If you haven’t seen Birdman, starring Michael Keaton and Edward Norton, you’ll find no spoilers here. It’s a very unusual film and there is a lot to love in it, not least of which is the cinematography. It’s also one of those rare films I’ll need to see again before I can figure out how much I like it. Today, I want to talk about what I loved (and how it might apply to writers and books.)
1. The movie is a tutorial in acting without self-consciousness.
Many of us are too self-conscious to try something bold in our writing. That’s too bad, I think. I like bold choices in books. The expected is too ordinary and easy. The expected is…expected. You’ll also love the instruction on the power of motivation, emotion and brevity.
2. The film is comfortable with ambiguity.
As much as I enjoyed the summer romp that was Guardians of the Galaxy, there was no need to discuss it by the time we got to the parking lot. Birdman leaves so much ambiguity, you’ll find a lot of people arguing over clues in the film. What happened and what did it all mean? That could irritate you, or you could decide it’s finally a film worthy of discussion.
3. Birdman is working on several levels.
You can take it for what it is or you can take it for what it might be and, no doubt about it, this is a story that demands some patience from its audience if they decide to try to decode it. I like books that are doing one thing while you think they’re doing something else. That’s the rich depth I look for in my reading and writing, no matter how superficial an entertainment you might expect. (For instance, shocker: This Plague of Days is less about zombies and more about you.)
4. Birdman is Art (capital A) that defines its audience.
If you’re an optimist, you’re going to want to interpret the story one way. If you’re a pessimist, you may have less fun in the movie but you’ll enjoy the discussion over coffee after the movie.
5. Pop culture references.
The movie is front loaded with some contemporary references that are pretty funny. The movie isn’t afraid to define itself by a particular time with those pop culture references. Publishers have long run screaming from books with such references for fear readers won’t get it and the book will be dated too fast. Here’s what I’ve found (especially from feedback about my crime novels): Lots of readers love pop culture references and readers don’t scare off so easily when you’re showing them a good time. Will it get dated? No. That’s just a label and what you call a thing is not the thing. (Don’t buy that? Okay. How about this: eventually, everything is a period piece.)
6. The movie talks a lot about what it means to make Art and struggle with commerce.
What we all do as artists is kind of a brave thing to do. Maybe not storming-the-beaches-at-Normandy brave, but we’re taking risks and putting ourselves out there. It’s nice to see that affirmed somewhere instead of mocking entertainment as an effete thing to do when you could be out drinking and brawling or doing nothing. I believe Art matters. So does Birdman.
7. The movie criticizes and acknowledges the power of social media.
That’s surprisingly evenhanded and grounds for more discussion about what matters and how to get to what matters. Many of us are divided on the power of Twitter and the distracting lure of YouTube. I don’t think the answer is an either/or binary, so, through the ranting, the movie has a very thoughtful core.
8. Any artist will appreciate the critique of the role of the critic: how easy, risk-free and shallow it can be.
I heard a couple of professional critics mock this aspect of Birdman. Clearly, they weren’t listening closely or their egos got in the way. Whatever else you may dislike about this film, if you’ve written a book, you’ll love that exchange.
9. Birdman is, in part, about legacy and relevance and striving.
We can all relate to that, can’t we? If you can’t, get out. You’re taking a squat in my church.
10. By turns, Birdman looks like a French art film somebody dragged you to in college, one of those movies only film students pretend to like while they’re really thinking about Star Wars.
Then Birdman does something different. In other words, if it were a book, it would be cross-genre. It’s a film that isn’t easy to categorize and define. Therefore, it’s harder to sell. They made it anyway.
Filmgoers have been crying out for films that are refreshing and different. Audiences have been moaning at Hollywood for years, “Oh, for God’s sake, give us something besides another empty sequel and come up with an original thought!” Well, you asked for it and Birdman is what the answer to that request looks like.
You know what? I take it back. Now that I’ve written this list, I can see it now. I did like Birdman a lot. I think I might love it.