Birdman, Haneke, Lynch and Disconcerting Cinema

by Charlie Graham-Dixon

Birdman ended and the credits began. I watched the names of the cast and crew for a few seconds, before slowly getting up and exiting the auditorium. As I walked down the stairs, through the foyer and towards the door, things retained their sense of the ordinary, their levelness. The film was over, but I was still in the cinema – the place where dreams are projected on screens and audiences taken to other places. I was yet to reach reality.

It was only when I pushed the long stainless steel door handle, cold night air hitting my face, eyes watering at the change in temperature, that I began to realise the extent of the film’s effect on me. I gazed at the outside world. Cars, lights, people, noise. I recognised these things, yet they didn’t seem real. I felt deranged. My initial feeling was that a camera had been mounted to my head or behind my eyes; that I had somehow become a character from Birdman, maybe even Michael Keaton himself, and I was now recording the world before me as though I was the star of my own film. The lines between fact and fiction blurred – was I still me, or had I become someone else?

Birdman is a filmic tour de force, largely due to the daring style of director Alejandro González Iñárritu. Like all great filmmakers, his cinematic signature is not merely a grandiose yet empty flourish, used to showcase technical prowess. The style is the story, and every bit of cinematography, music and acting is a deliberate tactic employed to further captivate his audience. The film’s genius lies in its visceral power. With its disorientating camerawork, constant use of close ups and the sense that it has been shot in one continuous take, it distorts the dimensions of space and time. Its few locations – a theatre, a bar, a roof and one or two surrounding streets – are confined and claustrophobic. The feeling is hypnotic and maddening, as though we have been sucked into a hysterical vortex. The world has been turned upside down, and all we can hear is the constant drum and cymbal soundtrack.

Birdman utterly enveloped me in its grip. I had escaped into this fiction and it was unnerving. For over half an hour after leaving the theatre, I still felt I was channelling Keaton’s edgy, demented, whirling performance. People on London’s streets seemed like extras in the film that I was now a part of. I felt exalted, powerful and cocky – yet concurrently jittery and aggressive. I experienced the bizarre sensation of wishing to speak to people as though I were a character from the film. I felt close to losing control, yet not filled with the terror that should accompany such a feeling.

While it was just weird at first, I realised that this conflicting collision of emotions had to be embraced. As audiences and as human beings, we distrust confusion. It scares us. We crave understanding to provide ourselves with familiarity. We love to categorise and label by genre. We do this to differentiate, and better understand what we see. There is no shame in this. Humans are defined by the desire and ability to comprehend and create nuance. But what much of the most daring and often unsettling cinema does is to present its audiences with things that cannot easily be rationalised and pigeon-holed. Disconcerting and disorientating cinema casts doubts in our minds. It causes us to question what we see.

Cinema has the power to penetrate our subconscious, disturbing us as it oozes beneath our skin. In the opening scene of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, a man suffers a stroke while watering his garden. An undeterred Bobby Vinton continues to sing Blue Velvet as the man falls to the ground, holding his neck. A small dog, unaware of the man’s demise, climbs onto the prone body and takes a drink from the garden hose. The camera moves slowly and deliberately through the grass until it comes to rest at a group of beetles, squirming in the soil, their sound a grotesque clicking and smacking. These insects are what lies beneath the seemingly idyllic town of Lumberton. They are not only a visual metaphor for the dark, dank depths of what truly exists here, but also for the work of Lynch himself.

David Lynch has often said his films are not be understood or analysed, but should be experienced or “felt”. Lynch wants us to be submerged in his films. People talk about wanting to “get” Lost Highway or Mulholland Drive, presenting theories as to what the films mean. They are troubled by their non-linearity and absence of a traditional story arc, which may trigger resentment – panic that what they cannot comprehend or easily categorise represents a threat to their intelligence. Lynch dares us to embrace this confusion. Being confused is OK.

Film is art. But like all art forms, it can be abused when the agenda of its makers is greed. The art is watered down when studios patronise their audience, underestimate their intelligence and make films lacking subtlety or substance. Film does not have to be uniformly understood or ‘correctly’ interpreted to be appreciated. If we see a beautiful painting or photograph, we love it because it speaks to us in ways we may be unable to pinpoint, or articulate, but resonate with us on an emotional level. This is what Lynch has been showing us throughout his career. Film is about the feeling. We don’t love Mulholland Drive purely because of its plot, fascinating as it is. We love it because of the nightmarish atmosphere and brooding sexuality it radiates. We are drawn ever deeper into the LA underbelly until we are scared, aroused, intrigued and disconcerted.

Lynch takes inspiration from dreams, and dreaming and the subconscious are vital when looking at disorientating cinema. In the Winkie’s diner scene in Mulholland Drive, the pale, sweating, wide-eyed character sits in front of a plate of untouched bacon and eggs, describing to his companion a dream which took place in the very restaurant they are in.

“I’m scared, like I can’t tell you,” he says. But he can’t explain his fear and the audience can easily identify with this. The most terrifying dreams are often set in the most mundane situations, with normality tweaked just enough to feel alien. Through the man’s acting, the somnambulant camera work and the use of sound build to a feeling of abject dread – we begin to feel as tormented as the character himself. At the scene’s climax, when a hobo-like entity appears from behind the wall like some heinous jack-in-the-box, and the man in the diner passes out with fright, we experience similar terror as we have been drawn into his nightmare.

Lynch is loved in Europe because his films avoid the clichés and tropes of most Hollywood fodder, refusing to be predictable or giving the audience pointers. This is what Michael Haneke specialises in. Haneke says his films are, “polemical statements against the American ‘barrel down’ cinema and its dis-empowerment of the spectator.” In other words, he wants us to think and make up our own minds about what we see. Haneke makes seemingly simple films, which are emotionally and morally complex. A master of “uncomfortable cinema”, like both Iñárritu and Lynch, Haneke gets under the skin and leaves a lasting mark.

Perhaps Haneke’s reputation as a filmmaker whose work is uncompromising and fearless was to blame, but where Birdman affected me after I left the cinema, I felt on edge even before Haneke’s Funny Games had begun. Knowing that the film depicted the brutalising of a young family on holiday by two young men, and that the situation could very easily happen in real life, made the prospect of watching the film a vital, yet unnerving, experience.

Funny Games is ostensibly a horror film, minus the clichés. When we watch something labelled horror, we expect characters to die. We revel in a comfortable, cozy fear, even as the cast are murdered in increasingly violent and creative ways because we are watching pure fantasy – situations that are either impossible or at least unlikely to ever happen. But Haneke refuses to play by the rules. We watch as the horrific events unfold, appalled by the violence inflicted on this nice, regular family. But when the tables are turned and the villain is blown apart with a shotgun, we cheer with vengeful bloodlust, only for Haneke to quite literally rewind the action to ensure the death doesn’t take place. He has sucked us in hook, line and sinker because we crave the very violence that repelled us at the start of the film. We have become clichéd Hollywood audience members ourselves.

It’s possible that Haneke is saying that attraction to violent revenge is simply part of human nature, and that it can happen to the best of us. What is clear is that film is at its most effective when it grips us and refuses to let go until we are totally consumed by it. Filmmakers shouldn’t concern themselves with our comfort – that’s what cinema seat designers are for. Films should invite us to escape, but not to ignore. I love fearless and challenging films that hit me in the gut with sheer emotion and power, those that rise above disposable entertainment by delivering uncomfortable truths, and teasing out introspection and debate. Cinema that can disturb, frighten and confuse is important. Films are the distant cousins of dreams, and that which is inexplicable and abstract is often the most thought-provoking. I wouldn’t trade the jittery hysteria I felt after Birdman for anything.


Photograph by Birdman, 2014

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