Birdman

Quiet Please

birdmanBirdman walks a narrow line between utter cynicism and hope – in this case, the hope that art means something, and by extension, that our efforts to create, regardless of who’s going to consume the end result, are not in vain.  The film goes beyond a statement such as “If it’s important to you, it’s important” and explores what any of that even means.  When Sam (Emma Stone) delivers a histrionic tirade to her father, protagonist Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), which ends with her assertion that Riggan himself is completely irrelevant as an artist, a celebrity, a father, and a human being in general, we get the sense that somewhere inside, whether or not she knows it yet, Sam’s impetus is something gentler and benevolent.  Or maybe that’s the “hope” part.

Riggan was once a movie star who led popcorn superhero films that grossed billions of dollars and rendered Riggan a household name.  He left the franchise after three films, and twenty years later, he tries to redefine his career by directing and starring in a heavy-handed Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” (a Plato-esque story about couples discussing suicide, death, and spousal abuse).  Birdman‘s narrative covers a few days leading up to opening night, including several climactic preview performances.

If it weren’t such an unabashed black comedy and show-business satire, Birdman would be a pretty unique character study (and in some ways, it still is).  Besides trying to prove to the critics that he’s a real artist who isn’t wasting stage space, Riggan has almost no relationship with Sam due to his inattentive parenting and the fact that she’s been in rehab for drugs, something he has no clue how to address other than to yell at her when he smells weed in the room.  On top of that, he is often haunted by the voice of his old superhero character, the titular Birdman, who expresses disdain at this new artistic venture and insists that Riggan’s only real chance at a “comeback” is to do another superhero film.  When alone, Riggan levitates and uses telekinetic powers.  This is all played straight, but as the film goes on, one begins to wonder whether or not these things are actually happening (a scene in which Riggan flies over the city to reach the theatre, only to be immediately accosted by a cab driver who says Riggan owes him money, is particularly telling).  Riggan resists, however, and has some serious ideas about what it means to be an artist in spite of the Hollywood garbage that got him off the ground.  When the Birdman uses the billions of dollars Riggan once made as an incentive to do another movie, Riggan responds, “Billions of flies eat shit, too.  Does that make it good?”

Thankfully, Riggan isn’t the only character in the film with experience or an opinion (in fact, quite the opposite).  His foil for much of the film, at least as far as the artistic approach to adapting Carver’s story, is an aptly-named prima donna method actor called Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), who butts in about redundant writing and unimaginative blocking, and insists upon drinking real gin during the show.  Norton finally inhabits another character that he’s best with: a cool antihero whose abrasive personality and aggressive dogmatizing lend themselves so well to Norton’s ability to motormouth that many of his scenes with Keaton might as well be part of an ultra-stylized documentary.  Other vital characters include aforementioned Sam, who works as Riggan’s assistant; Lesley (Naomi Watts), an actress who stars opposite Mike; Laura (Andrea Riseborough), Riggan’s current girlfriend and also an actress; Jake (Zach Galifianakis), Riggan’s attorney; and Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan), a sharkish theatre critic who promises to “kill” Riggan’s play for the sole reason that she considers him a celebrity, not an artist.  Is Riggan’s sanctimonious smackdown speech (highlighting the cowardice of critics who lambast but do not create) a hallucination?  The film begs comparisons to Tom Stoppard, Charlie Kaufman, Armando Ianucci, but also warns against the ease of “comparing” in place of examining the thing in front of you.

Alejandro González Iñárritu directs the film as a handful of very long shots (whether manipulated in editing or not), which allows the viewer to experience the entirety of the story, hardly ever cutting to the next day, sticking closely to the experiences of every character (especially Riggan) during these important days.  Onscreen stress becomes real stress.  Conversations have to proceed and end naturally, not cut away when it’s convenient.  The theatre and the camera become characters themselves, one attempting to hold in (and occasionally expel) all of this chaos and emotion, the other deciding on a dime whom to follow, which people and moments are worth its attention.

On that note, every character is worth spending time with, but much like other films by male directors that center around an up-and-coming (or washed-up-and-trying-to-come-back) male character, Birdman tends to define its female characters by the men in the story (Lesley is Mike’s girlfriend, Sylvia is Riggan’s ex, Emma is Riggan’s daughter, Laura is Riggan’s girlfriend, etc.), and most of them, with the exception of Sam (one of the film’s strongest characters), the women mostly talk about pregnancy, heartbreak, and sex, and their conflicts are pure reactions to what the men do – for example, Lesley and Laura share an emotional scene together, which could have been more meaningful if 1) it hadn’t ended with a laugh, and 2) Iñárritu had put any stake into decisions that the female characters make, only after Mike nearly rapes Lesley onstage (unbeknownst to everyone else) as part of his attempt to find “truth” when acting.  The teary conversation between Lesley and Laura ends in an impulsive kiss, which is well-acted and convincing (and moreover not played for laughs), but which perpetuates an uncomfortable stereotype: that women turn to each other because they are abused and ignored by men.

The film’s cinematography and style seamlessly weave its themes into its character drama.  It’s not just a story about a funny midlife crisis or a spoof of self-important celebrity culture (although it has those things too); the careening up and down the hallways of the St. James Theatre constitutes the film’s own search for “truth,” mimicking (and perhaps sympathizing with) its characters.  Its world is so contained and defined that it doesn’t matter whether Riggan’s superpowers are real or a hint at his deteriorating mind; thematically, they represent, maybe, the thing that no one else is allowed to see, the things we all have but can’t “prove” to anyone (for Riggan, it’s a combination of fear of embracing the truth of his relationships with the fear of selling out).  It’s both Kafka-esque in its concern for the present, and Carver-esque in what its protagonist is drawn to do (and it uses foreshadowing like nothing else this year).  Its depth of intensity stems from Iñárritu’s (and the actors’) ability to convince you that a film about people searching for something profound already possesses something profound.  Its final scene is so good because it isn’t inevitable, and it resists the temptation to deliver the cheap “stinger” ending that many filmmakers would have used.  And what we’re left with, besides the lingering image of Emma Stone’s brilliant mug, is the question of whether Antonio Sánchez’s jazz drums are in our minds, or if there’s actually a drummer banging away in the halls of the St. James.

Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014); written by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., and Armando Bo; directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu; starring Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, and Edward Norton.

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