I really liked this movie, especially the first experience of it, the whirlwind of energy and movement rushing you into the middle of this man’s world. I don’t like to sum up a film with this sort of overzealous simplicity, but there are just so many brilliant touches in this story that make it so relatable and real. Birdman’s plight into obscurity is a fall everyone and anybody can relate to. He’s frustrated that nothing, even the most important something, according to his inner self, doesn’t last, leaving him alone, not knowing how to react to not only the journey itself, but the conclusion of it. What’s next?
Michael Keaton stars as the titular “Birdman”, or Riggan, and he gives an incredible performance, shifting and wiggling around all of the unique supporting and supportive characters, though none of them can outshine his tweaked-out body spasms and off-kilter, narrow expressions that are his trademark. A certain parallel that I as a viewer noticed that an actual stage performer might just think about on the daily: the backstage dramas feel much more authentic and compelling than the acting onstage. The relaxed, spontaneous feel of the actors after a scene reading has a lot to do with the amount of great acting talent in “Birdman”.
Emma Stone plays Sam, Riggan’s daughter, fresh out of rehab and working as his assistant; Naomi Watts plays Lesly, a slightly thin-skinned but ambitious Broadway actress sexually tied with the new hotshot actor, played by Edward Norton, who’s hired following a set “accident” that calls for a hasty replacement. Zack Galifianakis plays Riggan’s press agent and sort-of friend, Jake. Though this isn’t entirely the case, as the onstage goofs provide a lot of great tension and some very exhilarating moments, I think this idea is one of the main overarching themes in the film.
The idea that the best drama happens in reality, when the lens is capped and the lights are off; to not only act like the actor, but also feel as they would. Mike, played by Edward Norton as a dry and dauntlessly crude theater purist, is a believer in this theory, in this whacky form of method acting. He drinks actual gin for the drinking scenes, and he’s got an actual boner right on cue for the sensual, under-the-sheets scene with Lesly, who had complained earlier that he hasn’t been able to get it up in months in real life.
Riggan actually seems to come around to Mike’s acting philosophy towards the end, even if he may not be entirely aware of it. Standing in his dressing room with his ex-wife, played by Amy Ryan, he randomly spurts out that he regrets videotaping Sam’s birth, that he would’ve rather been actively present for the moment.
Keaton’s filmography is easily comparable to his character in “Birdman”, an aging actor famous for once playing a superhero, but I wonder if this could potentially pose as a distraction from the story itself; instead of focusing on the showering of ideas about self-worth and creative egoism, one might be spending most of their time pondering the parallels between the character and the man, Keaton himself. A constant back-and-forth dialogue between a real actor’s filmography and personality, the character’s filmography and personality, and the line the audience chooses to draw between the two.
I’ve wondered if the director of “Birdman”, Alejandro González Iñárritu, is trying to express some sort of meta-critique of the media by casting Keaton in the role. Was he trying to show how comfortable we are as a society to sum up a person’s career in such a shallow, conclusive manner, comparing and rating all that has come before and consider it less than the sum of its parts, that this one single film anchored his sagging legacy back to shore? Because from all the press and news articles I’ve read, sometimes from only scanning the headlines, the answer to such a question is a definite ‘yes’.
To say that this film is a ‘comeback’ for Keaton or ‘the best Michael Keaton movie in years’ sort of does a disservice to all of the work Mr. Keaton’s done in the last ten or so years; it’s the sort of complimentary-insult that the actual character of Riggan would probably obsessively struggle and wrestle with; maybe in the sequel, Birdman Again: For Dignity’s Sake, we’ll find out how he conquers his self-esteem issues.
While Riggan is being interviewed about his career-saving play, he’s snobbishly questioned about the merit of a spandex-star like himself actually helming a real, live stage performance. He responds in the standard circular non-talk of a public person that doesn’t want to upset or imply anything that could negatively affect themselves or their cause; or, he’s just been out of the game for so long, he forgot how to go through the motions and produce the gaseous, breezy movie star charm.
It’s a unique type of audience involvement, a new layer to contemplate in the intricately woven tapestry of it all. It’s not the first time a movie juxtaposed an actor’s real-life or career with a film’s story, but it will certainly go down as one of the best and most conclusive of this most likely nonexistent micro-genre.
From a technical point of view, “Birdman” soars as much as the characters and storytelling. Consisting mostly of a single continuous take, the camera darts in and out of rooms, rising slowly upwards to the tops of buildings, trailing, following. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki uses clandestine cuts and convenient object placement to momentarily cloud the camera, cut, and resume in the same fixed, object-blocked position, supporting the illusion of a never-ending sequence. It’s a basic cinematic technique in most cases, but yet the simplicity of it depends on the scope of the camera movement.
With aerial shots and multiple characters to track alongside with, the setups had to have been as calculated and choreographed as a hundred-million dollar battle sequence. Compared to Hitchcock’s one-shot, single location film, “Rope”, “Birdman” is quite groundbreaking in its uncut use of so many different locations. The entire movie was filmed in a swift thirty days, and similar to the great director Sidney Lumet, Iñárritu prepared for the shoot far ahead of time, setting aside several weeks for rehearsing and perfecting the scene layouts with his large ensemble cast.
If anybody tries to knock a movie for a quick shoot, they most likely just don’t understand how it works, and how a shorter shoot simply means lower production costs. Any amount of time that can be cut off of the shooting schedule is time well-spent, as many more experienced than I would confirm.
Using the one-take structure for this particular story can be reasoned many different ways, all of them, in my opinion, being very defensible. As Edward Norton’s character says to Riggan’s daughter, Sam, “This is the theater, don’t be so self-conscious.”
The constant scrutiny of the omnipresent camera heightens the pressure on the characters, and increases the tension and urgency for the viewer. We won’t be saved from awkwardness or intense outbursts by a fade-to-black or a sudden cut to a future moment in time.
We are with these people completely, sharing, in a sense, the same vantage point, the same rambunctious moments leading up to the big opening night. It adds to the rolling impact of it all, which, by the end, we can see and understand it to be the embodiment of what the millennial generation allegedly wants — completely unfiltered and exploitative videos, devoid of any dignity or logic.
The ambiguous, cut-short ending leaves something to chew on, and yet at the same time, not really all that much at all. The bandages wrapped around Riggan’s nose seem to intentionally evoke a bird’s beak, long and pointed. But the deep, hoarse voice is completely absent as he lays quietly alone on the hospital bed.
All of the moments Riggan’s Birdman ego had previously voiced its opinion, Riggan was in a similar situation as his current one at the hospital: interior silence, not being directly near any of the films other main characters.
So has Riggan transformed following this shocking, traumatic ordeal? He’s a changed man, right? His two combating personalities are seemingly done with the banging-heads routine, but who surrendered? The “God” of a man, The Birdman himself, or the aged, apologetic father, regular-old Riggan?
The act of hurling himself out of the window destroys half of his dual self; if he’s not truly Birdman, he’s Riggan the mortal, in his new pavement-splattered form. If he’s Birdman, he’s zooming around in circles in the air outside. And if he’s flying up above the hospital, as his daughter Sam, leaning out of the window and smiling proudly up towards the sky seems to be indicating, then has he transformed into the full-blown manifestation of Birdman?
My best guess:
Riggan lives and continues his life as a born-again cultural icon, a walking statue, now gladly willing to reap the benefits of his gloriously remembered years of youth, cheerfully posing for family pictures, attending Birdman retrospectives and Comic-cons. He’s retired from the constant stress of showmanship, and feels fine continuing on the remainder of his days talking about the thing, even if the thing is still just the thing, and not whatever it is that he or they say the thing is right now at this moment.