Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest surrealist endeavor has unleashed a wave of public interest and critical appeal by offering a biting satire about the current state of mainstream entertainment and popular culture. In “Birdman, or The Unexpected Virtue Of Innocence,” a film that won the Academy Award’s Best Picture, Michael Keaton plays an aging blockbuster superhero star desperately seeking a level of cultural legitimacy. He has adapted a Raymond Carver short story for the Broadway stage, but his vapid Hollywood career haunts his artistic ambitions. The masses would rather have metallic monsters and explosive violence, while the future of “the artist” remains a tragic uncertainty.
Because the movie has so much to say about the creative process and popular culture, the story often parallels the filmmakers’ own professional reinventions. Keaton has garnered unanimous praise for his first major leading role since playing Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989 and 1992. Iñárritu has also drastically shifted artistic gears. His previous work – “Amores Perros,” “21 Grams,” “Babel” – offered brutal, gritty dramas about the random tragedies of everyday life. “Birdman,” however, is more playful and bizarre. While his older movies relied on disjointed non-linear narratives and shifting perspectives, here he has introduced a brilliant piece of cinematic ingenuity to create dramatic tension. The film is stitched together to appear like a single, uninterrupted shot that flows through a claustrophobic labyrinth. The results are beautiful. “Birdman” will undoubtedly be remembered as a masterpiece of technical innovation.
But despite its artistic ingenuity, “Birdman” remains insecure and unsure of itself. In one overly blunt scene, the film defends the precious egos of all struggling artists by slamming its evil theater critic character with Flaubert’s famous quote: “One becomes a critic when one cannot be an artist, just as a man becomes a stool pigeon when he cannot be a soldier.” In “Birdman’s” paranoid vision of social reality, the noble artist is stifled by both the unenlightened masses and the pretentious elites. But while the film conveys its discontent with the status quo, it doesn’t quite know whom to place the blame on.
Unfortunately for artists like Iñárritu, the mass culture of the 21st century is inescapable. With a film industry more committed than ever to market pressures and profit margins, mainstream entertainment has reshaped the cinematic landscape. As the movie reminds us, the great French critic Roland Barthes argued that “the cultural work done in the past by gods and epic sagas is now being done by laundry detergent commercials and comic-strip characters.” But rather than lament the transition and denounce the dominant popular culture, Barthes reinvented the role of the social critic. When he published “Mythologies” in 1957, he recognized that even the most banal of the mass-produced popular arts and advertisements were worthy of critical study. Whether it was magazine covers, soap commercials, or professional wrestling, Barthes could dissect the deeper meaning and inherent beauty. He showed that mass culture was more than mindless waste. But maybe more importantly, he also showed that critics were more than just helpless artists. As mass media threatens to swallow the modern world, the critic must try to make sense of it all.