After I finished watching Alejandro G. Innaritu’s Birdman for the first time, my initial reaction was this: “I would need to watch that ten more times to really get it.”
I mean, let’s run through this for a second. The film is about Riggan Thomson, a guy who may or may not be schizophrenic and who (spoiler alert) seems to literally fly away from his problems at the end of the film. If you’ve seen the film, you’ll remember the scene where Riggan runs through Time Square in his tighty whities. And then there’s the fistfight with Ed Norton, fresh out of a tanning booth.
I mean, really…what the hell does any of this mean?
I don’t know. But that’s what I like about it.
I’ve seen enough transparent movies, and I bet you have, too–that is to say, movies that viewers can fully grasp in one sitting. To be fair, I love movies like that. I saw Jurassic World this summer and loved it. It’s not especially deep and you won’t gain much from watching it a second time (except maybe enjoying the dinosaur showdown at the end a little more), but it’s a fun movie.
And I think that’s fine. A movie shouldn’t set out to confuse its audience. However, I think more movies should challenge the audience. And that’s exactly what Birdman does.
Birdman is a story that you can’t consume in just one sitting. It’s a film that rewards careful viewers. It’s a story that offers something new every time you consume it. Still, Birdman is probably not to sort of movie you’re going to go see with your buddies on a Saturday night in July. Weird stories are not easy to get on the first go around.
Hollywood knows this, and I think that’s why you don’t see weird films nearly often enough. They know what kind of story sells, and it more or less goes like this: Main Character begins in a world of order. Disorder causes a problem that only Main Character can fix. For the next sixty minutes or so, Main Character tries and fails to fix her/his problem. Finally, Main Character faces the problem in the climax and either succeeds or fails in the attempt (usually succeeds).
It’s a simplified version, sure, but it’s a story humans have loved ever since stories have been told. Just ask Joseph Campbell.
It’s a good formula, and one that’s been proven to work. But formulas are for math and science. They’re dangerous when used in art.
Art shouldn’t be formulaic. Art should be spontaneous, unpredictable, and, it shouldn’t always make immediate sense. Because isn’t the whole point of art to make you think, to make you look at the world a different way? Nothing makes us think quite like something totally strange and totally unlike what we’ve seen before.
Or a guy who caws like a bird.