Parting ways with Guillermo Arriaga appears to have greatly benefited Alejandro González Iñárittu. Freed from the former’s sanctimony and bleeding-heart pandering, he proved in 2010’s Biutiful that he was capable of filming human suffering without wallowing in it as he did in Amores Perros and Babel, as well as directing great performances without reducing the characters inspiring them to a series of spectacular emotions as he did in 21 Grams. As if to confirm that this is indeed the beginning of a new era for him, Birdman Or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance) takes a further step away from Iñárittu’s previous films both stylistically and thematically. While not entirely absent, the dark world of junkies, illegal immigrants and small-time crooks takes a backseat to the just-as cutthroat world of theater and acting.
Few kinds of films unite filmmakers and film critics in mutual adoration more than those about the show business. It’s the kind of subject matter that brings us all together in unabashedly worshipping the arts of filmmaking and/or acting while simultaneously pretending to expose unpleasant truths about the environment in which they exercise themselves: Out of control egos, backstabbing, feuds, the prevalence of monetary concerns over artistic ones… It’s all old news, and not what makes the best stage-set or film-set films such as All About Eve, Opening Night, Black Swan, The Red Shoes, All That Jazz, Singin’ In The Rain, Mulholland Dr. or Through The Olive Trees so great. Each of these films is great for a number of reasons, but all are united by a common use of the world of make-believe and artifice as a lens through which their filmmakers examine and display the impulses, needs, emotions and dreams that make creation a necessity for both creators and audiences alike. With that in mind, how does Birdman compare to these luminaries and how does it stand on its own? That question cannot be answered without going through the two most publicized aspects of the film’s content and form: The parallels between the protagonist and his actor, and the efforts undertaken by Iñárittu, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and editors Douglas Crise & Stephen Mirrione to make most of the film appear to be one unbroken take.
The story is a familiar one in the acting world: A washed-up actor pools all his resources into one last shot at being taken seriously, only to be constantly reminded of his past glory as well as his personal failings. In the case of Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), that past glory happens to be Birdman, a comic book-based superhero whom Thomson stopped portraying in 1992, after which he struggled in vain to convince audiences he could be anybody else. Aside from being an obvious parallel to Keaton’s own troubled post-Batman career after 1992’s Batman Returns, Riggan’s inability to separate himself from a character so deeply associated with him that it constantly taunts him serves as the screenwriters’ platform for a reflection on the limits such roles impose on actors’ self-perception as well as their public perception. Indeed, when Riggan isn’t being hounded by Birdman’s urges to dismiss elitist snobbery and embrace the crowd-pleasing populism of his old films, he’s playing Mel McGinnis, a Raymond Carver character who cannot exist without feeling validated by his wife’s love for him. Everything he does is inextricably connected to his quest for public approval.
This central premise has earned many comparisons to Black Swan, but Iñárittu and his co-screenwriters’ multiplication of both Riggan’s personalities (Thomson the washed-up action hero, Thomson-as-Birdman, Thomson-as-Mel McGinnis) and the play previews in which different things go wrong, make it more reminiscent of John Cassavetes’ Opening Night. Unfortunately, this comparison does Birdman few favours, as the addition of personal problems stereotypically associated with has-been actors – an estranged ex-wife (Amy Ryan), a pretentious method actor who wants to steal his spotlight (Edward Norton, doing an excellent lampoon of his own image), a recovering addict of a daughter (Emma Stone) whom he was never there for – feels almost arbitrary next to Opening Night’s understated treatment of Myrtle Gordon’s alcoholism and affairs with her co-star and director, which were only alluded to in passing and did not constitute the crux of their relationships with one another. Thankfully, the clever and mostly non-melodramatic dialogue (especially refreshing for an Iñárittu film) keep the clichés at bay and sometimes even manage to tone them down to the point where they feel fresh again – particularly in scenes between Norton and Stone, whose characters form a strange bond over the confrontational relationship they each share with Riggan as well as their casual and non-judgmental attitude towards each other’s insecurities.
Thus we have two actors, Keaton and Norton, sending themselves up as figures competing for mastery of their art and career. One could also add Naomi Watts as Norton’s character’s long-suffering wife, making this the fifth time1 she has played an actress going through a series of crises and the third time she has kissed another woman while playing that role2. Though always fun to watch, these identity games only have so much to say about acting that hasn’t been said before in films like Tropic Thunder. Much of that goes through Riggan, whose permanent battle between the “high-brow” art he aspires to and the “low-brow” entertainment represented by Birdman eventually results in a truce brought on by each side’s love of shlocky spectacle. By the end, Internet-era shock-and-awe tactics have brought Riggan back to relevance – and, troublingly, Iñárittu and co. frame it in such a way that it can be seen at best as a good thing, and at worst as the only way for genuine art to be noticed in a world torn between mindless destruction porn and an elitist art culture. Aside from being a considerable oversimplification of contemporary culture, its portrayal of critics – whose “representative” ends up being the unwitting catalyst for Riggan’s final decision – as haughty snobs who regard “low-brow” actors’ attempts at respectability as intrusion on forbidden territory rings false in three ways: Firstly, Iñárittu’s clichéd take on critics is most peculiar considering how his very career was jumpstarted by the quasi-unanimous critical adoration heaped on the earlier pieces of misery porn he concocted with Guillermo Arriaga. Secondly, the critical acclaim Michael Keaton has justly earned for his performance, as well as that previously enjoyed by Bruce Willis for The Sixth Sense and Jim Carrey for Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, disprove that premise; indeed, it’s quite plain to see that critics and audiences alike love comebacks as much as they love seeing populist actors take on “serious” roles. Thirdly, while film critics still enjoy considerable influence, many of the most powerful ones tend to work within the same corporate media circles that also include film distribution companies and publicists – meaning that a real-life New York Times critic would at least not be so eager to put a lowly action movie star back in his place without at least pondering what helping promote his comeback could mean for their career.
Misrepresentation of criticism and shortage of new insights aside, Birdman’s portrayal of the acting world is kept afloat by the characters’ lack of transparency and their actors’ consistently excellent performances. Far from the mere parody he could have been reduced to, Michael Keaton’s Riggan Thomson is self-enclosed and self-conscious, less a jokey spoof of himself than a haggard human being in constant search of the right way to do things, whether it’s play his role or talk to his daughter. Speaking of which, Emma Stone’s performance as Sam should almost certainly be remembered as the one that cemented her place in the American firmament. With a fairly limited number of scenes, she uses her large animated eyes and husky voice to create a woman whom life has prematurely wearied down, and yet still believes in some part of the art her father is doing, still places hope in its power to elevate him (quite literally as it turns out). Her blending of old-fashioned toughness of classic stars like Bette Davis with upper-middle class millennial cynicism is one of 2014’s acting highlights.
That’s for the story. Now, how does Iñárittu’s Rope3-like execution of it help or hinder the ideas contained within it? Bragging points aside, how does giving the impression of one long continuous take (an impression easily rendered with today’s digital technology, as evidenced by the number of commercials and music videos bearing the same illusion) affect the viewer’s experience and understanding of the ideas contained within the film ? Well, the long traveling shots and steady focus on the actors’ torsos magnify their performances in a manner that allows time to flow with regular speed. It’s particularly helpful when the camera is trailing or being trailed by Riggan during his more stressful episodes – particularly during his conversations with Birdman that almost invariably result in him trashing his room using telekinetic abilities that may or may not be real. Magical realism seems to be one of the hallmarks of Iñárittu’s post-Arriaga period, as Biutiful also had a protagonist blessed with supernatural powers – to see and communicate with recently departed souls – though the realism of the film’s tone generally resulted in the power being visually transcribed in such a way that its fantastic quality wouldn’t immediately register. Conversely, Birdman uses the long takes, fluid movements and wide variety of framing to make Riggan’s sudden hurling of objects across the room obvious and instantly acceptable to the viewer. The ambiguity of their reality is always present, as most of these actions take place when Riggan is alone in his room and a later flight scene concludes with him landing on the ground without anyone acknowledging it, but that question is mostly irrelevant. What matters is the efficiency with which they express the protagonist’s state of mind; as Riggan’s frustration grows to the point where he embraces Birdman’s identity, the constant uninterrupted flow of images in which he evolves acts like a real-time illustration of his metamorphosis. The viewer, accustomed to following him throughout his travails, naturally empathizes with the sense of relief that comes with every major step of his transformation, from the final preview performance to the opening night.
Thus Alejandro González Iñárittu twists the original goal behind the “one-shot feature-film” dream – to capture over an hour of unedited reality, even in fiction – by instead maintaining an illusion of a heightened perception of time. This allows him to cheat by using transitions obviously designed to hide cuts (a character goes through a dark corridor, the camera turns away from people to focus on a building as light changes from night to day). All well and good, but one cannot help feel that the technique sometimes calls attention to itself – particularly when Iñárittu circles around his actors as though there were no other way to properly record a two-plus-people conversation in a single take (a lazy choice Christopher Nolan has also occasionally made in his Dark Knight trilogy). Nevertheless, while it could have befitted Birdman better to be more open about its artifices, it remains a pleasing sensorial treat, if not an exceptionally fresh take on the performing arts.
1After Mulholland Dr. and the pilot of the aborted TV series of the same title, Ellie Parker and the initial short film of the same title.
2The other two occasions being Mulholland Dr. and Ellie Parker.
3In 1948, Alfred Hitchcock made a first attempt at making a single-shot feature film with Rope, a thriller that took place entirely in a murderous gay couple’s apartment and that was also filmed in long takes and edited to look like its entire post-opening credits action was taking place in a single shot.