Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Boyhood)

In the wake of Birdman winning Best Picture, I am still torn about my feelings over this, especially over Boyhood.

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I LOVE Birdman, but my main problem is that even though it is crazily beautifully crafted, its scope seems to be limited primarily to the artistic-minded, or those who can relate to the tortured artist. In other words: to pretentious shitheads. There is a great universal statement to be made about love in that film (‘What is love when we talk about love?’) and this is part of the reason why the film is not just a ‘Why don’t you just love me because I’m an artist’ type movie (which should be a genre, btw). But to me Boyhood is more universal in its story and its themes, dealing with life and all the wonders it holds. And even though the words ‘Best Picture’ are highly open to interpretation — (and industry politics aside) — this greater accessibility for the story is the main reason why I felt Boyhood was worthy of the win.

But it’s sure made for some great Facebook discussion in any case. Thanks to the film-savvy Fabisch Factor, this very question — Boyhood vs Birdman — has sparked a lively debate and has proven to be a terrific agent for my own procrastination. In particular, there was this terrific question posed by a professed Boyhood-Unliker:

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Can you tell me whether in your opinion Boyhood would still be relevatory if it hadn’t been made with the same actors over a dozen years? If yes, what elevates it above other coming-of-age films for you? If no, how does that one formal aspect elevate the film to such an extent?

That’s a good fucking question. To which I responded:

Good question.

(I try not to curse on Facebook). But then I wrote more. Which I’m re-posting here because the question made me really think about Boyhood and why I liked it so much. In answering, it made me realize  just how seminal a film Boyhood really is, and made me understand why I went to bed after the Oscars so disappointed. Boyhood did deserve it more than Birdman. And did I say that I LOVED Birdman???

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In any case — this is my response to his question:

Realistically, this is a ‘what if’ that can’t really be answered, because you can’t separate a film from its elements, or even its process. It would be like evaluating the merits of Birdman if it wasn’t shot in a continuous take, or Pulp Fiction without its colorful dialog, or Titanic without its sense of detailed spectacle. The elements are such an intrinsic part of the films that they define them, and help to shape the experience as a whole.

That said… with that out of the equation, I still feel the film works terrifically. To me it wasn’t just a coming of age story for the boy, but for everyone in it as well. The mom who can’t break her self-destructive cycle of pairing with the wrong man, even as she’s on a perpetual quest to improve herself. The dad who tries desperately to stay hip, young and cool but ages anyway and still seems happy to become a shadow of his former self. The boy caught in the middle, wondering where his own destiny will eventually take him — and is ultimately left still wondering, as his own parents have shown this journey never ends. And the girl… whose Girlhood story got neglected because Lorelei didn’t want to film anymore (as a true side note: she started calling this film ’12 Years a Slave’, which is pretty funny. ) :) To me, all of these were ‘coming of age’ stories, and collectively made the film even more effectual. It encourages reflection of our own lives, and help us look inward in a way that few films can manage. Esp. to the specific point of what it means to grow older.

Also, I’m hard-pressed to think of ANY other coming of age story that tackles such thoughts with such scope. Most coming-of-agers focus only on the young boy or girl, and only on the one pivotal moment that shapes their lives forever. Which is a bullshit approach, since one rite of passage doesn’t equal or define a whole life. But yet it’s convention for coming of age stories, and we all seem to accept that as if it must be that way. And this is what I found so refreshing and vital about Boyhood: its ambitious scope — with and without the 12 year real-life gimmick — tackles more than just a moment to define a life. It also breaks from normal coming-of-agers by treating the main supporting cast as more than just a one-dimensional tool to foster the development of the main character. Of course that aspect of shaping the main character is there (they’re his family, after all), but they also have their own lives, dreams, concerns, and fears. They feel like people, in ways that are rare for the genre.

So yeah. I think Boyhood is exemplary for a coming of age film. And to be clear, though I do love it, I’m not one of those who think it’s so perfect and should be immune to critiques. But I do agree with this article about how only Linklater could have pulled this off. Much like Wes Anderson and Grand Budapest, Boyhood has its own director’s signature themes, styles, and observational eye, in a way only that particular director can do. That’s not a reason why it should win an award, of course, but it’s worth noting and lauding.

So that’s my take and I’m sticking to it. But don’t get me started on Eddie Redmayne and Michael Keaton…

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