Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Hack Ascendant: Birdman (Or, The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Michael Keaton in Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman

Birdman, the latest effort from Spanish filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu, occupies a strange space between the real and the imagined. Its narrative about the efforts of washed-up Hollywood celebrity Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) to remain relevant and keep his quickly-unravelling life under control functions as both a fascinating black comedy, and a Bizarro meta-effort to genuinely revitalize the career of its star. Casting an aging performer in a film about an aging performer requires a tricky balancing act of self-awareness and immersion, and parsing it is likely prohibitively challenging for the average moviegoer. It’s too bad, because those people will miss out on one of the most unique, funny, and poignant films of the year.

Riggan, once the star of a blockbuster film series about a superhero called Birdman, wants desperately to remain relevant in a fast-moving world of Twitter and smartphones that he doesn’t understand and that has left him behind (of which his bedraggled, grumpy drug-addict daughter Sam – a waifish Emma Stone – is quick to remind him). He adapts a Raymond Carver story for Broadway, and convinces his put-upon manager Jake (Zach Galifianakis) to hire high-profile actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) to star alongside him. Meanwhile his ex-wife and girlfriend hover about him like looming reminders of the commitments he has abandoned – unlike the guttural, growling voice of Birdman in his head, which has never left him alone, and which mocks him in his private moments. (He also performs small acts of telekinesis when Birdman speaks to him, but nobody ever happens to be in the room at the time.) 

Most of the film takes place in the tight hallways and dingy, cramped dressing rooms of a second-rate Broadway theatre, so we feel the same sense of confinement and suffocation that Riggan does – and the same euphoric freedom when he bursts out of the darkened theatre and takes to the skies. Superb Steadicam work disguises sneakily-placed edits that break up the film’s utterly mesmerizing long takes – some seeming to last for twenty or thirty minutes: entire acts of the film! Usually this technique would provide a sense of realism or authenticity, like documentary footage, but it only heightens the madcap pace of Birdman's drama. The camera will track Riggan as he walks into a room, settle as he converses with someone else, and then follow that person out the door, down another twisting stairway, and into another unpredictable interaction. The real treat of this visual style is in the way it familiarizes us with the geography of the setting, so that when we return to a room we can observe how it has changed since we saw it last (or not, in some cases, like the obese security guard who remains asleep and unmoving in the same spot for the whole film). It also toys with us by suggesting that the movie’s superb percussion score might actually exist in the world of the film as diagetic sound that the characters can hear as well as us. Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki cannot be praised highly enough for their craft and diligence in creating this unique visual appeal for the film.

Michael Keaton and Edward Norton in Birdman

And besides its technical accomplishment, Birdman boasts some fine performances as well. Keaton is magnetic as Riggan, his stage performances changing in subtle ways that clue us in to the changes taking place inside him. Norton is fantastic as well, playing Shiner with pitch-perfect sliminess, and is as eager as his co-star to skewer his own real-life reputation within the bounds of this fictional world. The casting by Francine Maisler for the supporting characters is completely spot-on, incorporating the skills of versatile workers like Naomi Watts and proven comedy actors like Galifianakis and Stone. Each character carries a piece of the actor portraying them, making it unclear whether the actor was cast for the character, or the character was written for the actor – it’s all so natural that it’s impossible to tell and it couldn’t matter less.

Birdman doesn’t bother much with explaining its more fantastical elements. Whether or not Riggan has real superpowers is a curiosity; what they do for him (or to him) is the question of real import. Do they free him, or do they strangle him? The script is more concerned with clever meta-inquiry about the identity crisis inherent to all actors. Characters (like Shiner) are introduced as caricatures of certain personality archetypes – the conceited thespian, the cynical ex-wife, the rebellious daughter – but they evolve into subtler shades as time passes, changing from cardboard cutouts into real people. There's no scene in which the arrogant Shiner gets his comeuppance or is humiliated in front of an audience, because these things rarely happen in real life. 

But Birdman doesn't portray real life; it's more of a hyper-realized vignette documenting the rebirth of a troubled celebrity (not an “actor”, as a venomous critic says to Riggan – the difference between being an artist and being a famous face is something he keenly feels). His disconnection from the people in his life make them seem strange and superfluous they flit around him as he moves through the seedy bowels of the theatre on the pretense of rushing to put on a show, but are really appearing and disappearing from his life, or at least his awareness of it. They're like Terry Gilliam characters, outwardly absurd and infuriating while they stare at him as though he’s the weird one. And like the protagonists in Brazil and Twelve Monkeys, who's to say he isn't?

The film’s subtitle is also the title of a review written about Riggan’s play, which he may or may not salvage through a personal transformation – like a humourous version of Aronofsky’s Black Swan. The review drips with disdain for Riggan’s second-rate talent, but also betrays an unmistakable admiration. These are feelings you’re also likely to feel while watching Birdman, and you’ll probably get some good chuckles out of it too. Where the real “unexpected” part comes in is the film’s surprising pathos mixed in with the absurdity, which combine to make a film unlike anything else you’ll see this year.

 Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid gamer and industry commentator since he first fed a coin into a Donkey Kong machine. He is currently pursuing a career in games journalism and criticism in Toronto.

1 comment:

  1. Loved Loved Loved the movie and the review. The review says everything I thought but couldnt put into words . thanks