Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance

By Tim McEown

Mailed on October 24, 2014

Stamp image Priority

Dear John Doe
Generic Film Critic

Dear John,

Yeah, you, who at the end of our screening of Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance actually said, and I quote, "Well, I liked it…" (at this point you actually paused for effect) "…but I didn't love it." I could almost hear the snap from the air-quotes bracketing the word 'love'. I repressed my indignant fist clench long enough to make sure you were not being waggish—because that would have actually been pretty funny. But nope, you were just being ignorant, without any of the unexpected virtue.

Allow me to make very clear why I feel the way I do, even though I'm sure you are already constructing your pithy response.

Alejandro González Iñárritu is the kind of director that even when I'm not completely taken with a particular film (I'm looking at you, Babel), I love that he exists. As with Michael Gondry, Von Trier, Alexander Payne, Kathryn Bigelow, and now Bennett Miller, these are men and women for who film is a place where you try and scrape at little bits of truth.

There are some filmmakers for who the creative process is more akin to a demonstration of a truth, the late Stanley Kubrick and David Fincher come to mind, but Iñárritu and his peers seem to be searching for something less definitive with the films they make. And I'm pretty sure even they aren't certain if they are going to find it at the end of one hundred and twenty minutes. To dedicate the time and energy necessary to produce any feature film when you are not at all clear if it will work, much less make any sense, takes some huge cojones.

This film could have been a spectacular Nymphomania-type disaster were it not so fundamentally well executed. It was that ambitious. The number of opportunities for missteps, the huge risks - both in performance as well as intention and structure - were countless. But it all worked, beautifully, elegantly. It has been a long time since I left a theatre feeling so sure of the value of film; of the possibilities of creating something other than a competent entertainment.

And then you and your banal commentary took a huge dump all over my exuberance.

Ironically, that cynical disregard for the actual content of a particular work was one of the themes of Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance. Even the naysayers, the parasitic creatures that swim around the edges of any creative endeavor looking to bathe in some of the reflected light, had their moment. Did you feel an echo in your withered soul when Iñárritu uses Keaton's character as a surrogate to vent his rage against a particularly vile type of theatre critic? Or did that go over your head too?

A lot will be written about the parallels between the actors and the characters they play; Naomi Watts as the successful but pathologically insecure actress, Keaton's character is a hive of meta-references to both his and Iñárritu's careers, Edward Norton as the brilliant but irredeemably disruptive talent. There is also the feigned single take that takes place over a series of weeks, which was both useful and technically brilliant. But that is all window dressing. What drives the film is the notion that sometimes vain, petty, venal men and women manage to craft some art. Somehow these very characteristics are as essential to creation as dedication, discipline and talent.

I'm guessing this probably passed you by while you were busy crafting bon mots about the ludicrousness of Ed Norton's prosthetic junk. Because it is not to enough to be petty, venal and vain unless you actually have something to bring to the dance. Otherwise you are just fodder for other people's creative expression.

So thanks for that, I suppose,


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