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Birdman and Boyhood: To Take Flight or Stay Grounded?

Image credit: ‘Cliff’ via Flickr

In the wake of last week’s Oscars, Alex takes a look at the big winner and its closest competitor; what made them both worthy, whether they will last, and the big question – which one deserved the little golden men the most?

So Birdman is to an extent about losing yourself. However, as protagonist Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is perpetually haunted by the ‘voice’ of his former superhero self, Birdman, anyway, there is a pertinent question as to whether he has any self left to lose. When he’s not entertaining thoughts of raking in billions as a superstar again or battling an avian superiority complex, he’s throwing himself headlong into an ambitious yet probable car crash of a play, at the expense of maintaining good relationships with his co-stars and what’s left of his family. He’s trying to gain something whilst forever lamenting what he’s lost, because he never took the chance to truly have it. Showbusiness is portrayed as sly, slick and underhand, whilst Riggan appears simultaneously to be both driven by his ego and to be the only idealistic dreamer left in a world full of cynics. Can he reclaim his reputation? Can he regain the trust and love of his family? Can he actually fly? He’s trying to do it all, through art, and I can completely see why the Academy plumped for this film, arguably a more conventional one (despite the filmed-in-one-take thing) than the brilliant though perhaps plot-less 12-year odyssey of Boyhood.

The latter could almost be classed as not even a film, just life, and perhaps more of a step forward in filmmaking than Birdman, but the showbiz comedy is also a worthy winner. It manages to look into the souls of the artists it depicts, have a go at modern insta-culture, and showcase the power of art, all while making us puzzle over what is able to be accomplished through it. Despite the mentions of it in the press as dark and cynical, it manages to maintain a through-line of optimism, even hopefulness, no more so than at the end. I felt uplifted, and inspired. Whilst watching I found myself re-evaluating what was possible or could be possible through art, and it is perhaps because of this positivity that the Academy chose it over Boyhood, which merely reflects life in all its normality, and its (sometimes) mundane nature.

However, the way in which Boyhood captured the seminal moments of life, and the magic that there can be within them, personally shows that it is at least the equal of Birdman. The debate will doubtless rage on and on. Boyhood shows the art of life itself, and how we struggle to cling onto what we have just lived through even as we hurtle onwards. Birdman shows the life and hope that there can be within art, or as a result of art – so in a way they are fundamentally opposed, and in a way they are very similar. Did the Academy get it wrong? I’m not sure – part of me says that Boyhood should have won purely because of its subtle profundity and emotional power, and part of me now thinks it should have been a tied Best Picture showing two sides of a very well-flipped coin.

At the very least, Richard Linklater should have won Best Director for his touching, detailed look at life over 12 years (which, had he done so, would have been a lovely parallel with last year’s Best Picture winner). Linklater’s was a labour of love which was also a very good film in its own right, and he deserved to be rewarded in some way. In any case, we will have to see how time treats both films. Some say that Boyhood will still be loved in years to come, whereas Birdman will fade. I say that, purely because of the period when Boyhood was filmed, and the historical and social time that Birdman reflects, both are of their time, and that as little odes to art and life in different ways, both will endure. I hope so, anyway, because both tackle things we all hope to do, regardless of time – to capture all the moments of our lives on the one hand, and on the other to make our lives matter to other people, be that through art or something else.

Would it have been a better (or a more timely or fitting) choice to stay grounded than to take flight here? What makes more sense in a world where so much is uncertain would appear to be a more reflective yet unpretentious approach à la Boyhood, rather than a manic look at art versus life à la Birdman – but then again, cinema has rarely been one for playing by the rules or conforming to anything in particular. Birdman is both a worthy winner and a memorable, entertaining film, but I think the Academy missed the chance to honour something equally worthy (and which may prove to be more long-lasting) alongside it. Still, whether you’re staring into the desert or out of a window, life goes on, and, in celluloid form, they will remain.

Alex Nicholson

What do you think of the Best Picture outcome? Was the best film awarded or was Boyhood more deserving? Let us know via Facebook and Twitter, or leave a comment below.

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2 Comments on this post.
  • Swapnil
    4 March 2015 at 11:40
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    Of courses, Boywood should be awarded with Best film in Academy Awards!

  • Alexander Taylor
    4 March 2015 at 15:22
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    Among the people I know, opinions of Birdman were decidedly split, whereas Boyhood was an A- favourable. But as an artistic film, an expression by all involved, Birdman was the better film.

    The failure of Boyhood was in that it was in essence, acted reality TV. If the same picture had been made in 6 months rather than 12 years, the audience would not have the interest regardless of the quality of the crafts involved. Consider Into The Wild, a excellent, well acted, road trip film directed by Sean Penn. Both Boyhood and Into The Wild have a similar anecdotal narrative. If Into The Wild had any unique “hook” on which to market itself, it may have fared considerably better.

    Birdman served a story in a conventional sense with a backstory established, a definitive conflict and a genuine sense of anticipation. While these things are common to many films, Birdman stood above them all in terms of quality. They achieved it with a small cast of actors doing personal-best acting to a innovative, original and quotable script, framed and scored as a beating pacemaker.

    Well deserved, Birdman.

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