‘One take wonder’ claims cinema’s top award

Winging it: Birdman stars Michael Keaton as an actor haunted by his superhero alter ego.

Birdman, a superhero satire that appears to be shot in a single take, has won the Oscar for Best Picture. It’s a unique technical achievement — but have judges favoured style over substance?

Birdman opens with a swirl of synths and the enigmatic image of a fireball coursing through a cloudy sky. Then the music abruptly stops and the scene shifts to a man in his underwear, levitating in a cluttered room. It is the last visible cut the camera will make.

For the entire remainder of the film — two hours of increasingly frantic action interspersed with fantastical hallucinations — the perspective does not shift once. In one apparently continuous take, the film tells the story of a veteran Hollywood star, famed for his role as a young actor in a superhero blockbuster, struggling to prove his integrity and talent on the Broadway stage.

Many commentators have interpreted Birdman as a cautionary tale, warning against emotional reliance on popularity or critical success. But now the film’s director, Alejandro González Iñárritu, has received the highest movie honour of all. In Sunday night’s Oscars ceremony, the biggest event in the Hollywood calendar, he walked away with the awards for both Best Picture and Best Director.

Critics are near unanimous in declaring Birdman a virtuosic feat of cinema. Yet its triumph at the Academy Awards was far from uncontroversial. Many pundits and film lovers had been rooting for Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Whereas Birdman is essentially a single fast-paced scene, Boyhood was shot over the course of 12 years, with the actors ageing in real life alongside the characters they play.

The two films’ styles could hardly be more different. But Birdman and Boyhood do have something in common: an experimental, innovative approach to the art of filmmaking. And although this year’s winner was generally well received, some questioned whether the spectacle concealed an insubstantial core.

‘A huge white elephant of a film with a timid mouse of wisdom at its core,’ was one highly respected reviewer’s dismissive judgement on the Oscar-winning film. ‘Iñárritu’s film isn’t half as clever as it thinks it is,’ another proclaimed.

A formal affair

Don’t be dazzled by superficial stunts, more sceptical critics urge: these high-concept tricks that everybody is so impressed with are nothing but gimmicks. The real virtue of a film — or for that matter any work of art — is in the message it conveys, not the techniques used to deliver it.

But is it really so easy to separate the content of an artwork from the form in which its presented? Some critics think not: Birdman’s unconventional cinematography and Boyhood’s drawn-out production, they say, are both central to the message each film is trying to convey. It is only by inventing new techniques that we can ever express truly new ideas.

You Decide

  1. If you were a director, would you rather make films that were critically acclaimed or popular with the general public?
  2. The great philosopher and cultural commentator Marshall McLuhan famously said that ‘the medium is the message’. What did he mean?

Activities

  1. As a class, draw up a list of nominations for your favourite film of the year. Then have a debate and vote for your own Best Picture Oscar.
  2. Think of a familiar story and then recreate it in a different form — for instance, you could rewrite a film as a poem or a song. Does the meaning seem different depending on the way it’s expressed?

Some People Say...

“A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing.”

Birdman

What do you think?

Q & A

What’s so special about the Oscars?
You may well ask. Many critics turn their noses up at the event and question whether the Oscars truly reward the most worthy films. And the Academy, which votes on the awards, has been criticised for its lack of diversity — the majority of its members are relatively old, white men. But however much they are attacked, those golden statuettes remain the most coveted prizes in film. And the ceremony itself is a hugely glamorous occasion that thrills fashion fans and film buffs all over the world.
Birdman and Boyhood sound a bit too experimental for me.
Give them a go — you may be surprised! Both films are also funny and moving on a much more straightforward level. Not all ambitious and critically acclaimed films are difficult or dull.

Word Watch

Continuous take
A ‘take’ (or ‘shot’) is a passage of film shot continuously from one camera. The take ends when the perspective switches. Birdman was not truly shot in a single take — it was in fact a series of very long takes spliced together with clever digital editing.
Superhero blockbuster
The film’s director called superhero films ‘cultural genocide’, but most of the cast have been in superhero films. The star, Michael Keaton, played Batman between 1989 and 1992.
Broadway
The theatre district of New York.
Oscars
Originally called the Academy Awards. The origin of the name is a mystery.
White elephant
Something (usually a possession) that seems desirable, but is in fact useless and cumbersome. The term comes from Southeast Asia, where white elephants were a symbol of power usually associated with royalty.
Form
In the context of the arts, form refers to the way something has been put together. It’s a similar concept to ‘genre’.

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