Monday 8 February 2021

Quackers: "Birds (Or How To Be One)"

The so-called Greek Weird Wave labours on with the release this week of Birds (Or How To Be One), writer-director Babis Makridis's riff on Aristophanes' The Birds. What's set down before us is an offbeam hybrid, part-fiction, part-documentary, which implores us to look from our fellow humans to our feathered friends and back again, and to conclude that the strangeness of one is no different ultimately from the strangeness of the other. Though the material has been chaptered, with onscreen headings ("Break Your Egg", "Find Your Forest") that suggest the existence of some guidebook for man-to-avian transformation, the weirdness protocols of contemporary Greek cinema ensure there never has to be a narrative or conceptual throughline: the movie is free to be as disassociated, random or just plain loopy as it wants to be. Early on, we join a real-life birdwatching tour of lower Manhattan, and whenever the guide points out a starling or female Tully, Makridis cuts to a member of the public who just so happens to be flapping or pecking around in the vicinity: a silly but effective edit-suite gag. Back on home soil, the filmmaker shoots behind-the-scenes footage of a stage adaptation of Aristophanes' text; lest this sound unduly prosaic - normal, even - for a Weird Wave endeavour, Makridis gets one of the stagehands to inhale the helium being used to inflate a prop balloon, so his insights emerge at a higher pitch.

Inevitably, one recurring theme is flight or escape. Cinematographer Konstantinos Koukoulios (was he employed on the basis of that surname alone?) snatches up lovely footage of stunt planes turning circles against an Aegean-blue sky; Makridis rummages around in the undergrowth for countrymen who've ventured off-grid and thus literally found their forest; and, late on, we hear an audio clip of America's hawkish 45th President speaking with great pride about his beloved border wall project. It's the work of a director lining his nest, magpie-ing ideas and images from here and there (and often plain pulling them from the sky) while never really tying them into anything more than the movie equivalent of a moodboard. You can marvel that Makridis was granted the freedom to make anything this fundamentally loose - this flighty; the generous support of the Onassis Foundation will get you that - while still wanting a little more discipline and substance. The non-fiction aspects register as of variable interest; still, they're preferable to Makridis's attempt to directly adapt and update The Birds himself, which involve actors in bushes squawking at nothing in particular. (Here, we really do seem to be marooned in Cloud Cuckoo Land.) Odd moments continue to catch the eye and grab the ear, however - such as a jolting fourth-wall break in which one of the film's human subjects, shown Makridis's raw material, reaches the end of his tether with the director: "This film is not about birds. It's about us being as crazy as loons... and you expect me to understand what you have to say. I need to understand! I don't want [to have] to take psycho drugs before watching the film." This is as close to lacerating self-critique as the Greek Weird Wave, a cinema speaking in tongues for the benefit of an ever smaller audience, has yet landed.

Birds (Or How To Be One) is available to stream from today via MUBI UK.

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