Birdman and Boyhood were the two favorites at the 2015 Academy Awards this year, a year with relatively few surprise nominations or wins. I saw and enjoyed both films but found myself in the middle of social media flame wars claiming Boyhood was “overrated” and “gimmicky” or, conversely, asking why Richard Linklater and the film’s editors were overlooked by Oscar (“12 years of footage doesn’t edit itself!”). Birdman was adored by film buffs and several different kind of nerd, including the comic book nerd, cinema nerd, Broadway nerd, and American Literature nerd. (Yes, I count myself in these nerd demographics.) Yet the average movie-goer either didn’t see it or, like my grandmother and my department secretary, saw it but “didn’t get it.” Rather than write a movie review on my friend’s Facebook wall, I thought I’d work out some thoughts here. The longer I tried to capture why I liked both but why I thought Boyhood should have won “Best Picture” instead of Birdman, the more it seemed like the two films represented opposing but complementary diodes on the spectrum of cinema, making them very difficult to compare “pound-for-pound.” (The one consolation here: at least another imperfect biopic didn’t win.)
Birdman is a postmodern whirlwind about fame, suicide, and the nature of art. Boyhood is a cinema-vérité meditation about unfamous people and the nature of day-to-day, anonymous life.
What makes Birdman great are the lofty moments of fantasy that interrupt and enhance “real” life. What makes Boyhood great are the grounded moments of realistic banality where the film resists going for a melodramatic “Hollywood scene”: there is no fatal car crash (despite believably reckless teen driving), no teen pregnancy (the sister has a hangover, it turns out, not morning sickness), no arm cut off after playing with a sharp tool. The gun given to Mason for his birthday does not go off in the “third act” with tragic consequences. I found Linklater’s resistance to high drama refreshing and, more importantly, central to the message of his film.
Birdman goes the other way to the nth degree: the gun we see in Act One has to go off in Act Three to fulfill the “meta-ness” of Birdman’s narrative. The viewers, like the Broadway audience on screen, are horrified and satisfied when it does. Birdman both attracts and mocks its audience for relishing its most flagrant action-fantasy sequences (“This is what you really want, isn’t it?”); it makes the audience stare critically at itself, as well as at showbiz, the two complicit engineers of the demon Fame. During the denouement, the camera shows only the Broadway audience’s reactions to what has shockingly played out onstage; we, the “real” audience in the movie theater, are forced to see ourselves through the mirror of the screen as part of a mindless collective, so blood-thirsty for entertainment and jaded by reality TV that we can no longer tell fantasy from reality.
Boyhood, in contrast, makes the audience look inward at our individual, interior lives; it asks us to find the art inside everyday living, the value in anonymity. Audiences leave the theater contemplating those simple moments of living that are private and our own.
Birdman is about how fans remember a star, and how artists want to be remembered. Boyhood is about all those little moments of life that you forget even as they form you.
I’m not surprised that Birdman won the Oscar, in the end. Hollywood is obsessed with fame and backstage dramas and, like a narcissistic masochist, likes to be shamed & scolded and then to commend itself for being so self-aware.
Boyhood set out to change the mold, not just rail against it, to tell an untold but common story in unusual way. Instead of calling out Hollywood for its comic book films and fantasy-action “porn” and mocking Broadway for its pedantic pretensions (an easy enough target), Linklater resisted both by telling a story of family life as simply and realistically as possible. To paraphrase Arthur Miller, attention must be paid to such moments and such lives. In a way, Birdman understands this deeply, through its failed but earnest attempt to bring Raymond Carver to the screen/stage; even as it revels in its own layers, Birdman laments that a film like Boyhood cannot fly in Hollywood anymore.