Birdman is pure energy in filmmaking. Ostensibly a backstage drama with hints of magical realism it’s also divided into two critical halves: the first part is critical of the actor and the second part of the critic. Even when the script lags a bit, when crucial characters seem tossed to the wayside, and when there’s a lesbian kiss for what seems to be only salacious reasons, the form takes over for the content and drives the film into some kind of wild exuberance.
As Michael Keaton’s Riggan tells a critic (I’m paraphrasing): your reviews are only labels and comparisons. There’s nothing in there about technique. I loved this section of the film, and will therefore strive to talk largely about form.
Inarritu’s film takes on the appearance of one continuous take for the most part. Some cuts towards the end are made obvious – including a fantastical montage where the performing streets of New York City invade the theater – but for the first 95% of the film, most are hidden in digital transitions (as when the camera moves through a bit of tight ironwork in front of a NY window), sly cuts to black (I’m not certain about all of these, but I’m guessing several where hidden in stairwell sequences), and other subtle means.
Combine that constantly moving camera with the tight confines of dressing rooms, hallways leading to stage, dressing room and the roof, and the stage itself, and you have a barreling, bowling ball of a film whose greatest form of suspense is not narrative but is, ‘how will the camera move next.’
To the above point: that’s a good thing. The performances here are great (Naomi Watts, of whom I’m a fan, is really good at playing a mediocre actress. I mean that seriously. It can’t be easy) and the tension – will former film star Riggan make it on the stage? – is there, but the real fun is the blocking and the camera, which follows one character and then immediately veers off with another. The marks the actors must have had to hit are many.
There are several moments in the film when the camera will come to a stop. I’m thinking of, towards the end, when the camera frames Riggan’s departing taxi in the foreground, and there’s a quick timelapse as the exterior of the theater turns from day to night. At this point in the script the main plot-driven question is: will the play be a success? But the more immediate question is: what will make the camera move? How will it get inside (where it obviously needs to get) in order to continue on with the show. That waiting suspense is like the pursued in a chase scene catching a quick breather as we – the audience – wait for the pursuer to appear in the background and from around a corner. It’s exhilarating.
Like Birdman, David Fincher’s Gone Girl features some excellent blocking. It’s very different. I’m looking forward to the VOD/DVD release of the film so I can get some stills to discuss one expertly blocked scene in particular.
Fincher maintains his usual, slick approach. A mobile camera that appears to be on a dolly rather than a steadicam; quick visual exposition; fluid masters punctuated with push ins and outs; well-timed close-ups.
Gone Girl – adapted from a novel that I haven’t read – has the somewhat obligatory long expository scene towards the middle second-third. It’s a bit laborious, but totally necessary, and luckily is shown as visually as possible and isn’t the denouement.
The best part of Gone Girl is a scene with Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike). We’ve learned that she’s framed her husband for murder and that she’s on the run. By all accounts we should dislike her and we mostly do. She’s at the very best a sociopath, at worst a murderer.
Amy checks into a motel and begrudgingly becomes friends with her motel-neighbor who discovers that Amy’s got a huge wad of cash on her. The neighbor and boyfriend barge into Amy’s room, rough her up a bit, and steal the money, leaving her in the lurch.
I felt bad for Amy. I wonder why. She’s just finished telling us how she ruined someone’s life. Okay, so I see that Nick has used her for sex. And that he’s cheating on her. She’s sympathetic that way. But she’s also trying to unfairly get him the death penalty.
Maybe I felt for her because she plays (and “looks”) the part of the “helpless girlfriend on the run” so well, and it’s a media image I’m used to automatically sympathizing with. Whatever the reason it was a great change in empathy at a pretty late and critical part of the script.
Gone Girl is critical of the media (it makes fun of finger-pointing Conservative pundits). Another of its best shots is, towards the end, when much of the thriller plot is over, Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck), who has been hounded and excoriated by press and neighbors alike takes his trash out. The day is quiet, though the news vans are still parked by his driveway. He’s greeted by a distant and friendly, “Hey Nick,” and can only shake his head at the hypocrisy.