At the time this article is being written, it is the end of the summer season of movies as well as the halfway point between the academy awards. This means in the next few months, films looking to capture Hollywood’s biggest award will hit theaters around the country. While I am more than ecstatic for the rest of this year’s line up, we are going to take a step back and talk about last year’s awards. More specifically, let’s talk about the biggest one, the best picture award. Arguably, the best picture award winner is the hardest to pick for a variety of reasons. The biggest reason this task is so tough is because it is difficult to determine what genuinely makes a film “the best”. Is it the one with the most artistic merit, is it the one that changes the medium the most, or is it simply the most entertaining one? The answer to this question is what makes the awards so enjoyable to discuss. In fact, there is no correct answer, which means that it’s up to the viewers to make a case for their choice. Quite frankly, I have not agreed with the Academy’s selection since The Hurt Locker won back in 2009. But for the sake of time, let’s just focus on the previous winner, Birdman, and why Whiplash was more deserving of the award, due to its richer characters and plot. In contrast, the only edge that Birdman had was its cinematography, which realistically did not add to the film.
It is undeniable that Birdman could possibly mark the rebirth of Michael Keaton’s acting career. Yet, the character that he played was far from something new to film, which is the case for a lot of the characters in the film. I want to make clear that I am not taking away from the actors’ performances in this film; in fact, this was Emma Stone’s best performance of her career. What I am saying is the drug-addicted, burnout daughter of the successful father is a trope that is exhausted in film, as well as the over confident, self-centered actor that is above instruction (read Edward Norton’s character). Going back to Keaton, his character embodies the idea of being on top of a dying breed that is now obsolete, which is not only something that has been discussed in modern films, but also in films of the last few decades. Some examples are Woody in Toy Story, Brooks in Shawshank Redemption, Henry in Goodfellas, and Kane in Citizen Kane. While exciting characters can still be created using this trope, as so in the case of Birdman and many of the other films listed, it does not deserve to win over a film that deals with repeated tropes and puts them in a context that has not been discussed before.
Throughout the course of Whiplash, two characters, Andrew and his mentor Fletcher, are the primary focuses, with the latter being one of the better characters in the present decade of filmmaking. The reason why Whiplash succeeds in reusing character tropes and Birdman fails is because Whiplash took these tropes and cranked up the intensity of them to levels unparalleled before, in order to transform the film into an exhilarating free fall. To clearly understand what I’m saying here, let’s look at previous mentor/mentee relationships in popular films such as the Karate Kid, Rocky, or even Star Wars. In all three of these examples, we have a mentor (Mr. Miyagi, Mickey, and Yoda) who is a rough teacher that trains using rigorous exercises, but at the end of the day treats their mentee (Daniel, Rocky, and Luke) with respect because they genuinely care about their well-being. During this time, the mentee wants to be the best in their field, but often must take a break from their training when they realize other things are important, such as saving friends from Darth Vader or visiting your wife while she is in a coma.
Now this is where Whiplash differs. The writer and director of the film, Damien Chazelle, gives the audience a fresh take on the mentor/mentee relationship by stripping away the morals that help ground the character, in turn raising the stakes. In this scenario, we have a callous teacher who frightens the viewer due to his lack of concern over his students’ well being. In several cases, he mentally and physically abuses in order to drive his students to do better. Since the audience has never been presented with a mentor this extreme, they have no preconceived notations about what will happen. This is because the rules of story telling they have been accustomed to have been broken, allowing this trope to become new again.This freshness can only last so long, unless the mentee breaks the norm as well. Fortunately, he does, resulting in a student who, instead of pausing his “training” to be with loved ones, cuts off his interaction with his father and tells his girlfriend that he would rather not have her in his life, because he would rather be the best drummer in the world and “she would hold him back”.
While these character observations appear to be minute, they actually drastically impact the overall quality of the story. Both of these films are character driven, which means that the plot relies on the characters for it to be continued. Because of this set up, the story can only be as fresh and exciting as the characters themselves. This results in several instances in Birdman where the plot just drops off and the audience must sit through a boring plot point that they already know the result of. The point I am talking about is in the film, when Keaton’s character enters a dream like hallucination and flies through New York City, resulting in the freeing of his soul and presenting him with the answers to all his life’s problems. This idea of an out-of-body experience solving problems has been seen countless times before, such as in The Big Lebowski, It’s a Wonderful Life, and A Christmas Carol. While in comparison, Whiplash’s story does not present any cliché moments, because these types of characters have never been presented to an audience before. In fact, these characters don’t just allow for a fresh story, but they are able to make scenes come alive and express emotions. This happens in the story most noticeably during the jazz performances and practices littered throughout the film. When Andrew is introduced in the opening scene he is alone filling the room with music that sparks curiosity, providing the audience with intrigue as the exposition of the film begins to unravel. Later in the film, we return back to the same place, except this time Andrew is practicing furiously and his rage is expressed to the audience through the intensity of the music. By allowing scenes to express emotion, they are able to set the tone of the story, which creates a stronger bond with the audience and the film. This concept is seen in films for maybe a scene or two during the story’s climax, because it takes so long to build that level of connection with the audience. In fact, this level of expression from a scene has only been this strong in the fight scenes of Raging Bull, which has been praised for over 30 years for this very reason. Therefore, Birdman’s stale characters create a stale plot while Whiplash’s plot is richer because of the fresh take its characters provide.
There is one aspect where Birdman trumps Whiplash, and that is in cinematography. But the question that should be presented is, why? Anyone that is familiar with Birdman knows that it was shot to look as if it was filmed in one take. Now it is understood that this is an incredible feat that will be looked at by generations for years to come and it definitely raises the notoriety of the film, but does it make it better? Well, most active film watchers would say that of course it does, because “long takes are the coolest things ever”. In reality, what is it that makes them so noteworthy? Some argue that it allows the audience to remain immersed in the film because they are not distracted by shots changing. However, long shots are often noticed by people as they are not expected, while shots changing are an expected convention, and therefore are ignored. There is a really interesting analysis on YouTube of the effectiveness of Steven Spielberg’s long takes. In this video, Spielberg’s long take is praised because it is something that most people generally do not notice, and actually adds to the immersion factor. While in comparison, Birdman’s long take makes the film feel like it is mimicking the play the story is centered around, which does give some depth to the story, but overall it is something that consciously distracts the audience. This means that the only edge that Birdman had over Whiplash was the cinematic feat of appearing to be completed in one take, which falls more so on the efforts of the editor.
In conclusion, Whiplash was able to bring a brand new outlook on a trope that was previously completely explored. This allowed for the creation of a story that, through pathos, was able to engage with the audience on levels rarely seen in cinema. On the flip side, Birdman presented worn-out characters that weaved a patchwork story comprised of concepts previously seen in several films. Nevertheless, Birdman walked away with the Academy’s pick for best picture due to a cinematic feat that did not improve the quality of the film. The Academy had the opportunity to select Whiplash, a film whose hold on the audience should be every filmmaker’s goal.
As always, thank you for visiting Celluloid Cinema and this week’s article. Let us know in the poll below if you think the academy made the right choice with Birdman or if you agree with my vote of Whiplash. Or if you really want to be unique vote for “other” and leave your response in the comments below.