Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu turns the camera from onlooking to the fictitious world of cinematic storytelling to the vessels themselves who are responsible for bringing many of our beloved characters to life, the actors, the performers, the stars. Much like the capabilities of a camera it penetrates and captures the essence of such performances, an insight that immerses its viewers through its reflected truth or beauty; Inarritu tracks the life of its subjects behind the physical spotlight and their natural platform, actors roaming through the generally unseen narrow halls, leading them either to their cave of isolation, left only with mirrors to pass judgement, or it would lead them back to their beloved platform, where strangers or emptiness becomes their audience.
Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) wraps itself with a fictitious coat, art mirroring reality, replacing true sincerity with thoughtful depiction, Michael Keaton as a mediocre actor (Riggan Thomson) that seeks artistic glory, reviving and dignifying his position as a performer, a transition from celluloid to stage with an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”, a feat that reaches far beyond his previous duties as his credit to its creation now includes the prestigious titles of writer and director. Fame, wealth, and downfall still surrounds his image, solidifying his position within such a competitive world through the donning of a beloved superhero icon, earning its investors billions of dollars and embraced Riggan as a wealthy and admired star, a frontrunner of a business that was quick to disown him after the tragedy of a franchise’s second sequel, what was once a paradise became a desert, slowly drying up and leaving him desperate, remembered only by a figment of their past, no longer critical or adored by the standards and society of the modern world.
What seemingly titles itself as a portrait evokes instead as a landscape of the contemporary conditions of the cinematic medium, the camera in between diverting its attention from the clear fallen idol to his peers and family; vulnerability, insecurities, dedication, desires, and glory pulsating with every spoken word and expressed movement or emotion, now a landscape of portraits that accumulate to a singular picture or idea. Neither of its breathing stars repeats the fractures and shine of another, neither pass through such a tale unscathed, given every moment to either be exposed of their damages or to defend themselves against such an accusation, complexity that perfectly captures the human form. Carried by performances from the most talented of actors and actresses, evoking intensity with an almost conscious sense of a peering audience, embodying simple structures that are left hollow for themselves to fill, an odd mixture of naturalism with theatricality, a clashing of methods that finds a healthy compromise, made possible by the careful construction from its writers and Inarritu’s direction.
Remaining sincere in its depiction of a man’s ego, Riggan’s life is marched with the beat of his own psychological drum set, a figurative player driven by improvisation, reminding me of a drum version of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, seemingly erratic and unable to find its intended groove, reflecting the fragile nature of the character. Although notable for its drum based score, orchestral arrangements still occupy much of the scenes that are isolated from Riggan’s point of view, emphasising their own sense of melancholy as actors endure emotional and psychological hardships, and further highlighting the vain nature of Riggan’s thoughts, a score to orchestrate his life like there is no one else relevant than himself.
If the drum score calls to our attention when it arrives, Inarritu and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki do the same as they capture such a tale with an almost real time documentary format, tracking the lives of its subjects without a noticeable transition, the passage of time becomes seamless and artistic, a feat that was once attempted by Alfred Hitchcock in his experimental 1948 feature Rope; it mimics a style that has been executed efficiently by the likes of Martin Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson, a smooth gliding of the camera as it navigates through the narrow halls and cramped rooms, but the method pursuits even further by moments breaking down the concept of impenetrable physical space, instead of bypassing such a barrier, it glides through it, a spiritual quality that evokes similarly to Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, an unseen being standing and staring comfortably close to its subjects, almost as if speaking to us when it wants to and pushing as far as it can to create a penetrative outlook; the camera is constantly observant and fascinated by the human face, amplifying their expressed emotions, resonating a sense of power unmatched against the medium’s traditional peers.
Inarritu finds the ability to amuse in his profound intentions through the parallels of his constructed world and characters, a sense of sincerity that refuses to take itself seriously, a cheeky attitude that never intrudes in its critical moments, still retaining the melancholy that primarily surrounds the atmosphere of its character development, a much more looser imitation of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. Coincidence simply doesn’t exist within such a production, Keaton’s well renowned background of the superhero franchise and the unfortunate direction of his career during recent years adds on to the suffering tragedy of such a figure, almost as if such angst followed Keaton’s life until this very film arrived at his doorstep, a resemblance of Wilder’s Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond, exposing possible truths within such a lengthy gap of her career, generating a performance that radiates purity, a goal of method acting that simply cannot be matched.
Much like Swanson’s Norma Desmond, ego reeks off the skin of Keaton’s Riggan Thomson, consumed by the past, the glory that was once there that dignified his contributions as an actor; ambition and obsession propels him into something far more he could handle, awakening the subconscious ego to a conscious form, a voice of his once glorious life soon evolving to a visible physical form, an insight that is allowed by Inarritu that both amuses and thoughtfully resonates. Self-destruction and cynicism from Riggan becomes palpable and entertaining, Inarritu intelligently minimises such conditions at a drastic physical level, remaining psychological and emotional in its experience, identifying the resenting effect that it sometimes leave on his peers; physicality only begins to emerge when Riggan is provoked with such hostility, arising mostly in the presence of Edward Norton’s Mike Shiner, diverting the much desired spotlight onto himself, leaving Riggan repeatedly unappreciated, inch by inch pushing him to the brink of insanity.
Norton’s Mike Shiner is as fascinating as Keaton’s Riggan due to the same complexity that is found in his depiction, suffering from a condition that is conceivable within a medium, a man incapable to thrive when removed from the stage, erratic and often impulsive in his craft that each performance remains golden as commitment and passion is unmatched, a moment of relief that gratifies him and feels relevant within such a world, an ambition that Riggan deeply craves. Such artistic success has defined the minimal standards of Mike, willing to endeavour into the craft more so than his peers, a justification for such a commendable performance, but leaves him seeming antagonistic and self-absorbed, at times lacking empathy if it means respecting the craft. Though seemingly above Riggan, envy still strikes him but masking it as loathe, a contradictory nature that is generously explored further through the character’s encounters with Emma Stone’s Sam, opening empathy and sympathy to a character that a traditional film would dampen or completely deny, no longer a simply villain or a road block for another but instead a complex being, morally neutralised and often swallowed by the melancholy satire of the medium.
Inarritu opens with the falling of a bright star, suddenly cut to Keaton in a mystical Zen like position, floating above the ground as if supernaturally gifted, we see frequently later on the telekinetic like abilities of Riggan, mostly undertaken behind closed doors or through subtlety, in which the members of his production fail to notice, and rightfully so given that it becomes immediately apparent that it is also a delusion, a visual manifestation within Riggan’s perspective, seeing life through his eyes. Riggan’s slow descent to madness rarely manifests itself outside the comfort of his dressing room, a seemingly isolated place where an actor can find a sense of release, such a angst and psychosis would only be manifested outside his room when he finds himself in a deep sense of pity, melancholy, and intoxication, a single point later in the film that would have demonstrated the character now pushed off the edge, a ticking time bomb that would give him the ultimate relief.
Riggan standing in what seems to be his final appearance, ending in a bang, our perspective cut after the sound of raging applause, appearing next the visions of the contemporary blockbuster featuring its most beloved of icons, then once again the appearance of the fallen star and an image of birds preying upon carcasses. We are transported back to familiarity with the outcome of Riggan’s performance, death seems to not have taken him, and his fame now roars and has begun a revolution in the medium, a super-realism they claim, simply a boundary pushed slightly further than Mike Shiner’s method. A new nose has been attached, one that seems more fitting to don the classic costume, revealing to the corner of his eye with deadpan comicality, his ego sitting comfortably on the toilet, during which he leaves the room uttering “goodbye and fuck you” , climbing over the window to presumably to suicide. A finale that radiates ambiguity, left with enough openness to take the moment as either physical or metaphorical, Emma Stone’s Sam looks out the window and staring above she smiles, a final shot that reverses the intentions of the first, no longer a falling star but a rising legend, an idol, a dignified artist; but such a physical interpretation cannot be denied, as Inarritu could have simply remained with Riggan’s perspective, viewing Sam’s reaction in the way that the character expects or desires, an egocentric finale that ties strongly with its repeated themes, as for a matter of fact, Riggan’s fate is a physically drastic one, splattered on the canvas, possibly fuelled by the permanent fixture of his Birdman ego, one that has finally taken into physical form, no longer a hallucination but instead haunting reminder that could only be ended with another attempt of death, a sure thing that would possibly lead to further disfigurement, left with many an image of Riggan as he intended.
Birdman is as significant to Inarritu as it is to Keaton, with the latter finally breaking out of the shell of his superficial and commercial past, now revived and dignified as a worthy actor, a performance that led him as a frontrunner within the awards circuit, only to be lost by a much more eye-catching performance by Eddie Redmayne at the Academy Awards. Inarritu finds himself to critical acclaim that would surely open opportunities from him within the near future, an apparent switch to a more comedic touch that displays his ability to create a more accessible and entertaining feature; but it isn’t Inarritu’s change of tone that pulsated Birdman’s vessels, but instead his own mirroring vulnerabilities and ambition that established its honesty and simply refined by the leading performance from Keaton. As much as we can see Keaton’s true persona in the role of Riggan, we also find Inarritu standing there, conflicted by his own need to be appreciated, a response that ironically comes to form in its release, Inarritu finally reaching his peak, but that leaves us with where he may go from there, could any film he creates afterwards be as passionate and honest as Birdman? Could such a spotlight maintain itself long enough to satisfy his ego? These are questions that as an audience we cannot find an answer to until time passes and his future becomes our past to analyse and reflect.