“What we talk about when we talk about me.”
‘The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance’ – Just dwell on those words for a moment. Alejandro González Iñárritu is not known to many people. I admit my own ignorance on this matter. I’d never considered ignorance to be a virtue. Bliss, sure, but virtuous seemed a stretch so my innate intrigue was tantalised when Birdman was announced, check out my first post on the subject if you don’t believe me.
Iñárritu’s passion for delivering often complex social commentaries combined with a natural talent for meshing different stories together is no secret; just look at Babel and 21 Grams. Then along comes Birdman and blows any prior expectation out the park.
Still in awe after my first viewing it’s easy to understand why Birdman holds 173 wins across the board including the most prestigious, highly coveted, ‘Best Picture’ at the 2015 Oscars. But like Riggan Thomson I’m sure international recognition wasn’t the goal here. We don’t all have that same desire as our “cynical friends whose only ambition is to go viral.”
How do you define a film that breaks down all barriers, laughs in the face of celluloid orthodoxy, and bucks the current superhero trend relentlessly? Satire. Perhaps, but even this explanation seems a little trivial, too easy, we can’t just go around throwing labels at things, Riggan knows that to be lazy so why do we do it? Riggan embodies the prescient state of celebrity actors in years to come. It’s no accident Riggan’s ‘Birdman’ alter-ego sounds a lot like Christian Bale’s ‘Dark Knight’, which parodies his own turn as The Caped Crusader. Iñárritu presents the obtuse fact that the modern cinema audience feeds off processed “old-fashioned apocalyptic porn.” It’s true what Young Birdman says, “Look at these people, at their eyes… they’re sparkling. They love this shit. They love blood. They love action. Not this talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit.” The coverage of Marvel’s recent film schedule announcement hardly went under the radar, superheroes are taking over this world and there’s nothing we can do about it.
But enough about all this “talky” commentary, what about Birdman?
Rarely do I sit down to watch a film with anticipation coursing through my veins but the release of Birdman unfortunately coincided with my absence from an English-speaking country, devastated would be an understatement. Before I knew it the Oscars were upon us and although I still hadn’t seen it I knew enough to know it was going to do pretty well.
“Roll out the red carpet and hide the statues,” a panicked voice screams as Birdman enters Hollywood’s Dolby Theater.
From the moment we enter Riggan Thomson’s confused levitating life we begin a cinematic experience to behold. Aloft, flying high, Iñárritu’s meta social commentary crows louder than everything else.
Birdman is a triumph of modern filmmaking. Crafted by Iñárritu’s fluid vision, seduced by Lubezki’s incredible cinematography, and delivered by unrivalled performances from Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, and a rare dramatic shine from Zach Galifinakis everything comes together in one illusory seamless take. Moving from the street to the stage effortlessly Iñárritu smartly smashes through the barrier that separates the viewer from the production process.
The hype around Lubezki’s masterful cinematography, this chat about a film that feels like one long take, made me a little wary, concerned that the film would drag. But I couldn’t have been more wrong. Paced to perfection there isn’t a dull moment and the choice of shots, establishing the supercilious broadway with its popinjay inhabitants bring the viewer closer to the film’s subject in a way I’ve never experienced before.
Raymond Carver’s short story ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’ is central to the plot in more ways than one. Riggan has adapted the story about love of self, of others, and of ideas attempting to bring it to the stage. As director of, and actor in his own piece of work Edward Norton’s character, Mike Shiner, cynically highlights Thomson’s ambition and yet gives him the time of day to star in this potential ship wreck. Drawing on Carver’s ideas Iñárritu and co-writers Alexander Dinelaris, Nico Giacobone, and Armando Bo have come together to subtly comment on Riggan’s state of mind. Either too self-absorbed or plainly ignorant as the title would suggest, Riggan inadvertently adapts, directs, and stars in a show only he could bring to the stage.
Riggan’s time as the once idolised Birdman, the latest in a long line of fading superhero blockbuster megastars, plagues the development of his return to glory. Keaton brings Riggan’s vulnerability and muddled priorities alive; oblivious to his glow of ignorance wearing it upon his sleeve for all to see.
Working alongside Riggan, his daughter Sam, played by Emma Stone, highlights the poignant issues a modern cinema audience ignores. Plagued by modern life, that of technological self-aggrandisement through social media and the unhealthy obsession with wanting to go viral. Sam, a recovering addict fostering a withdrawn abrasive tone delivers a harsh wake-up call to her father sending him into a momentary tizz of self-reflection and self-loathing battling with the winged demon inside his head.
All set to the drum, drum, drum, of Riggan’s erratic ignorance there are wonderful moments of intermittent telekinesis that we’re privy to as an audience. Three quarters into the movie, after a disastrously unorthodox final preview followed by a night of intoxicated self-pity Riggan wakes up in the street, Birdman playing around his head like a broken record player. “Come on, let’s go, get up.” Spurring him back into consciousness Riggan’s hungover dawdle soon turns into a triumphant stroll as Birdman reminds him of how great he was. This is where the film turns for me, don’t get me wrong until now it’s been brilliant and I’ve enjoyed every moment, but this scene steals the show.
Quivering with dramatic self-realisation, Riggan snaps his fingers and the film turns into a war zone plucked straight from the Marvel Universe. But the action isn’t what interests me, it’s the slow operatic, orchestral soundtrack that’s rising in the background. Floating upward to a moment of clarity Riggan’s leap is met with a swooning melody of strings that epitomise his feeling of freedom.
Grounded by the crash of the snare and the ring of the cymbal Riggan strides into the theater with purpose ready to face the crowds on opening night. With an explosive final act that raises the viewer’s inhibitions both in the theater and behind our screens, the closing scene, set to the same soundtrack that set Riggan free, rounds his journey off nicely. From worrying about his invisibility in a world that moves incredibly fast, a world that no longer waits on his every word and every demand as a celebrity actor, Riggan is given a second chance. As Sam searches the ground for her father we hear a faint crow, her eyes glance upward and a smile stretches from cheek to cheek.
Iñárritu’s furtive discourse on modern filmmaking, celebrity status and modern life in general is a masterpiece in direction. The performances from Keaton and Stone for their respective roles in the story as idealist and realist, as hero and antagoniser, play off each other perfectly and, from a less technical perspective, actually highlights their troubled relationship brilliantly. With a sterling supporting cast including Edward Norton, arguably the guy Riggan is trying to be, Birdman has a lot to offer cinephiles and dabbling movie goers alike.
Looking inwards to the machine that inspired Birdman, the CGI corrupt Hollywood universe of spandex and explosions, and we find a unique take on the meta form that looks to raise a few eyebrows in Hollywood’s direction. Birdman done so well at the Oscars simply because it flies above everything else like Birdman in his heyday, nothing like it will come around again, at least not in our lifetime and no-one should ever try to replicate such a glorious Timeless Classic.
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“A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing.”- enough said.