“Birdman,” and this post, are rated “R” for adult language and themes.
When we think of “breathtaking” films what usually come to mind are epic spectacles of sound and fury. But “Birdman” is a film that takes one’s breath away through the transcendence of the art form of film itself. “Birdman” is an amazing, synergistic achievement of artists at the height of their power. The result is both enthralling and exhausting; “Birdman” achieves a rare existential immediacy that is a thrilling reminder of what filmmakers, and indeed artists of all sorts, can attain.
in “Birdman,” Director Alejandro González Iñárritu (“Babel,” “21 Grams”) and Director of Photography Emmanuel Lubezki create the illusion of one uninterrupted take. There are no visible cuts in “Birdman;” the camera follows the characters through the labyrinthine corridors of the St. James Theater, onto the stage and out into the streets of New York. Lubezki has achieved legendary results with long takes in films like “Children of Men” and “Gravity,” but in “Birdman” the seamless nature of the entire film contributes to the edge-of-your-seat experience. It is like watching an intricate dance where every precise movement contributes to the majesty of the whole.
All that, and it’s laugh-out-loud funny as well. A discussion of the serious themes of “Birdman” should not overshadow the fun of the film. There is plenty of snappy, clever dialogue as well as perfectly timed slapstick. You can amuse yourself counting the pop-culture name drops (from George Clooney to Justin Bieber) that are almost always biting references (Hugh Jackman’s not available for a serious role because he’s “shooting the prequel to the prequel of “Wolverine.”)
Sure, it’s a dark comedy. There’s no happy ending (maybe . . . there is some ambiguity at the finish) where everything is neatly tied up. Like life. This is a film that earns its laughs by dissecting the faults and fears of its characters who are, if we are honest, a lot like us. We may not be actors and actresses like the people who populate “Birdman,” but we too struggle with the questions the film deconstructs.
What is it that gives us significance? How do we know we really matter? What does it mean to be loved?
Those concerns are immediately raised by the Raymond Carver epigraph (that is carved on his tombstone) with which director Iñárritu begins the film:
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
What Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) wants is to be taken seriously. Once he had everything that is supposed to make us happy. He was rich and famous. He was “Birdman,” a super-hero movie phenomenon. But he walked away from all that in the 90’s when he turned down $15 million to star in “Birdman IV.” His career spiraled downward, and now, he laments, “I’m a f—ing Trivial Pursuit question.” Riggan’s final hope for significance – and love – is to write, direct, and star in a Broadway adaptation of the Raymond Carver short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”
Riggan has poured everything into the play – all of his money, all of his credibility and connections, all of himself. But as the film begins, Riggan is experiencing nothing but obstacles in his Don Quixote-esque quest. Not the least of which is that he apparently is slipping into (or has already entered) insanity. . . maybe; There is a magical realism element to the film that leaves the viewer questioning just what exactly is “real.”
Riggan is not only unable to shed his “Birdman” legacy with the public – A reporter asks, “Are you afraid people will say you’re doing this play to battle the impression that you’re a washed-up comic strip character?” – but that comic book character is a part of him, speaking to him, appearing to him, perhaps giving him telekinetic powers. Who is Riggan – is he Birdman, or vice versa?
Riggan wants to be known as a serious actor, not a superhero character. But in a way he wants what superheroes have – to be universally beloved. That is, of course, tragically unattainable. That Riggan is indeed a tragic, flawed character is vividly highlighted in a scene in which he walks the streets of New York and is confronted by a street-actor noisily emoting MacBeth’s “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech that ends with the declaration that life is “is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Emma Stone brilliantly plays Riggan’s truth-telling daughter, Sam. She’s just out of rehab, her life a mess in no small part because her father’s quest to be universally beloved has neglected those closest to him. In an amazing speech both in content and delivery, she excoriates Riggan’s desire to find significance by mounting “a play based on a book that was written 60 years ago, for a thousand rich old white people, whose only real concern is going to be where they can go to have their cake and coffee when it’s over.” (Watch her face as the camera lingers in closeup after she is done her diatribe . . . The way she wordlessly conveys her realization that she’s said too much too harshly is simply awesome acting.)
But . . . as much as Sam belittles her father’s quest for significance, she has her own concept of what makes one matter. She constantly berates Riggan for his lack of presence on social media. When Riggan ends up walking through the crowded streets of New York in his underpants (a hilarious scene that actually makes sense in the context of the film), she is elated when raw video of the incident shows up on YouTube and instantly gets hundreds of thousands of views. Sam’s idea of what makes one significant is ultimately just as hollow as Riggan’s.
This is a film where people get what they thought they wanted and it only results in more longing when it turns out not to be what they thought it would be. Naomi Watts plays an actress who is finally attains her dream of performing on Broadway, but finds she is still dealing with the same stuff – especially her same self – as she was before. Edward Norton‘s character is a Broadway star, but the magic of the theater has morphed for him into jaded cynicism. When Emma Stone’s Sam asks what he’d like to do to her, his answer signifies yearning – he says he’d like to scoop out her eyeballs and put them in his head, so that he can see Broadway like he did when he was young.
Yeah, that sounds weird . . . but Edward Norton’s character, Mike Shiner, is a weird dude. He is the embodiment of a narcissistic actor. He says he can only be himself on stage; everywhere else he’s acting. Speaking of acting, they might as well close the nominations for Best Supporting Actor at next year’s Academy Awards. They don’t need to nominate anyone else based on just his very first scene. In it, he dominates a read-through with Michael Keaton while managing a tour-de-force of acting in just one scene. It is an incredible performance, as is his later destruction of a preview performance in which he ends up declaring that he will act with a chicken leg because it is “the only real thing on this stage.”
Norton is also part of the meta fun in “Birdman.” In this film about a washed-up former comic book movie-star, we have a former “Incredible Hulk” (Norton), a man who walked away from the Tim Burton “Batman” franchise (Keaton, whose post-Batman life has been nothing like Riggan’s), and a star in the “Spiderman” franchise (Stone).
The acting in “Birdman” is so strong it would be worth seeing it even if all the other elements weren’t so extraordinary. I should also mention Zach Galifianakis as Riggan’s best friend/business manager/producer Jake. I confess I have never liked Galifianakis in anything I have seen, but he does great work here as sort of the straight-man with the Sisyphean task of keeping everything backstage, including his unhinged star, together.
So, yeah, I liked “Birdman.” I rarely see movies more than once at the theater, but I’ll go back. I want to try to find the disguised cuts in Lubezki’s cinematography, to hear some of the fast-paced dialogue that I missed the first time. I want to revel in artists doing what artists do, using their talents to force us out of ourselves for a while.
But at the same time, they force us to look at ourselves in new and sometimes uncomfortable ways. Certainly, as a Christian I have very specific answers to the questions the film poses – I get my significance from being a child of God, I know that I am beloved by God. In my worldview, looking for meaning elsewhere is inevitably deficient or even futile.
As a human, though, I know that I do look for significance in other places. I want to be “beloved” and taken seriously. I want my life to matter. I don’t always fulfill these quests in the most healthy or altruistic ways. Even pastors try to accomplish significance through growing churches or perfect programs or excellent preaching. The issues in “Birdman” are universal.
I saw “Birdman” with my wife and my 23-year old son. We went out to dinner afterward and talked about the film throughout. We discussed it on the way home. This morning as we got ready for the day, my wife and I talked about it some more. And we didn’t just talk about the superb film-making or what actually happened in the ambiguous parts; we tried to get at what it all meant. That is testament to “Birdman’s” power and relevance.
“Birdman” is only in limited release right now, but I hope it finds a wide audience. At one point in the film, the Birdman apparition (or whatever he is) says to Riggan, “People, they love blood. They love action. Not this talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit.”
I hope he’s wrong.
NOTE: The full title of the film is “Birdman, or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance.” To use the full title in this post would have made it even longer.