Birdman, or The Virtue of the Long Take

There are many virtues to be found in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (2014) . Perhaps the most significant is its comment on cinematic specificity and spectatorship or, put differently, the vices of contemporary (Hollywood) spectatorship.

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The film’s virtue is the willingness to draw from raw materials (read: reality) and reorganize these raw materials according to the director/editor/screenwriter’s whim. In this film reality is presented through what seems to be one long take. The camera follows particular characters, drops them, picks up another, or wanders off in search of something else that interests it (e.g., the skyline, set pieces of the theater production). The illusion of one long take is quite seamless; an observer paying close attention could note the cuts, both evidently and implied (e.g., changing of the days and changing of the scenes). Some may deem this a gimmick (some have already done so). This is a critical evaluation we need to discuss.

If the long take is a gimmick – even in the best sense of the word – then the non-gimmicky or regular way to shoot a narrative film is with continuity editing. Continuity editing, however, is perhaps the biggest gimmick in the history of cinema. D.W. Griffith knew this in the 1915. The idea was to bring together shots that had little or no spatial or temporal similarities and organize them such that the spectator is convinved that they are happening linearly. The edits suture the willingly naïve spectator (in the sense of suspending one’s knowledge that the shots were filmed at different times and even places). Continuity editing is still the dominant form of filmmaking today, notably in Hollywood. The profilmic event – that which is set in front of the camera and shot in such a way so as to preserve the integrity of the persons and objects in space and time – has withered away in popular cinema. We don’t care if the person or thing is really there – thus the popularity of CGI – but that through two+ shots we are effectively convinced of the narrative and its plot.

The virtue of Birdman is that we have both the profilmic event and the reorganization of space and time, not to mention the various emphases on altered states of embodiment (e.g., Riggan’s unlikely superpowers), dreams, fantasy, and magic. The long take suggests that the reality of the persons, stage, architecture, etc., are in fact as they appear onscreen. At the same time, in Birdman, it also de-emphasizes the power of realist filmmaking by transitioning not thorough cuts but in the profilmic itself – these are the truly magical moments. Consider, among many others, Mike’s (Edward Norton) and Sam’s (Emma Stone) passionate embrace in the sound or lighting booth (I can’t remember which). Beneath them we hear the sounds of the play. Using the sounds of the following scene is a frequently used cutting device; by introducing the sounds, the abrupt cut does not jar us with the leap in time and space. Instead, Iñárritu’s camera tilts from the lovers then descends (via a crane?) to the stage where we see Mike himself delivering these lines. Put differently, Norton himself appears in the profilmic twice (or so it appears). Movie magic.

I’m suggesting, then, that what this transition reveals is the gimmick of continuity editing, and moreover, that it isn’t needed for a successful narrative film.

Maya Deren wrote that while we must get our raw materials from reality, the specificity of cinema is such that there is no requirement to organize or juxtapose those images within the space and time of the diegesis, or spectators’ reality. Art cinema has embraced this to varying degrees, arguably seen best in Carlos Reygadas’s Post Tenebras Lux (2012). Birdman, on the other hand, is perhaps the first popular film to reconsider the relationship amongst reality, realism, and editing. Based on the film’s overwhelmingly positive reception, spectators are ready and willing to consume films of this sort.

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