Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)
Editor’s Notes: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is now open in limited release.
Over four films and roughly a decade, Alejandro González Iñárritu (Biutiful, Babel, 21 Grams, Amores Perros) has proven himself a wildly ambitious director, ever willing to tackle Big Ideas through complex, non-linear narrative structures. Since his justly heralded debut, Amores Perros, fourteen years ago, however, Iñárritu has also proven himself an unsubtle, nuance-free filmmaker, mistaking surface-deep observations with profundities of varying complexity. Luckily, not to mention thankfully, his latest film, Birdman or (the Virtues of Ignorance), a backstage comedy-drama/satire, runs counters to Iñárritu’s previous films, narratively (linear this time), thematically (layered, non-obvious), and cinematically (in its embrace of a single-take approach). Birdman also marks the welcome return of a never better Michael Keaton as a one-time superhero actor turned Broadway theatre hopeful.
Birdman also marks the welcome return of a never better Michael Keaton as a one-time superhero actor turned Broadway theatre hopeful.
When we first meet Riggan Thompson (Keaton), a onetime A-list actor best known for his three-film role in the titular superhero franchise, he’s literally floating, hovering in mid-air, meditating, hoping to calm or control his fears and anxieties over the Broadway play, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” he’s personally financed and adapted from a Raymond Carver short story. Riggan has everything riding on the success or failure of the play, personally and professionally. With his self-esteem and self-worth irrevocably tied to his now faded acting career, he’s hungry, if not outright desperate, for the approval, acceptance, and adoration that only an audience, a live theater audience can give. Disdainful of his superhero past, Riggan wants to leave his mark, he wants to matter again, but he’s unaware – Birdman’s central irony – that the theater, for all of its immediacy, for all of the emotional connection it offers, is far more ephemeral and transitory than the cinematic superhero he portrayed years earlier and everyone still remembers, some fondly, some not.
On the surface, the play seems like nothing more than a dilettantish exercise in vanity (Birdman’s caricatured theater critic/cultural gatekeeper says as much late in the film), but for Riggan, it offers him one more, possibly final chance to divest himself of the superhero persona he’s integrated into his personality, to psychologically damaging results. Birdman speaks to Riggan in the hoarse croak typical of Keaton’s or more accurately, Christian Bale’s Batman, usually offscreen (he makes a late-film, in-person appearance), excoriating Riggan for his mental and emotional weakness, and exhorting him to take risks to himself as worthy of the adoration of the fickle theatergoers who not only represent audiences in general, but the celebrity-obsessed public as well. Without their approval, Riggan is nothing, just an ordinary man who once appeared in a popular superhero franchise. It’s his twenty-something daughter, Samantha (Emma Stone), fresh from a stint in rehab that, as an outsider, low-status character, speaks the unvarnished truth: Nothing Riggan does matters because he doesn’t matter.
Birdman never slips into didacticism, polemics, or sermonizing, letting its characters, through their words and often contradictory actions, speak for themselves and for the film. …
Not that Birdman and by extension Iñárritu share that cynical, nihilistic view. Despite the near farcical application of Murphy’s Law (“everything that can go wrong, will go wrong”), Birdman ultimately emerges as a surprisingly positive, even uplifting film about creativity and the inherent desire for self-expression even if, in the final analysis, that self-expression is tinged with self-congratulatory egotism and narcissism (Riggan’s), egotism and narcissism we’re meant or expected to celebrate and/or applaud. Before Birdman gets to that ending, though, Iñárritu puts Riggan through a set of trauma-causing, ever-worsening experiences, beginning with the loss of his lead actor and his replacement with Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a talented, if self-important Method actor, Mike’s girlfriend and the leading actress in Riggan’s play, Lesley (Naomi Watts), Riggan’s girlfriend (also an actress), Laura (Andrea Riseborough), and later, the not completely unwelcome return of Sam’s mother and Riggan’s ex-wife, Sylvia (Amy Ryan). Along the way, Riggan’s continuing crisis of faith gets exacerbated by money woes, leaving Riggan’s friend, business partner, and attorney, Jake (Zach Galifianakis), perpetually exasperated.
Known for his self-conscious seriousness, Iñárritu proves himself surprisingly adept at light, broad comedy. That’s partly the result of a screenplay credited to Iñárritu and three other writers, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., and Armando Bo. If nothing else, Birdman is never dull, moving effortlessly from one crisis to another, mixing drama, comedy, and fantasy of the magical realist kind. At least in Birdman, magical realism helps to clarify the thin line (if there’s a line at all) between subjective reality (Riggan’s) and objective reality (technically absent from Birdman). Much has already been said about Iñárritu’s decision to shoot and edit Birdman as a single continuous take and the involvement of Oscar-winner Emmanuel Lubezki as his cinematographer (Lubezki served a similar role in last year’s Gravity). It might seem like a gimmick or conceit, but the single-take aesthetic – aided, of course, by editing tricks and occasional CG – becomes essential, if not integral, to Iñárritu’s goal of taking the audience inside Riggan’s head, in experiencing Riggan’s world and his choices as closely as possible without using a strict first-person, point-of-view approach (cf., Lady in the Lake, Dark Passage).
As to Birdman’s deeper meanings, its themes and subtexts, there’s more, for once, than meets the eye. Birdman can be seen as a critique of the superhero genre, its debasement of popular culture, and the waste of creativity (specifically acting talent, but well beyond that too), of celebrity-obsessed culture from both the point of view of the celebrity and the ever-eager audience, as a celebration and/or critique of the theater (the latter more aimed at film actors with pretension of honing their art in front of a live audience), of theater critics and their ever-diminishing role as cultural gatekeepers (Birdman’s critic emerges as a bitter, frustrated, and vengeful due to her lack of artistic talent or temperament), or maybe Birdman wants to have it both (or multiple) ways, simultaneously critiquing the Hollywood blockbuster mentality while raising its status as “art” (as opposed to commerce or even commercial art) through the involvement of a former superhero actor and indie filmmaking techniques.
Whatever its deeper meanings, themes, or subtexts might be, Birdman never slips into didacticism, polemics, or sermonizing, letting its characters, through their words and often contradictory actions, speak for themselves and for the film. Add to that a propulsive percussion score by jazz drummer Antonio Sanchez and the result is nothing less – and sometimes more – than one of the best films of the fall, if not the year.
Birdman ultimately emerges as a surprisingly positive, even uplifting film about creativity and the inherent desire for self-expression even if, in the final analysis, that self-expression is tinged with self-congratulatory egotism and narcissism.