Everyone is Trying to Prove They’re Relevant: Birdman

Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, as it says) was an experience. One that I will try to parse out below. But frankly, though I can go on about the true merits of the film, I expect my take to be wildly different from anyone else’s—it is a piece of art designed to speak to many people, in many walks of life, and much of what it has to say is dependent entirely on who is watching.

Minor spoilers for the film below.

Having already gotten a sneak preview of Birdman at New York Comic Con last week, I walked in reasonably sure of what to expect. Which was a mistake. This is not a film that you can get a grasp on by watching 10-20 minutes of footage. In fact, it feels remiss to write a review having only seen it once; it is layered as the crust of the earth, and only multiple viewings would allow it to be stripped down carefully enough to get a true grasp of what’s going on.

The basics of the plot are clear enough—Riggan (Michael Keaton) is an actor who played one of the first major superheroes on film over two decades ago, the Birdman for which the film is named. Now, he is on a road to reassert his own relevance by adapting a Raymond Carver novel into a Broadway show that he is writing, directing, and starring in. One of the actors is not up to snuff and is suddenly injured (the suggestion being the Riggan may have caused his accident to prevent him from going on), and a new actor’s actor named Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) is called in to play the part. It all goes to hell from there.

Saying this film is an unforeseen work of art is not a statement to be made lightly, but merely speaking technically, that’s exactly what it is. The camera work is astounding; the whole film literally appears to occur in one long, meandering shot. Obviously it does not, but how writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (of Gravity fame) managed to convey it is a gorgeous mystery. That technical genius alone is enough to merit rewatching, and the movie will doubtlessly be studied meticulously in universities across the globe for years to come. The soundtrack, too, is something of a revelation. Composer Antonio Sanchez managed to create a score that would have felt equally at home in a spoken word coffee house, and its meta appearances throughout the narrative are inspired breakaways.

Birdman is about too many things to properly address in one review, fielding so many questions, so many insecurities about the era we live in: What is fame? What is art now? Can celebrity create art? Can this media-saturated world we live in allow for art, or only power in branding? What’s impressive about Birdman is not that it asks these questions—because frankly, these questions alone are damned boring and navel-gazing to the core—but that it’s not willing to give easy answers to any of those questions. It refuses to come down on one side or another.

For example; Riggan is largely thought of as a hack because he started the trend of starring in a few superhero blockbusters (which now saturate the entertainment market everywhere you turn) and now is trying to prove his real acting chops on Broadway with no comparative experience to back him up. But the person who exists on the other side of this legitimacy chasm, Norton’s nothing-but-real-emotions-I-exist-in-the-work Mike Shiner, is nothing short of a self-aggrandizing, misogynist, thieving asshole who mines other people’s emotions because he can’t be bothered to feel any himself. Neither Riggan or Shiner is on the “right” side. They’re both desperate artists who need to believe that what they do matters somewhere on the scale of human experience.

Riggan’s daughter Sam is in a similar position opposite her dear dad. Fresh off a stint at rehab, she occupies a position as the Millennial cryer, a young woman who understands that Broadway—a place primarily attended by wealthy white patrons—is not where recognition truly exists today. It’s in the ether, on the internet. A place that we adore and loathe at the same time, in the same breath. We may hate YouTube, but we still watch videos on it. We may not want to exist on Facebook and Twitter, but that’s how the wide world knows to find us.

If theatre is a place you ever called home (*raises hand high in the air*) then this film will feel claustrophobically familiar. Most of the film explores the back hallways, dressing rooms, and rafters of the Broadway stage that Riggan’s play takes place on. The film does not pull its punches in that regard either; it shows the highly unglamorous reality of theater life, the dust in every corner, the mess of the costumer’s racks, the ridiculous crevices under staircases and the ramshackle furniture and the alarming proximity to tourists who could not give a lick about what you are doing. Theatre people are there at the core, too, with their incestuous everyone-knows-everyone relationships and the hyper-closeness that comes from living in each other’s back pockets for months and years at a time while you do eight shows a week and spend twelve hour days in rehearsal.

The film has a keen surrealist bent, with all the ambiguity that entails. In some of the more “magical” passages, it is left up to the audience to decide what really occurred, from a moment of human flight to Riggan’s seemingly telekinetic abilities that surface in more emotional moments. It’s easy to shrug off and simply read as madness cluttering Riggan’s head, but that’s not giving the film its due. The magic the audience witnesses is a window to clarity; it makes the world sharper, not more obtuse, which is very fitting indeed.

Having said all this… I do feel a little guilty in admitting that I don’t find Birdman’s ending up to snuff at all. Perhaps it’s having seen too many “four people on a single set” plays that the film draws a great deal of inspiration from, but the final act of the movie is too obvious, too rote for the questions it’s asking. The ruminations go so far, only to culminate in the exact way they are expected to in these sorts of narratives. Chekov’s gun is loaded early on and eventually fired. End scene.

It doesn’t change the fact that Birdman is beyond well worth watching, and one of the more impressive cinematic feats to come out in recent memory. But it does make me wonder what its legacy will add up to.


Emily Asher-Perrin needs to watch Birdman again. You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

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