Look! Up in the sky! It’s Alejandro González Iñárritu’s (21 Grams, Biutiful, Babel) spectacular Birdman, screaming through the cultural stratosphere like a mighty force. Birdman or, (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) — to give the film its full title — is a subversive, funny and touching intertextual psychological-odyssey that flies in the face of cinematic convention. Since his 2000 debut, Amores Perros, Iñárritu is an explorer of the human condition. Each of his films has experimented with an array of different structures and techniques, from the handheld aesthetic of 21 Grams, to Babel‘s multi-stranded narrative framework. Birdman is unquestionably his most innovative and uncompromising work. Without compromising the views of a prospective viewer, the best I can offer is my takeaway about what this whole endeavor may or may not be about, something to keep in mind if you’re watching the film for the 1st time or again: that in the end, every work of art is, like every person, two stories — the one that they tell and the one that they are.
What sets the journey up is the framework of a semi-washed-out film actor Riggan Thompson (well known for his portrayal of the popular fictional superhero, “Birdman”) adapting a Raymond Carver short story into a stage play (which is itself a joke for bibliophiles). Riggan is played by and somewhat loosely based on Michael Keaton, star of the 1989 Batman film and its sequel. He is joined by a motley crew of familiar faces such as Naomi Watts, Emma Stone, Ed Norton and Zack Galafinakas all playing broad characters either against their type or perfectly typecast depending on what Iñárritu is going for. However make no mistake: this is Riggan/Keaton’s film. This film, much like Leos Carax’s 2012 film Holy Motors, is really an “actor’s” film both in the sense that the whole endeavor rests on the performances but also about how it comments on the actual art of acting. Birdman is about the different ways people express themselves. A very in-your-face diatribe about actors and acting is arguably the most appropriate vehicle to explore this. The cast are complex people with their own well-conveyed internalities who each struggle with how to properly convey that to one another. In the world of a play,movie or TV show however, suddenly communication between different people becomes clear and fluid to one another and even to those outside observers.
On the other hand, Birdman meditates on the idea of “verisimilitude.” What makes something real in cinema vs. theater vs. observations? What makes something real in our lives? What does it mean to yearn for the “real?” Riggan is an “actor personality” in the most cliché way — he considers art a showcase for him, demands to be the center of attention, and takes everything personally. He’s forever associated with a role he played 30 years prior, Birdman, but desperately wants to move past that in order to be taken seriously as an artist. Birdman is fictitious, but he was a character that felt “real” to generations of audiences in the world of the film. It’s only through embracing his experience of once embodying the persona of Birdman — who hovers as Riggan’s throaty interior monologue (a wink to actor Christian Bale’s ridiculous Batman voice) — that he finds himself able to actually start creating art. By embracing the unreal, we can create the unreal. Actors, writers, filmmakers – indeed creative types of all generate fiction in order to express a truth: they make intangible things tangible. To dismiss fiction would be to dismiss truth as the two exist in a symbiosis according to the film.
All these philosophical musings would be for naught if the film were a cold drag to sit through and luckily Birdman is surprisingly conventionally entertaining despite its apparent lack of respect to story and film conventions. The film is actually funny, it’s a dark sense of humor but also calling it absurd would actually be an understatement. Much of the film’s humor comes from its flippant attitudes towards dark subjects and horrible events are consistently undercut with the ridiculous and seem almost farcical. Some scenes might evoke a simultaneous flinch & laugh at something morbid and yet again other scenes serve as a reminder that people, in hanging around in their underpants, will always be silly. Birdman makes really questionable narrative choices during its run time but the film is kind of fun that way. Like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia or more recently the Wachowski’s Cloud Atlas, subtlety does not exist in Birdman. To a typical film connoisseur, the lack of subtlety may read as gracelessness or an aim towards a populist audience however, the straightforward and obvious ways in which Birdman communicates its ideas speak to a similar kind of dissonance that the film’s humor has with its subject matters: the film’s unsubtle nature plays with its very cerebral slant. Even still the questionable broadness of many of the film’s trimmings actually might serve to genuinely entertain even an audience who might not “get it.” This is an art film about perception, identity and the arts etc. and there are jokes about testicles and somehow it all works.
Another way Birdman works is purely as an incredible technical accomplishment. It is gorgeously shot by Emmanuel Lubezki, the cinematographer on Children of Men, The Tree of Life, and Gravity. The film is edited as seamlessly as possible with there being only one, just one visible cut in the film’s 119 minute runtime. Accompanied by an appropriate improv-jazzy score, the single 119 minute shot effectively spans four days of story-time and circumnavigates the city block-sized setting several times over. As the material shifts in tone, so too does the imagery, ranging from grounded cinéma-vérité to wild effects-laden landscapes that evoke what is traditionally found in sci-fi and fantasy films. To put it simply, even if the dense stuff does not resonate, the humor falls flat or the acting is too broad for one’s tastes: Birdman is one very good-looking and well-made movie. Birdman makes the case for technical production and special effects enhancing a feature film rather than overtaking it.
As each of the characters of Birdman grow and change over the course of the film, transforming, so too does the world of the film. Experiencing a work of art, specifically film (or in the case of the world of Birdman, a play) can alter one’s state of mind, transporting the observer to a place as imagined by the people behind the production as well as those bringing it to life. Just as Riggan becomes the Birdman in the sense of how he sees himself and his place in the world and also in how those around him perceive him so too are we, the audience, transformed by the power of fiction. The word “art” is related to the word “artifice” or “artificial” and that is what Birdman is ultimately speaking towards: Art.