Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Magic Behind "Birdman" and its Use of Time

Left to right: Edward Norton and Emma Stone
For a moment, let's put aside the subtext of director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Birdman. Let's put aside how it is a reflection of movie culture and that it serves as a metaphorical and literal comeback film for star Michael Keaton. Let's even ignore the attack on franchise culture that runs through the film and focus on something that is far more impressive: the passage of time. It may seem like a pointless question until you understand the technical brilliance behind those single takes that were established to create a singular flow. What makes them exceptional and adds more weight to the film than the awkward script or melodramatic acting is how unassumingly it transitions within frame from moment to moment and often day to day.

With a lot attention being focused on Boyhood's use of time, it feels important to recognize how this influences the scenes. While both embody a different span, both manage to do so unassumingly. In the case of Richard Linklater's epic, his shots transition from one to another without any recognition of date. The audience is forced to notice differences in the surroundings. This is of course most indicative in the actors, whose physical appearance changes over time on top of their environment. There is a silent understanding among the film and viewers that this film is going for realism, with various scenes playing out in real time.

Which is why Birdman serves as a fascinating antithesis to Boyhood in every where. The film strives for supernatural, often incorporating telepathy elements and playing loud acting for comedic commentary. The film is full of more explicit symbolism and leaves a rather ambiguous ending. However, what's more interesting comes in the passage of time within this hyper-realism that feels just as nuanced as it does stylized. For in the film's visual depiction, we see the passage of time more subtly than Boyhood or many other films for that manner. If the film has one ambitious task on its hands, it is showing a few days within minutes of each other; relaying significant events so casually that the viewer would be forgiven for mistaking their understanding of time frame.

This happens almost immediately in the film. As Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) is getting ready to practice his play that he wrote, directed and starred in, he is putting on his costume in a mirror. As the camera pans around, the room has changed. He is accompanied by journalists interviewing him. To the audience's understanding, it is a different moment from where we started. However, the cinematic interpretation is that some time has passed to allow the journalists to be granted access into Thompson's dressing room. The flow allows for critical details to be shared without ruining the pacing of the story.

Within the next 10 minutes, Thompson is escorted to the stage where he performs with an actor who suffers a concussion from faulty equipment. He needs to be replaced. After wandering around throughout the hallways, Thompson reenters the stage and finds Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) there waiting. It is once again an understanding of the audience that some time has passed. However, within frame it has only been a few minutes. Various events keep occurring like this within the theater, including a handful of preview shows involving massive crowds. To have shot this in real time would have added a great amount to the running time that we should be thankful was excised. 

However, it brings an interesting question to the table. With the stylized use of time, Inarritu has confidently managed to convey passage with no more than specific characters entering and exiting scenes. The film only shows two exterior shots that would suggest one day fading into the next. However, there has been a longer period in which the events happening within the confines of the theater have taken place. From the journalists that start the film to a series of backstage hands that are introduced in the background, one moment blurs into another and even if the single take technique feels a little forced at times, it manages to reestablish the conversation between viewer and film in unexpected fashions, rarely breaking the continuity to transition to an alternative set.

Its use of time actually feels very poignant with its general subject: the theater. If Birdman is considered to be shot as if one continual play, it manages to effectively do in cinema what is done theatrically. It maneuvers through moments in the film by continually shifting focus and only hinting at the passage of time. Characters seem to run through a scene only to convey small pieces of information. While there is a stage at the center of Birdman, the entire theater and even street outside become a stage. The subliminal use creates theater within theater in fascinating manners.

Which is why the film deserves more credit than it does. It reinvents the language of film by using one of the oldest theatrical techniques out there. Not to discredit the impact that Boyhood's lengthy narrative possesses, but it feels more conventional in style and thus doesn't feel as revolutionary. For all of the complaints of script and acting problems, Birdman is a film of astounding audacity, choosing to challenge how the audience understands the passage of time within a frame and not through carefully placed edits. While this doesn't make for great story telling, it serves for a more challenging approach to it. For all of the credit that Boyhood gets in passing time, Birdman does it so in the only thing it does more subtle than Linklater. It is something worth applauding, if just in helping to better understand why the story works as a singular take. Many films have tried the single take form before, but rarely has it been done successfully enough to trick audiences into understanding that within minutes, without edits, that hours or even days have passed.

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