Birdman (2014)

Poster for Birdman

Or, The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance. This film by director Alejandro González Iñárritu (it’s the first thing I’ve seen by him) concerns a Hollywood actor named Riggan (Michael Keaton), who is world famous for playing a superhero character named Birdman but who wants to re-invent himself as a serious Broadway actor and director. He’s written a play based on a Raymond Carver story called “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love”. The movie is what David Bordwell calls a network narrative that follows Riggan and various family members and the cast and crew working on the play as they go about the business of putting on a show and working out their relationships to each other and to themselves. What results is a complicated (and perhaps muddled) meditation on film versus stage, parenthood, ego, fame, ambition, self-hatred, and, yes, even love in the big city.

Birdman has a very jazzy rhythm, both literally and figuratively. The score is mostly a propulsive jazz drum line full of nervous, surging energy. Likewise the narrative, which moves seamlessly from one scene and encounter to another with a restless, exploratory rhythm. Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who has done similar things with director Alfonso Cuarón, for example in last year’s Gravity, work with an expanded version of the long take, in which the camera follows characters as they travel from place to place and moves around them within a scene rather than cutting back and forth. It creates a feeling of continuous time that again emphasizes a jazzy feeling of immediacy and improvisation.

It also mimics the continuous time in which live theater is experienced, and that plays into the film’s theme of screen versus stage. It’s really quite clever in the way it allows for the passage of longer stretches of time within this scheme, for example by stopping on a building and then using time lapse photography to show the lights changing over the course of the night. Suddenly the stage becomes cinematic. Meanwhile, the camera weaves down a corridor until it finds a character and moves into an uncomfortable close-up to allow the character to deliver an over-emphatic monologue, and the cinema becomes a declamatory stage play. Likewise the film mimics the kind of theatrical realism of, say, Arthur Miller in exposing the mean everyman flaws of its characters, while occasionally escaping into screen fantasies of superpower flying and telekinesis.

I’m not sure I followed the thread between Riggan’s realities and fantasies. On a first time through it felt like there were several false endings, and I wasn’t sure what the point of that was, unless it was trying to draw attention to the falseness of narrative resolution. But the story’s got to end somewhere, and the ending of Birdman is appropriately ambiguous, even perhaps uplifting. Does it add up to anything insightful? I’m not sure, but I sure enjoyed the ride. Beautiful camerawork, great rhythm, wonderful performances, bopping music. If some of the emotional outbursts seemed contrived, the film seemed aware of it. It’s very funny, and part of the fun is the way it pulls the rug out from under the characters and out from under the audience. It’s ambitious, it’s urgent, it’s offbeat, and it’s shifty. It takes you to some unexpected places. But is ignorance really a virtue?

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