Birdman: or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)
Dir: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Academy Award Nominations: Best Picture. Director. Original Screenplay. Lead Actor. Supporting Actor. Supporting Actress. Cinematography. Sound Editing. Sound Mixing.
I’ve recently been listening to ‘The Tobolowsky Files’ podcast, and feel like I’ve learnt a lot about actors and their lives, especially pertinent were some recent episodes about the perils of staging a show on Broadway with success or failure in the hands of one critic. This film brilliantly echoes all of that, while incorporating piles of real-life references to the film industry and Superhero movies in particular.
Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is an actor best known for playing big-screen superhero, Birdman. He wants to get back to his acting roots though, and so adapts and stages a play that he will also be starring in on Broadway, but the production doesn’t go smoothly. In the final days before opening, every preview performance goes wrong in some way, including having to replace a cast member with overconfident Broadway star Mike Shiner (Edward Norton). Pushed to his limits, Riggan is also struggling to connect with his daughter Sam (Emma Stone) while battling the looming presence of ‘Birdman’.
Right from the very odd opening a surrealist tone is established immediately, and the only thing we’re certain of is that we’re going to be uncertain of much for the whole film but at least this’ll be an experience. Meteors and a man levitating in Y-fronts may not be to everyone’s taste, but I was willing to go on this non-stop ride for the next two hours and I enjoyed it immensely.
You can’t avoid acknowledging that the plot is slightly biographical, knowing that Keaton was Batman and is forever linked with that role. For someone like myself, I also thought about the fact that Emma Stone has also been in a comic book movie franchise (The Amazing Spider-Man), as has Edward Norton (The Incredible Hulk). The film early on seems to take a shot at endless sequels and franchises as all the replacement actors they would like are taken for other jobs, most are playing superheroes. Robert Downey Jr is mentioned on a TV in the background, and the real roles are being spoken of, they don’t need to make it up. There’s even a clever little reference when Keaton’s character says that newspapers started featuring ‘Clooney’s face… not mine’. Though he has said the part wasn’t specifically written for him, it’s clearly been tailored to fit him beautifully, and it’s been mutually beneficial.
Riggan is a complex character, clearly struggling with inner demons, and this is shown through a voice in his head that doesn’t seem to be suggesting Schizophrenia, but rather is more like his subconscious, voicing his fears, the voice of Birdman that he can’t put behind him and “is like a deformed version of myself that keeps following me around”. A large poster of him as the character is on display in his dressing room, an unwelcome reminder of the role that he’s intentionally striving to distance himself from. He’s even shown as having some superhuman abilities, but we aren’t at all sure what’s real or imagined, and the film uses these moments sparingly to keep us wondering right up to the very end.
The lines between real life and scripted fiction are regularly blurred, there are no huge pauses between being on stage or off, so often we don’t know if they’re acting or being themselves, if it’s the play or their lives. Just as Keaton’s real life is blended into the script, the lines of reality are blurred into their performances, with personal drama regularly making its way onto the stage and back off again.
To aid this effect, the film has the appearance of one continuous shot, somewhat like ‘Rope‘, and this is how we see a theatre production, and more importantly how we experience life. Though at times we may change our focus, life is one long shot as we look on, there are no cuts. The editing is impeccable, I can see where some of the cuts are, but I’m sure there must be far more, I would have to see the film many more times to try to work them out. The editing is covered over with such skill, the camera is almost always moving or characters are active within the shot so that it really looks continuous. Filmed in actual theatre for some, but in a studio for the rest, it’s imperceptible when the shifts take place. This technique helps to keep the whole story proceeding at a really great pace, more importantly it draws you right in to the narrative and the scenario incredibly effectively. Movement is kept flowing, we often follow characters around corners and down corridors, there are no plain square rooms and boring static shots. At times this style of not cutting away means we see conversations differently to how we might usually in film, with one side and then it being a little while before we see the other persons reaction to it, so the impact of rants and arguments especially have the chance to sink in. There’s smooth changes to who we’re following at times, simply moving to another character and then following them round for a while, which keeps the film always feeling fresh and interesting.
The editing also helps with the effect that time is very fluid, and the passage of time in the film is unusual as it covers multiple days but is uncut. There are just a couple of time-lapse shots to show that we’ve gone from one day to the next, but not always, so with hardly any stopping we go from rehearsals, to backstage drama, to outside, to a performance, and though there may have been many hours in between some of these things they follow instantly, often turning the camera and finding that the room has filled.
The posters show clearly that the focus is on the incredible ensemble cast that has been assembled. Actors are key to the whole story, when Edward Norton’s Mike arrives in the theatre there’s a sudden shift in control, his character starts dominating the production and performances, and therefore Norton’s performance in the film does the same by being very attention-grabbing. While Riggan is nervous and unsure of everything, Mike is shown as the opposite, outwardly overconfident he strolls into the production ready. Zach Galifinakis is also surprisingly good, it’s one of the smaller roles but he’s perfect in it and I was honestly surprised.
However, apart from the obvious Michael Keaton, the clear stand out performance is that of Emma Stone who is typically excellent, but this role allows her to show different aspects of her range that might be lesser-used in other roles. As Riggan’s daughter Sam, she has a role to play in the production as his assistant, but also provides the key to the emotional side of the story, that of Riggan trying to reconnect with her after years of absence. Her role has many different moods, functions, and sides, yet Emma Stone conveys each one brilliantly, and it’s no surprise at all that she’s been nominated for awards.
The film is a brilliant piece of slick and original writing. It turns from comedic to deep and serious very rapidly, featuring some deep and honest conversations. The themes of ego and self obsession are analysed without it sounding like a session on the psychiatrist’s couch, each characters foibles are put into perspective through a convincing narrative and some very snappy dialogue. It’s said that “truth is always interesting” and then proves it by employing a little subtle foreshadowing yet remaining completely unexpected right up to the very last shot.
There are scenes of sudden action, sometimes on a small-scale, and then once unexpectedly epic with lots of effects and action, conjuring the sorts of films Riggan starred in as Birdman, with massive impact. THe whole film is shot beautifully with some amazing lighting, different parts of the theatre bring changes in colour and moods. Brilliant use is made of mirrors and reflection, this offers great perspectives on moments where we need to see more than one camera can easily allow. There are even a few large-scale external scenes, sparingly used but perfectly put together and choreographed to flow as precisely as the internal action does. As for sound, some of the dressing room scenes have moments so quiet you can hear the clock ticking in the background, but there’s a regular score, played mostly on drums, that sounds like it’s been lifted from ‘Whiplash‘. Somehow the simplicity and rhythm of it works very well.