Critics are rightly enamoured of “Birdman”, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s tour de force about an old soul weathering the age of the superhero. Michael Keaton is Riggan Thomson, a fading film star eager to restore his credibility after playing the superhero Birdman, by putting Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” on Broadway. The film is shot in virtuoso long takes, the camera hurtling after Riggan as he scampers from stage to dressing room, where he is tormented by the whispers of his outraged id (“you used to be somebody”), growling like Keaton when he played Batman. In the boldest touch, Riggan can also, when alone, levitate objects, smashing up his dressing room without lifting a finger, or summoning fireballs from the sky—his superhero powers returning briefly, like J. Alfred Prufrock daring himself to wear his trousers rolled.
Iñárritu is not the only Mexican searching out flesh tones amid the steel of the Hollywood blockbuster. In “Gravity” Alfonso Cuarón signed George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, cast them adrift in outer space, took all the technical resources that pummel us in the summer months and bent them to a stripped-down tale of survival, with explosions ripping soundlessly across the screen and the audience holding their breath while Bullock struggled for hers. Then there is Guillermo del Toro, more of a genre fiend than his compatriots, but on such intimate terms with the gnarled old souls of his monsters—in films like “Pan’s Labyrinth”, “Hellboy” and “Pacific Rim”—that the whole notion of heroism, let alone super-heroism, is left outclassed.
The three directors are friends and run a production company together. But unlike earlier South American directors, who defined themselves in vocal opposition to the Hollywood machine, the three amigos are the children of globalism, as conversant in franchise formulas as they are in Mexico’s indigenous cinema. Working away at the fault-line that separates north from south, blockbuster export from indie import, they are bilingual, speaking Hollywoodese but making up their own grammar and syntax.
It had to happen. Hollywood’s global supremacy over the last 30 years was always going to bring its own form of blowback. It happened once before, in Europe, when the Blum-Byrnes Accords of 1946, guaranteeing French films four weeks in every quarter, spelled out the opposite: nine weeks of American dominance. Initially, at least, this second US invasion was welcomed. American cinema, said Jean-Luc Godard, was “the model to imitate”. He rhapsodised about the movies of Hitchcock, Otto Preminger and Howard Hawks (“the greatest American artist”) in the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma, and filled “Breathless” with tender references to Sam Fuller, Anthony Mann, the B-movie studio Monogram and the films of Humphrey Bogart, whose pugnacious sneer Belmondo aped throughout. “The actors [Godard] chose had the same style as the American actors we loved”, wrote Gérard Guégan in “Les Lettres Françaises”. “He made us think irresistibly of American youth, the audacity, the vivacity.”
That’s what the French new wave was: a response to Hollywood’s own tidal wave of the previous decade, running the other way, overturning its production values and catching its stars in the undertow. This gets lost in talk of auteurism these days, “auteur” having become the loftiest of laurels to be laid at the feet of uncompromising cinematic artists, directors like Scorsese and Malick, working outside a system not even worth their most brazen contempt. Phooey. The American films with which the original gang of four (Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer, Rivette) were most smitten were pulp classics (Robert Aldrich’s “Kiss Me Deadly”, Joseph Mankiewicz’s “The Barefoot Contessa”), Hitchcock shockers (“Psycho”, “The Birds”), Howard Hawks actioners like “Rio Bravo”, or else comedies—Hawks’s “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”, Frank Tashlin’s “The Girl Can’t Help It”. Prestige be damned: auteurism was about praising the unsung artisans toiling away inside the Hollywood machine to put out work that bore their thumbprint. Today’s most promising candidate for an auteurist zhoozshing is not Malick or even Scorsese. It is Christopher Nolan, with movies like “Interstellar” and “Batman Begins”.
That’s why the Mexicans are stealing Hollywood’s thunder now. They’re doing exactly what the French did in the 1960s. “Birdman” bears much the same relation to “Batman” as “Breathless” did to “The Maltese Falcon”: it converts a Hollywood formula into its own kind of free-form jazz. “Who has met a fucking superhero?” asked Iñárritu, with Godardian contempt, in a recent interview in which he called superhero films “cultural genocide”. He later walked it back, doubtless feeling the heat from the publicists. “That was not the main theme,” he said. “This is basically the point of view of the theatre actor played by Edward Norton.” The irony is that “Birdman” is going down a storm in Hollywood, where such sentiments are part of everyone’s pre-lunch patter. Keaton is hot favourite for the Best Actor Oscar. For a ringside seat for this particular cultural genocide, try the front row of the Kodak theatre on February 22nd.
Birdman out now