I’ve said too many times before that awards don’t always mean quality (especially when The Lego Movie gets ignored), but that doesn’t mean I still don’t have opinions. Especially when those opinions are about Birdman.
I really enjoyed Birdman. Its shot-as-if-it’s-one-take-ness got a little obtrusive at times and bordered on being gimmicky, but its strong plotting and performances helped bring it past that. It was interesting and a great movie; can’t really argue with that.
What I can argue with is with is its point-of-view. Birdman’s about a former superhero actor who’s trying to be taken seriously as a theater actor. The dichotomy there is clear: on the one hand you’ve got superhero movies, the ultimate pulpy-popcorn blockbuster, on the other is a Broadway adaption of a Raymond Carver short story, about as high the performing arts can get. The genres are opposites, and one is clearly shown as being more artistically valued than the other.
Which makes Birdman’s relationship with the superhero genre so fascinating. It’s a movie about a genre but instead of parodying it, the film takes apart the culture surrounding the genre. There’s a question of why so many actors are in superhero films (even Jeremy Renner), but more importantly being known for a superhero film follows Michael Keaton’s Riggan around, a literal ghost of his past. Birdman could have worked differently — we could have had Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger escaping from being action heroes, for example — and the central plot and theming would remain much the same: the idea here is that if you want to make true art you have to escape from the pulp.
Adding on to this view is that pulp and genre movies are inherently lesser than ‘serious’ ones. Especially when the genre’s a popular one. In discussing the overall critical distaste for superhero films, James Gunn, director of Guardians of the Galaxy, said “What bothers me slightly is that many people assume because you make big films that you put less love, care, and thought into them then people do who make independent films or who make what are considered more serious Hollywood films” (x). Way Gunn sees it, people figure that there’s a divide between real art and making money. Birdman, as an artsy movie, was made out of love whereas Guardians, the blockbuster, was made for a quick buck. Gunn vehemently disagrees, arguing that there’s still a great deal of love for the craft and storytelling even in an expensive, pulpy movie.
It’s storytelling, then, that should be paramount to defining art. Without its strong story Birdman would just be a movie about some washup idiosyncratically shot. What makes Guardians such a great movie is its commitment to plot and characters. Storytelling, not genre, should be the ultimate test of a movie.
I think that’s why I love good pulpy movies. Sure, they may not always be serious, but a strong plot goes a long way. Superhero movies too can deal with deeper themes. Iron Man 3 looks at identity, questioning whether you’re defined by who you are or what you’ve done. The Winter Soldier discusses privacy and the relevance of old ideals in a modern world. Guardians is about not having to be particularly special to save the world and the importance of having other people. That we don’t always notice these deeper scenes is part of the beauty, the films aren’t heavy handed; rather they intertwine theme and the story. Pulpiness and a lack of seriousness doesn’t mean a lack of depth.
Point of all this to say, genres are to be used. Though a great film, Birdman perpetuates the annoying trend that real art’s gotta be angsty, that flair has no room for substance. It’s problematic, saying that one way of telling a story is better than another. Because at the end of the day, nobody wants everyone telling the same story the same way.
Writer’s note: I definitely think Birdman earned its Best Picture, but I think Richard Linklater deserved Best Director for Boyhood give how singular that movie is. But eh, who cares, it’s just a statue.