Birdman

January 17, 2015
Michael Keaton in 'Birdman' (2014)
Michael Keaton in 'Birdman' (2014)

Mexican director, Alejandro González Iñárritu, has a reputation for dark and difficult films but Birdman is a philosophical black comedy that holds us from first to last. It’s a story about the theatre that examines the changing nature of fame, the difficulty of human relationships, the splendours and miseries of the actor’s life. It’s also the first masterpiece you will see at the cinema this year.

What Iñárritu doesn’t provide are magical answers or cosy moral lessons. Birdman is a film steeped in irony in which the main characters are flawed but sympathetic. The director’s skill is to draw us into their personal forms of madness, letting us feel their anxieties leading up to opening night.

One of the ways Iñárritu achieves this is via a piece of technical wizardry, making it seem as if the film is one continuous take – a technique pioneered by Alfred Hitchcock in Rope (1948), and used to extravagant effect in Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002). In fact, Birdman was shot in a series of long takes seamlessly meshed together. The cinematographer was the formidable Emmanuel Lubezki, who won an Oscar last year for his camerawork on Gravity (2013).

In this context the one-shot approach is more than a gimmick or an experiment. Birdman is an meditation on the nature of acting, and by extending the takes to ten minutes or more Iñárritu has forced his cast to perform as if they were acting in a play. The entire film was reputedly shot in 30 days, necessitating a high degree of planning and instilling an intensity into the performances.

This is certainly the case for Michael Keating’s starring role as Riggan Thomson, an aging actor who has made his name as Birdman, a costumed Hollywood superhero. After two sequels Riggan refused to make Birdman 4, and disappeared from the public eye. It’s uncomfortably close to what happened to Keaton after he bailed out of Batman 3 (1995) following Tim Burton’s forced departure.

The parallels are so obvious Keaton has apparently grown tired of discussing them. At least he never came up with a scheme like Riggan’s, which involves pouring your remaining money into a Broadway play for which you are writer, director and lead actor. In this late search for credibility Riggan has adapted Raymond Carver’s story, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. He clings to a memory of his early days as an actor, when Carver sat in the audience one night and sent him a note on a paper napkin, saying: “Thanks for an honest performance.”

Riggan idolises the theatre as the true test of an actor’s art, but to the rest of the world he will always be Birdman – a persona that has become lodged in his psyche. We meet him in his dressing room at the St. James Theatre, as sits crossed-legged and levitating – yes, levitating. In his head he hears the gruff voice of his alter-ego telling him this place is a dump, that he’s wasting his talent while nobodies make mega-bucks playing a new crop of superheroes.

For most of the film we wonder if Riggan has superpowers, or if it’s all in his head. Iñárritu plays it straight – cutting in a startling piece of CGI when our hero needs to reassert his identity.

On the dressing room wall there is a quote attributed to Susan Sontag: “A thing is a thing not what is said of that thing.” It’s a mantra to remind Riggan that art has its own truths, regardless of public opinion. The paradox is that acting is by definition an elaborate form of deception.

As opening night approaches everything is going to hell. Riggan’s actor girlfriend, Laura (Andrea Riseborough), tells him she’s pregnant. His manager, Jake (Zach Galifianakis), says they’re on the verge of financial ruin. His ex-wife, Sylvia (Amy Ryan), turns up to encourage him and remind him of his past misdeeds. His daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), whom he has hired as a personal assistant, is just out of rehab and full of simmering resentment.

When the other male lead has an accident Riggan takes the opportunity to hire a much better replacement, one Mike Shiner, a recognised star of the theatre. Mike turns out to be a brilliant performer but an appalling jerk who takes method acting to such an extreme he only feels real on stage. Although he is impotent in everyday life he gets an erection playing a love scene.

This is a virtuoso performance by Edward Norton, who has his own reputation as a difficult personality. Mike is brought into the mix by his one-time girlfriend, Lesley (Naomi Watts), who is also in the play, but he quickly sets his sights on Sam, who likes to sit poised on a ledge playing truth or dare.

Riggan has hired Sam to try to make up for years of paternal neglect. She repays him by telling him he’s a deluded old man pinning all his hopes on a story by a dead white male. In one memorable speech Sam shreds Riggan’s Broadway fantasies. The way to fame today, she insists, is through YouTube, Twitter and Instagram. It may be the first time in movies that Emma Stone has been obliged to show she can really act.

Riggan achieves cyberspace superstardom by means of “the unexpected virtue of ignorance” – as the movie’s subtitle puts it. He strives for a high-minded ideal of art but becomes known for an accident, when he locks himself out of the theatre and has to walk around Times Square in his underpants to get back to the stage. In the age of social media this is publicity money can’t buy.

Shortly before opening night Riggan meets the most influential critic in town who tells him she’s determined to pan his play sight-unseen, because he’s only a Hollywood hack flirting with the theatre. As he goes on stage with everything falling to pieces around him, Riggan is driven to one last, desperate act.

Although this film laments Hollywood’s ongoing love affair with superhero films it doesn’t buy into Riggan’s romantic belief in a pure and honest art that will touch people’s hearts. In a world dominated by social media it’s clear that visibility is more important than quality, and notoriety the swiftest path to fame. We can see for ourselves that the quest for integrity has lost out to the swift, visceral pleasures of clickability.

Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance
Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu
Written by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo
Starring Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis, Andrea Riseborough, Lindsay Duncan, Amy Ryan
USA, rated MA15+, 119 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 17th January, 2015.