Reel Rookie: A Triple Feature (Birdman, Whiplash, and Raging Bull)

*Spoiler Warning* I would suggest watching the movies before reading criticism if you get upset about spoilers.

Birdman and Whiplash

The 2014 Oscar for best picture was undoubtedly one of the tightest races in years. Having recently watched both Alejandro Iñárritu’s Birdman and Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash back-to-back, I feel comfortable stating that as a fact. While Whiplash won that year and set my expectations high, Birdman impressed me just as much. Iñárritu’s take on magical realism, his attempt at a single illusive long shot, etc. carried the same torch of high artistic pursuit that Whiplash had set ablaze with its emotive acting and nine minute drum solo. In all, I can neither overstate my praise for these two films nor what a unique and significant experience a back-to-back viewing was: like Riggan’s alternate universe and his contrasting reality, the two films meld together as one.

Besides recency effect, I believe a number of factors contributed to my proclivity for comparison and eye for continuity. For one, all of Birdman is pushed along by Antonio Sanchez’s fantastic, jazzy, drum score. When viewed after Whiplash, it’s almost as if Andrew’s final solo never ends. The setting, though, is what really ties the films together. Both take place in New York city and let that dictate much of dialogue, premise, and theme. Indeed, just as Andrew and Nicole reflect on the big apple, Sam and Mike discuss their love-hate relationship with the place while the city’s passersby shout up obscenities. Most significantly, New York is the place of great expectations. There is only one place for Riggan to be on the most prestigious stage in the world, New York. For Andrew, the city is certainly a border of musical fantasy. He seeks greatness in a college with no shortage of great musicians and in a city with no shortage of great colleges for music.

That brings us to discuss theme. While Riggan and Andrew perform on vastly different stages, each shares the ambition to make something of themselves beyond what their critics reduce them to. And both of them have plenty of critics: Fletcher and family, the New York Times and alternate ego. As both protagonists struggle to make it big in the world, we might say they are both dramas and coming-of-greatness stories. Yet both Chazelle and Iñárritu break up that dramatic theme with comedic elements. We would be missing something to not catch the witty and humorous dialogue and the comments of those passersby in Birdman. We might also be viewing Whiplash too seriously if we don’t find some humor in Fletcher’s creative insults. In that, it might even be said the two films share in a second genre, dark comedy.

By all of that, I cannot recommend watching these two films in a double-feature enough. In a strange twist, the two top contenders for the 2014 best picture each seem a retelling of or homage to the other.

“It was you Charley. It was you.”

Raging Bull and Birdman

Speaking of homage, I think we ought to address Birdman in relation to a much older flick, Martin Scorsese’s knockout tragedy Raging Bull. In the final scene of Birdman, Riggan removes his surgical tape and bandages to find his new nose. While a lot of movie buffs were quick to point out the beak-like appearance of the bandages and his new appendage (a symbol of Riggan’s crossover into super-hero territory among other interpretations), I think another angle might be considered. If you look through the mirror at the terrible, misshapen nose, you might see the prosthetic that Robert De Niro wore in his portrayal of boxer Jake La Motta in Raging Bull. Especially considering the over-the-shoulder mirror shot, I sense a tip of the hat from Iñárritu to Scorsese. Also keeping in mind that in the final scene pictured above, La Motta is a washed-up boxer about to perform Budd Schulberg’s On the Waterfront (not unlike Riggan’s life being a former blockbuster superhero turned Broadway director), I really sense a tip of the hat. What is certain though, is that film is a powerful thing. Here, if my theory holds any weight, we have a second degree of homage for De Niro’s performance is itself an ode to Marlon Brando’s.

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