(Note: this post gives away a number of plot points to both Birdman and Whiplash, so if you're still not conversant with those films and are intent on avoiding "spoilers," you might want to wait until you've seen both films before reading.)
In the opening shot of Birdman (the movie’s much-remarked upon formal conceit involves presenting much of the action in the form of a single moving-camera take, but in point of fact the movie has a handful of strategically placed deliberate visible cuts) the movie’s lead character Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) is sitting in his dressing room. He’s in a lotus position, and dressed only in the underwear briefs sometimes colloquially refered to as “tighty whities.” And he is floating. Director Alejandro G. Iñnaritu sets the tone right there; and while later in the movie, the viewer is perhaps encouraged to infer that when Thompson moves objects in the dressing room in his mind, sometimes egged on by the voice of the superhero character who made him a rich movie star, he is actually throwing them in a fit, we're never asked to forsake the idea that maybe he can actually float. The approach to what's sometimes called magical realism here is both slightly reverential and more than a little farcical. The antic quality that I found to be sustained throughout, up until an ending I didn't think "worked" but was too exhilarated overall to get too hung up about, is the reason I find Birdman to be one of my top moviegoing experiences of 2014.
It's perhaps a mistake to take everything in the movie at face value. I can’t even track down the source of the supposed Susan Sontag quote Thompson has taped to his dressing room mirror: “A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing.” Sontag may have said it, she may not have said it, but she was still Susan Sontag, that is, still a critic, so the hurt feelings over Birdman's portrayal of a gargoyle-like New York Times theater critic might well be misplaced. It's funny: if I thought that Birdman was in fact about what both its most ardent champions and its most eyebrow-raised detractors seem to think it's about, I probably would have hated it. Critics from all over the intellectual spectrum are coming at it from the perspective that it has something to "say" about the current state of cinema and the arts. Jeffrey Wells, on one hand, rhapsodizes that it's “in love with the real-deal gleam and glimmer of the Broadway stage," while Richard Brody argues that its theme is “the higher artistic dignity of acting in the theatre.”
I dunno—I found Birdman's view of "dignity" in performance not un-akin to that of Singin' In The Rain, albeit a little more broad, and early 21st-century raw. This is a movie in which the character who considers himself an emblem of stagecraft integrity is, yes, is a brilliant performer, but also an errant loon who believes that the fact that he’s getting a hard-on for his longtime girlfriend for the first time in six months while on stage awaiting a cue is totally awesome. Dignity indeed.
Riggan Thompson clearly feels that he's pursuing a higher calling with his adaptation of Raymond Carver, but we're encouraged to have our doubts about that, I think: those dancers with antlers we see on stage don't bode totally well. The matter of the Birdman poster (that is, the poster for the Birdman within Birdman) in Riggan's dressing room is also pertinent: if he's so tormented by the curse of success that character has brought him, why's the poster there? We soon find out it was a gift from the Broadway stagehands. The movie is, then, hardly a coherent statement about X being bad and Y being good. Iñnaritu has talked about how the idea of the film arose from a midlife crisis, and that his instinct was to create a work that laughed at this rather than sank into it; and I believe this instinct was correct, as Birdman is now my favorite film of Iñnaritu's in a walk.
While its incidental observations on fame and craft and superhero movies all land in various sweet spots throughout, I perceive Birdman’s theme as not so much about the arts as such but more the extent to which the human need/desire for love is linked to vanity, and whether the two can ever be wholly distinguished and/or untwined from each other.
If the character of the gargoyle critic doesn't really register in a "real world" sense, it's likely because she wasn't meant to. As I mentioned, this movie opens with its lead character floating. Half the time I read real-life New York Times theater critics Ben Brantley or Charles Isherwood, I get the distinct impression they’d rather be writing about television anyway. Addison DeWitt, the mandarin gatekeeper, was a long, long time ago. At the New York Film Festival press conference for the film, Edward Norton, who clearly likes to goad his director a little bit, dropped the name "Manohla" as a possible inspiration for the character. Manohla likes Tony Scott movies, though. The point is not whether this character is or is not Manohla—it’s more that the character IS a heightened version of a paranoid projection on Iñnaritu’s part and is PRESENTED as such, and that's all that counts and all that should count. (Manohla DOES get under the skin of a lot of filmmakers though, I've noticed. I was at a friend's wedding some years ago and at the reception I was at a table with a producer of quite a few blockbuster action picture. Nice enough guy. On learning I was a film critic, he asked me, "Do you know Manohla Dargis?" I said yes, I did. He furrowed his brow and said "What's the deal with that broad?")
Birdman made its positive impression on me because it swept me up in the contrivances of its world. Damien Chazelle's Whiplash did not. On leaving the screening I attended, I thought, "It's not that the movie gets jazz wrong—although it does—it’s that it gets LIFE ON THE PLANET EARTH wrong." (The aforementioned Mr. Brody has written most trenchantly on how it gets jazz wrong.) There's a lot of dynamic filmmaking on display here, most of it in the service of utter horseshit.
First there's its near-Randroid vision of artistic excellence and non-compromise. (The fact that this is coming from a Harvard graduate kind of stoked my own largely dormant but slightly unpredictable feelings of class resentment, but never mind.) Much is made about martinet music teacher Terence Fletcher’s speech in which he derides the phrase “Good job,” but more stressful and possibly significant is actor J.K. Simmons’ fake-chirpy delivery of the instruction “have fun.” None of the musicians portrayed in Whiplash are seen to have fun—these guys, and they’re mostly guys, play music, but they don’t play. They’re not seen interacting outside of practice; they don’t get to articulate their ideas about the material they’re playing. Which is all fine, arguably, if the whole jazz thing in the movie is just a pretext for a metaphor anyway. But still. The calculus of the metaphor wants to have things two ways—making art is an exalted thing and it's hard work and it also makes you a bad person, and YOU don't wanna be a bad person—and in that sense, the movie lords it over its audience unforgivably. "Professional. Do Not Attempt."
Some say that all great art flirts with ridiculousness; at the end, Whiplash goes far enough so as to achieve it. The idea that a respected musician would deliberately sabotage a performance of his own ensemble out of spite against a single player, and do it in front of a packed house at Carnegie Hall, does, I have to say, test credulity. As does the idea that, after haplessly fucking up on account of an omitted chart (wait, wasn’t this the guy who memorized the “Caravan” chart?) that single player would stalk off the stage of Carnegie Hall, continue to the stage door exit, get hugs from his personification-of-agreeable-mediocrity dad...then go back to the stage and blow the roof off the place. Imagine if in Raging Bull Jake La Motta took that beating from Sugar Ray Robinson, got dragged from the ring, chewed out by Joey... and then returned to the ring, called Ray out and beat him. Yeah sure.
Also: “the bus gets a flat tire” is seriously the “dog ate my homework” of plot machinations. ALSO: the whole climax of the movie is built around the idea of " 'Caravan' with a drum solo," which is likely to cause profound giggle fits in anyone conversant with early Frank Zappa.