Thursday, 22 January 2015

Birdman Backlash (VOR)



Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is the clear frontrunner this Oscar season, a critical darling that has racked up nine nominations for next month's annual awards show. 

From the daring cinematography to the revelatory performances and bitingly satirical screenplay, Birdman has got critics across the globe falling head over heels on every level.

Bearing this in mind, how come I've been reading so much negative backlash on Facebook and from audiences who've seen the film? What is it about Birdman that has got audiences and critics so divided?


I'll preface this post with my own personal opinion - after all, where else would I start? Personally, I loved Birdman. Loved, loved, loved it. It's wickedly funny, original, creative and gripping from start to finish. I'd love to see it sweep the board at the Oscars next month as its cast and crew deserve every accolade they can get.

And yet, no matter where I look, there is backlash against Birdman. Now, I'm the kind of person who pours over comments sections and discussion boards to see what other people thought, and usually the disparity of opinions isn't that vast. There is always going to be a wide range of opinions, but with Birdman the range is a lot wider than you'd expect for a film resting on 92% on Rotten Tomatoes.

And I suspect that there may be some mis-marketing and ill-judged expectations going on here. But first, let's go through some examples of what I mean by 'backlash'. Listed below is a range of examples that illustrate this, copied directly from Facebook (typos and all):

"Uneventful rubbish, like watching paint dry. Worst movie of 2015 so far by a long way."
"Is that a stick-on moustache Robert Downey is wearing; if he's a birdman, will it blow off in the slipstream ?"
"It was very silly, don't waste your money, go see unbroken, into the woods, paper planes, etc! Don't know why so much hype about this film!"
"Worst movie, soooooo boring, and the drums during it will make you want to smash your tv!"
"The critics loved it,i probably won't."
"My friend has warned me not to endure it, so many people walked out of the cinema at the session he went to, he's got similar taste in movies to me, including independent and arthouse stuff so I'll believe him over the hype."
"If you enjoy loud drumming constantly , a great amount of "F " s every other word , a bit of fantasy , then this is for you , I hated it !!!"
"Birdshit more like it. Hated it with a passion."
"My comment you are reading is WAAYYYYY more entertaining than this shite movie"
"This movie is fantastic if you suffer from insomnia. It took my partner less than 5 min to fall asleep."
"Definitly worth missing unless you lkve being bored to tears"
"This movie has only earned 34 million worldwide to date pretty crap"
"Worst movie I've ever seen."
"Obviously you need need to entertain to win a award, the most doring crap movie, don't know why they maid it."

All of these comments came from a public thread on the 20th Century Fox Facebook page. At the time I wrote this post, the thread had over 500 comments, and at a glance I'd guess over 80% of them were negative. Not only did the whole thing make me really depressed, but it also got me wondering about why this was. What is it about Birdman that has ruffled their feathers so much?

Firstly, how the film was marketed to audiences came to mind. It hasn't escaped my notice that the trailers for Birdman leaned very heavily on the most ambitious sequence in the film where Riggan hears the voice of Birdman is his head and then begins to float. Of course, contained within this scene is a gigantic mechanical bird that breathes fire, as well as attack helicopter gunships and lots of explosions. See where I'm going with this? To someone who hasn't heard of Birdman or Alejandro Inarritu you could be fooled into thinking this film was something that it's not.

This scene is dripping in satire and contains some of the most potent messaging on blockbuster cinema and the superhero genre contained within the film. The explosions and chaos playing out in Riggan's head is a parody of what audiences expect of films and of what Riggan's career has been defined by - not only that, but the film states this very bluntly with Riggan's inner dialogue literally saying "People, they love blood. They love action. Not this talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit."

Did the people on this thread completely miss the point? I mean, c'mon - this isn't Enemy or The Tree of Life. The film is literally spelling out for you, with little wiggle room for conjecture about meaning or purpose. You don't have to have a BA in Film or Writing to deduce that the film is trying to make a point at that moment in time. Maybe people expected more generic that didn't have 'something to say' - that's fine, I like those movies too. But Birdman isn't that kind of film and if you didn't know that going in, you really only have yourself to blame.

Another reason I feel the film is garnering such mixed opinions is the fact that it shares its namesake with a superhero cartoon for kids from the 1960's. It would be safe to assume that the film was a loosely-based adaptation of that. I can only assume that a lot of people saw the trailers, didn't do any research on the film other than that and assumed it was some kind of Marvel/DC adaptation they hadn't heard about, akin to Guardians of the Galaxy or Ant-Man.

Birdman isn't alone on this front - numerous examples spring to mind, such as Nicolas Winding Refn's 2011 film Drive, or Edge of Tomorrow from just last summer.

In the case of Drive, many people wrongly assumed that the movie was cast in a similar mould to the Fast and Furious franchise, when in actuality it was anything but. Where Fast and Furious is indulgent, brainless and loud, Drive is quiet, meditative and stylistic. Edge of Tomorrow meanwhile looked bland, generic and superficial in the trailers, but the final product was exciting, action-packed and entertaining.

Back to Birdman, and I can't help but feel that marketing is the most influential factor swaying mainstream opinion of the film. Maybe I'm just looking in the wrong places (Facebook isn't exactly known for fair and balanced sharing of ideas, and I usually find the comments section over at Badass Digest to be a treasure trove of intellectual and well-reasoned opinions) or maybe its the notion of a vocal minority making themselves heard, but I don't remember a film splitting opinions this markedly in a long, long time.

The second reason I can pinpoint is that the movie is different. It's arty. It's very distinctive and shot in a way that sets it apart from other films. The soundtrack is weird and unconventional. There are shots near the beginning and end of a lake and a comet plummeting to Earth overhead. It's at this point that the purpose is unclear and open to speculation, and I can only assume this would turn off audiences geared up for action, explosions and your generic 'superhero movie'.

Of course, this isn't the case everywhere I look - a lot of other blogs that I regularly read and comment on have loved it. And who can blame them you? Birdman is the kind of film that cinephiles live for and inspires us/me to write about. It's this exchange of ideas and opinions that makes blogging about film so interesting and exciting. Deconstructing the films message and themes makes for discussion and debate, which I love.

I guess the realisation I'm coming to is that not everyone is as open-minded or interested in something genuinely ambitious and creative as I am. And that's kind of sad. That, or I've just had the wake-up call of a lifetime telling me to stay off Facebook because that's where idiots dwell.

At the end of the day, not everyone has to like Birdman - I can accept that. That's what film and arts is all about. So long as you can reason why you don't like something, I'm content with differing opinions. Hating something simply because you expected something else and 'the drumming was annoying and the film was boring' doesn't cut it. Sure, you may not have liked Birdman, but was it really 'the worst film ever'? I find that impossible to justify.

Audiences and critics are never going to see eye-to-eye. That's just how the world works. The inherent dilemma is that I see myself as the former but also aspire to be the latter (hence the blog and interest in film). So, what's a guy to do? Maybe I should just listen to Edward Norton's sage advice as he so bluntly puts it in the film: "Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige" and accept that everyone likes what they like.

What do you guys think? Am I kicking up a fuss over nothing, or have you had similar experiences in the past? Apologies for the really long post, but I'd be really interested to hear your thoughts. Thanks!

*Honestly, these are all 100% legit comments. You couldn't make this shit up if you tried. That last one is my favourite, I laughed until my ribs hurt.

4 comments:

  1. Maybe its because I don't have facebook, but I haven't seen any negative things said about Birdman at all. (I loved it too.) American Sniper, Selma, and Boyhood on the other hand..lol

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    1. Yeah, steering clear of Facebook might be a good plan! :) I've heard quite a bit of criticism of Boyhood and that's the main reason I'm still hesitant about seeing it - 3 hours is a long time to invest in a movie! Thanks for commenting Brittani!

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  2. Huh, everyone seems to be loving it in my perspective apart from some trolls on imdb but they are not even technically people. Though it is a very complex movie, I'm surprised the Academy who routinely nominates easy, baity stuff gave it 9 nominations. Well, if someone hates it, it's their loss.

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    1. Exactly, that's the conclusion I came to. It's not your conventional Oscar film so it's really great that it's getting the attention. No movie is going to please everyone, I guess I was just taken aback by the stark contrast on this one - lesson learned! Thanks for commenting Sati :)

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