator of our current world as Boyhood is–just a different aspect of it. They’re very different movies, and both in their own way very worthwhile (as the debate about which of them would win leading up to the ceremony indicated). Birdman might have the Oscar, but they’ll both endure.
(And you should also see Whiplash and The Grand Budapest Hotel. Because why can’t we have four great movies from a single year? Five if you count the not-nominated Guardians of the Galaxy.)