Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)


Here’s something a bit unusual. I don’t think this was the Best Picture of 2014. That would be (in my opinion, but hey, it’s all opinions anyway, right?) that would be either Boyhood or The Grand Budapest Hotel. I go back and forth on that one. (Haven’t seen Selma or American Sniper, but I’d be stunned if either one was better.)

But I do think that Michael Keaton’s performance was by far the best of the year. And it was mostly his performance that made the movie work so goddam well, so why didn’t he win Best Actor? (For the answer to that see my review of The Theory of Everything.) At the age of sixty-three you can’t really call it a break-out performance, but I sincerely hope it’s a career-reviving one. Not that he ever really went away, but in the last decade or so most of his roles were fairly minor, or in fairly minor pictures. I have always liked him, though I never thought he was the right choice for Batman.

One of the things that makes this movie so stunning it that it appears to have been made in one long take. If this had actually been the case, it would not have been the first time. All the way back in 1948 Alfred Hitchcock made Rope, which happened in real time. But there was no way to actually shoot in one take, film magazines could not hold that much celluloid, so he had to camouflage the cuts. Did a pretty good job of it, too.

Then much later, in 2002, there was an actual one-shot movie, Russian Ark. One continuous take, ninety-six minutes long, a fictionalized tour of the Winter Palace of the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg. A stunning achievement, and a backbreaking labor for the steadicam operators and all the other techs and actors who had to hit their marks precisely on time, never having been able to rehearse on the actual location!

It’s much easier to hide the cuts here, with today’s technology, though you can spot where most of them had to be. But it is not until a few minutes from the end that we get an actual CUT that we can see.

You can call it a stunt if you like, but I loved it. The continuous action covers not only space but time. We travel down a hall and then out onto a stage and it’s clear that several hours or even days have passed. Film is, and always has been, a technological medium. What you can do depends on what mechanical devices you have. Interior shots of cars used to be very phony looking, because they were always back-projected. Then camera small enough to film inside were invented. Now a great many, maybe the majority, of car interiors are back in the studio, but with vastly improved green screens that are indistinguishable from reality. These days when you see a long shot, the odds are very good that all that is real in the shot is what’s right up close, and everything else is green screened. CGI can now blend anything seamlessly with anything else. I think it’s a very exciting time, because the new technologies are freeing up filmmakers to develop a new story-telling language, as they did back in the 1910s. You know, a film cut is not a natural, inevitable way to tell a story. It had to be invented. Thus grew the whole art form of film editing. Who knows where we will go from here?

Okay, that’s the tech. What about the story? I really got into it. The has-been star of a series of dreck movies, trying to make a comeback on the stage with a serious play, and all the things he has to go through that are driving him literally mad. All the cast is great (though Edward Norton, for some reason, has always given me the creeps), but it all revolves around Michael Keaton. I say again, he was robbed. Well, his next big film role seems to be Ray Kroc, founder of McDonalds. Is there drama in that? Let’s hope so.

But BTW: What the hell is it with that subtitle, The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance? What’s the deal with that? I tried to relate it to the story, and had no luck at all. Anybody help me out on that?