Birdman, or to give it its full title, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance), has been hotly tipped for awards galore this coming season, boasting a super-starry cast and directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, whose previous film snatched up many nominations and took home a golden globe for best picture.
Having been released over in the states for quite some time, the reaction from most people has been generally positive, appearing in a number of ‘best of 2014’ lists. Birdman is indeed worthy of high praise, although I think it will be extremely divisive of the general movie-going public, with one gentleman in my screening complaining that it’s “just a film with actors, acting like actors”. He’s right, that’s sort of the point, but Birdman is so much more than that. It’s a film which is interested in cinema, theatre and more than anything, performance. Set in a familiar, yet alternate reality, Michael Keaton plays Hollywood actor Riggan Thomson, star of the highly successful superhero trilogy, Birdman. Washed up and forgotten after refusing to do Birdman 4, Riggan turns to the theatre in an attempt to resurrect his career and gain some artistic integrity, by writing, directing and starring in an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’. As opening night approaches, he must deal with method actors, his former junkie daughter, and critics, all whilst his mental state begins to decline, continually taunted by his former on-screen character, Birdman.
With Birdman, Alejandro González Iñárritu makes the cinematically ambitious look easy, seemingly shooting the whole film in one long, continuous tracking shot. It’s hard to distinguish any natural cuts other than first noticeable one around twenty minutes in, putting to shame the opening tracking shot in Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity. The film is contradictory in a way, technically complex yet straight forward, Iñárritu stripping back the flashy visuals so as to allow the story to tell itself. He tricks us into thinking there’s no filmic manipulation at all with no editing and essentially no score, all the music and sound being diegetic, and that makes Birdman truly absorbing; as if you are looking through a window into these people’s lives. The technical genius is only one part of what makes Birdman such a captivating watch, with a multilayered plot that balances the drama and comedy with expert precision. It’s extremely satirical, poking fun at the current state of Hollywood, where explosions, special effects and superheroes are the biggest draws to cinema for audiences and film makers alike. There’s an added sense of irony through the fact that three of the films main players- Emma Stone, Edward Norton and Michael Keaton- have all acted in superhero movies themselves, proving what the film has to say. It also adds to the film’s performances themselves, especially in regards to Michael Keaton, where the similarities between him and his character are stark. There’s an emotional truth to the way he plays Riggan, embittered that the only thing he’s really remembered for is a superhero blockbuster, and that makes his astonishing performance feel honest as well.
Keaton’s return to the screen is bold and ferocious, a big ‘fuck you’ to audiences and film makers for forgetting about him over the past few years, and I hope he gets the recognition he deserves for this role. He leads a strong cast that includes the fantastic Edward Norton who shines brightest after Keaton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts and even Zach Galifianakis who is the least annoying I’ve ever seen him. The strength of the performances could be down to the fact that each actor is pretty much taking the piss out of their own profession, something I think the film takes a particular interest in. Not only does it satirise the state of modern day cinema, but also the art of performing and the pretentiousness that is associated with the theatre. It makes some keen observations about fame, celebrity and the connection between the desire to be remembered and revered. The film itself opens with a Raymond Carver quote, one which is actually engraved into his tombstone;
“And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.”
This quote is essentially at the heart of Birdman, which takes great pleasure in looking at the ego, insecurity and self-obsession of actors, intelligently making their problems seem insignificant in comparison to the history of the universe. Riggan makes for a particularly interesting character study in that his own self-importance and desire to be special seems to manifest in superhuman powers. When we meet him, he’s levitating in the middle of his dressing room and we soon discover he has the power to move things with his mind, all of which may or may not be part of his mental breakdown. It’s his ex-wife, played by Amy Ryan, who sums up his character and the crux of the perfectly when she tells him “You always confused admiration for love”, a sentiment that further acknowledges the connection between fame and the desire to be remembered.
Toward the end of the film, there is another well observed scene where Keaton’s Riggan comes into contact with a theatre critic and accuses her of being lazy by just giving things labels, without going into the technicality or artistry involved in a project. With this in mind, I will simply offer a small amount of labels for Birdman; it’s an off-beat, satirical and darkly comic look at the art of performance, theatre and cinema. Going further than that though, its technical ingenuity is remarkable, the writing is sharp and the performances are raw, honest and heartfelt across the board. It’s a weird and wondrous watch that may not be for everybody, but is refreshingly different.
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