Alfred Hitchcock is known to many as the “Master of Suspense.” However, he could also be known as the, “Master of the Gimmick.” To name just a few: Rope is shot in 10 cuts, Rear Window is shot (with the exception of one scene) never leaving an apartment, Strangers on a Train operates in doubling and duality. Now, there seems to be the impression that to have a gimmick is a bad thing. But Rear Window and Strangers on a Train are great movies (Rope is interesting, but it seems a stretch to say great). Their gimmicks often unnoticeable. This past year the two cinematic front runners were Birdman and Boyhood, both movies heavily reliant on gimmicks. Birdman holds the appearance that it was done with a single shot where Boyhood was shot intermittently over the course of 12 years, showing the aging process of a boy (and those around him). But only Birdman’s gimmick is a success. In the viewing process, Boyhood’s gimmick is inescapable where Birdman’s, in turn, is invisible.
The nature of Boyhood, is that it must work in clichés. With only maturation as its guiding force, the rest of the narrative had to fit loosely with basic plot points, making the overall story feel like a superficial version of life. Now, of course director Richard Linklater’s feat is impressive; the spectacle of watching a cast age is so extraordinary and untapped (even Michael Apted’s The Up Series didn’t deal in fiction) that to call it unenjoyable would be a lie. And yet, the plot holes are filled with heavy-handed generalizations about the passing of time, nostalgia, and the problems a child might face. The spectacle is so enticing that the actual narrative is nearly forgotten.
With Birdman, the gimmick is the backdrop. It chauffeurs the deeply complex, meticulous narrative around silently, modestly, as if this work is not tremendously difficult. With the help of Antonio Sanchez’s jazz drum score, the editing style furthers the rapidity and vertiginous nature of the plot. It also creates a balance and consistency in an emotionally frenetic world. Not to mention, of course, the film deals with the production of a play. In real life the play format does not lend itself to multiple takes so the gimmick is actually in line with what the content is trying to accomplish. In short, it adds to, instead of obscures, which is what a gimmick is supposed to do. When people discuss Birdman the editing doesn’t outweigh the rest of the conversation. With Boyhood, there’s no conversation without it.