Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Remember Keaton in Batman? Sure you do; that pouting mouth, those ridiculous eyebrows, the dull-eyed ebb of all artistic integrity, draining, bitterly slow, as soul is traded for merchandising opportunity. Oh, not that last one? You sure? Then that sounds like a job for Super-Existentialist-Man!
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest is the ‘single-take’ story of Riggan (Keaton) some years on from his breakthrough hit as Birdman. Fame has left him a slow-crumbling booze-addled wreck. Since the smash hit Birdman trilogy he’s lost nigh on all professional integrity, and finds himself tumbling into a surreal psychological abyss. But now Riggan’s (literally) staging a comeback by writing, directing and starring in a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.
After years of price-tagging his soul for fame, Riggan draws the line at Birdman 4. Broadway “means something”, he’s sure of it. As a young actor his inspiration came when Carver, probably drunk, handed him a note of mild encouragement scrawled on a bar napkin. But will his return to the stage change anything long-term; can Riggan find lasting happiness or even a glimmer of satisfaction in this line of work?
Riggan’s problems stem from his self-perception and trying to elide his view of himself with the reality others present him. He thinks he’s an actor, but everyone else thinks he’s “just a celebrity” as one caustic NYT critic, Tabitha Dickson (Duncan) tells him: “I hate you and everyone you represent. Entitled, selfish, spoiled children. Blissfully untrained, unversed and unprepared to even attempt real art.” Ta.
Riggan’s on a mission to prove those detractors wrong. “A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing”, his dressing room mirror reminds him. That would all be fine, except his trusty sidekicks are each going through their own personal crises, scuppering rehearsals and generally fucking things up.
Along for the ride are his fresh-out-of-rehab daughter Sam (Stone), ex-wife Sylvia (Ryan), hype man/producer Jake (Galifianakis), and fellow actors Lesley (Watts) and the mercurial Mike (Norton). Each has a hand in the disruption of his dream – the production becomes increasingly explosive through the four pre-opening night previews with the likes of alcohol, live ammo and even an attempted rape (yep) all playing their part in the anarchy.
Iñárritu’s script is full of sharpened caricaturing; the Hollywood satire’s shot through with a grim levity, taking on everything from acting, Broadway and the studio system, to critics, fans, and social media – and pretty much all in between that we the viewing public buy into.
At one point Sam tells him: “You are doing 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.” The despair is relentless. When it isn’t his own people telling him he’s deluded, it’s his internal monologue as alter-ego Birdman – a gravelly, phlegmy phantom that looms over his shoulder tempting him to return to big-budget mediocrity, or worse. It’s “like a little me following me around, hitting my balls with a tiny hammer”.
Capturing that permanent, eye-twitching dread of failure, of hopelessness, is where Birdman soars highest. We’re insignificant ultimately, tiny specks – only been around for one square on the soiled bog roll of time. Yet all the involving tete-a-tetes between Riggan and Mike still seem to mean something as they struggle for their existence and their art.
Despite adherence to a purportedly one-take format, which could have otherwise proved restrictive, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera steadi-glides around Keaton and his cast to a playful and manic jazz drum score, building up an authentic meatiness to the aesthetic, getting us fully into his head.
Personally I was a touch distracted by working out where they had cut the film together – silly me. Most of them are unnoticeable but a couple of the transitions recalled the ‘run the camera behind a pillar’ Running Time-style (or Silent House, even) cuts, which were revealed more by the actors’ changed rhythms than anything else – but it’s still masterful and probably far less distracting the second time around.
Nevertheless, Birdman’s free-roaming aesthetic that (almost seamlessly) flows us from one flying fantasy to the next as Riggan’s Birdman complex takes full effect, is energetic, bewitching, bleak and most of all entertaining – albeit not as emotionally affecting as all that. And that first “caw!” is delightful.