The opening shots of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining are majestic and haunting. The camera soars over water and mountain, finding a vein running through that wilderness, spotting a measly yellow VW Bug struggling along that road. A synthed-out Dies Irae ("Day of Wrath") plays and we know, without yet knowing anything, that something terrible will happen to whomever's in that poor Bug. It's a credit sequence, so we don't really question the shot. Most films open with establishing shots that locate their subject and telescope in. This soundtrack and swoop, though, suggest that this is a malevolent POV (point of view). The camera behaves like a bird of prey stalking Jack Torrence, finally taking him as he enters the Overlook hotel.
Of course The Shining has little-to-nothing to do with Birdman. I've just seen Alejandro González Iñárritu's ceaseless stunner the once, and get the feeling that it'll take another few viewings to suitably unpack the thing, bulging as it is with ruminations on celebrity, art, fulfillment, the self, reality. At its core is Riggan Thomson, an actor who made his nut as a superhero before anyone cared about superhero movies. Riggan's washed up and attempting to get people to see him freshly with a stage adaptation of the canonical Raymond Carver story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." At the forefront of Riggan's mind now is his reputation, how he's seen. He may have superpowers and he definitely communicates with his albatross, Birdman.
There are no cuts in Birdman. A shot in a contemporary movie will last a few seconds, and there are thousands of them. Done well, you don't really notice the cuts, they accrue to form a spacial, detailed reality. A shot in Birdman is all of Birdman. Aleksandr Sokurov's Russian Ark is the only film I can think of that is truly done in a single shot film, because of course Birdman's continuity is cheated, à la Rope, though pretty seamlessly. In a century of film, the idea of the cut, the assemblage of reality, has become subliminal. We forget that we're not passively seeing something so much as we're being actively shown something. The frequency of cuts in movies today tells us just how far film has gotten from live theatre.
What cutting also lets us do is be in the moment, but not necessarily of it. However, with a single sustained shot, as with live theatre, we're sort of trapped. One of the reason that I'm having such a problem articulating my reactions to Birdman is there aren't really any moments of pause. It's a difficult film to take notes during. Like live theatre, it doesn't stop moving until it's over. And while early films were often just a wide shot of what's effectively theatre, Birdman is full of close-ups. The actors stress the frame. They feel sometimes like their trapped in the consistent shot. It's live theatre. They can't leave.
There's a duality to live theatre that film doesn't have. With film, you're watching a record that's been severely monkeyed with. These performances happened, a guy cried or a car flipped, but any initial reality ends up being mostly chopped out and reassembled into an experiential fiction. But with live theatre, you're watching something fake and something real all at once. The pretend moment and the actual moment rest on top of one another. Keeping one fluid shot, Birdman - a film very interested in the relationship between performance and reality, character and person - maintains that special tension of the live performance better than anything I've ever seen. It's not really live performance, but it has something of its essence.
Another effect of the cut - the cut to scene coverage, or the cut to an object - is it implies a visual ubiquity. The camera becomes an omniscient 3rd person narrator. But with no cuts, the camera becomes a fixed point of observation. An individual view. The only time we ever really see this POV used in movies is in horror movies, when the omniscient camera briefly enters the killer's view, usually hiding in the bushes. This becomes unsettling because the viewer is now seeing the action from a specific vantage, from a specific character. And if we don't know who's doing the seeing, it's all the more disturbing.
And so it begs the question: who's doing the seeing in Birdman? The camera roams freely through the backstage of the theatre, glommed on to the characters. I want to say it was Roland Barthes that stressed we, as readers, always have to ask who's narrating. In film, the camera is the closest thing there is to a narrator, and so the question becomes ever more pressing as the film goes on. To whom or to what does this single view belong to?
I thought back to that opening helicopter shot in The Shining. How that shot is/has a personality. Of course that shot, that POV, is The Shining. It's the story itself that hunts down and scoops up the characters. A point detractors make about The Shining is that Jack Nicholson is too broad, that there's no descent into madness. But what transition do we need? As soon as the POV gets a bead on the Bug, Jack is trapped in the narrative just as he and his family will become trapped in the Overlook. He becomes an actor forced to play out the same scenario over and over. But the POV is also us, the audience. We trap the family. We wouldn't be watching the movie if we thought it was about a struggling writer who takes his wife and son to hotel for the winter and gets all his work done and has a fun time in the hedge maze. We maybe don't want to see him hack up his family, but we sure came to see him try his best.
I said before that, with the single camera so close, the characters in Birdman seem trapped. And indeed they are. They're trapped like the Torrence's are. They're trapped in the machinations of a fiction. They're trapped like the titular bit players in Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, they're trapped like "the shadows" of A Midsummer Night's Dream. The characters are trapped in their roles, as the characters are trapped on the stage. As it's we, the audience - gawking at them from our single POV - that cages them, until they've gone through the meat grinder of human drama we came to see. After it's done, after we've left, who knows where they go.