All throughout cinema history we see protagonists who wish to be remembered, who wish to become something great. Marlon Brando said in “On the Waterfront”, “I coulda been somebody. I coulda been a contender!” Their means for greatness are always different, but their ends are never the same, and it lets us know just what kind of movie we’re watching.
Two films released this month that are both receiving Oscar buzz but are miles apart in terms of tone and style have protagonists who share these feelings of greatness in their own ways and to their own ends. “Birdman Or (the Unexpected Virtues of Ignorance” and “Whiplash” are fiery dramas that lead to realizations that some of the things in life that feel most real and make people feel most alive, are pain and death.
These truths are perhaps well understood, with ground well tread and drama that’s no longer as profound as their films’ premises suggest. “Birdman” puts its ideas on the grandest stage available, cynically and loudly probing themes of fame, media, culture, importance and existence by never breaking focus and never getting out of your face.
It’s a film about Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton), a washed up superhero movie actor writing, directing and starring in a Broadway play intended to kick start his career. We follow the behind the scenes action both onstage and off in the days before the play opens, during which time a loose cannon actor named Mike (Edward Norton) is brought in as a last minute replacement and Riggan begins to lose his mind to his superhero alter ego, Birdman, pressuring him into returning to the screen and quit this disaster of a play.
Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (“Babel”, “21 Grams”) stages “Birdman” in one long, unbroken shot, digitally photographed as to mask any edits. The camera follows characters around ceaselessly and is subsequently pursued, acting as both observer to intimate and heated backstage drama and the voice in the back of characters’ heads.
At times the gimmick is just that; a gimmick. It perpetuates each scene such that everything is moving and everything is pitched at a high-octane level of drama and intensity. At others the camera serves as a necessary and ingenious way of blurring the lines between the stage and reality.
For Riggan, feeling as though he exists is a fight between his play being a success, between grappling with the press and a stuffy theater critic to be seen as important, and between arguing with his daughter (Emma Stone) on cultural relevance in a digital age. For his co-star Mike, he attains hyper-realism on stage, drinking gin during a live performance or wanting to have real sex with his co-star in order to deliver a strong performance. Off stage he fears sexual inadequacy and seems averse to feeling or shame. And Lesley (Naomi Watts) is an up and coming actress who feels as though she’s never grown up, needing this play to validate her life’s choices.
“Birdman” is a miracle of performances and staging. We see Riggan darting through Times Square in his underpants, a marching band and a gaggle of ravenous fans chasing him relentlessly. We see a manifestation of Birdman swoop down and bring fantastical hellfire along with him. And yet we’re also given the unbroken fury of Emma Stone leaning into the screen and destroying everything that makes her character’s father feel anything.
That each of these set pieces is part of its sustained tension makes the film a labor, an arduous walk through moments of import in which dirty, off color jokes never seem to land, characters pop out of the woodwork on queue and have their problems vanish as quickly as they’ve arrived, and as surreal metaphors make grand statements but seem to hang perplexingly about their meanings.
It’s a mystical film, one filled with choreographed, technical precision but that seems maddeningly scatterbrained and at arm’s length.
“Whiplash” though is a reminder that cinematic bravura and perpetually sustained intensity and drama can be achieved through more classical measures.
Andrew (Miles Teller) is a ferocious and fast jazz drummer at a college music conservatory with a drive to be great. Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) is the teacher of the school’s top Core Jazz Band, and he discovers Andrew playing in a practice room one day. The opening shot of Andrew practicing alone immediately shows distance, a slow build and Andrew as just an echo of something great. Fletcher recruits him for the band and demonstrates his vindictive, psychotic and extreme method of teaching.
“Whiplash” becomes a cat and mouse game of verbal abuse and fiery perfection. Fletcher is less the drill sergeant but the man who can snap at any minute. He cues in the band and cuts them off in hardly a second, berating one trombone player for being out of tune and shaming him out of class. His threats are sharp, clever, pointed and oh so vicious, and to watch Andrew go to bloody lengths to meet these impossible expectations is its own ordeal.
And yet the whole film has this challenging, clinical and technically precise tone. Andrew asks a girl out on a date and his questions about her ambitions and dreams lean a little too heavily. He has a family dinner with extended relatives, bragging about how he’s the top college-aged jazz drummer in the country, only to find his family neither understands nor cares and is more impressed with the family’s Division 3 starting quarterback.
Where Inarritu has the nerve to make you suffer and cringe by sustaining a shot through his whole movie, Director Damien Chazelle has the guts to take his characters way past their breaking point. He includes virtuosic jazz sequences that go on longer than any director would think to hold it. It’s got multiple full performances that earn their full stay, and here again you find you can’t pull your eyes off screen or separate yourself from the moment.
Even more so than “Birdman”, “Whiplash” is the film that knows what insanity and obsession look like. It toils through abusive practice sessions, like one in which Fletcher rotates all three of his drummers endlessly until they match a rhythm that cannot be met, and mercilessly long, intense performances, most notably Andrew’s closing scene F-You to Fletcher, and never breaks focus without seeming like a chore or an exercise in cinema. Chazelle’s editing is furious and precise in a way that “Birdman” is freestyle and ethereal.
“Birdman” may be “The Tree of Life” for backstage drama and “Whiplash” may be “Raging Bull” for jazz drumming. They’re each monumental films that demand the most of their characters and audience, and at the end of each film, we’re left with a faceless crowd in a theater clapping for more.
Birdman: 3 stars
Whiplash: 4 stars