The Filmmaker as God: Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
This Is Where We Came In
Who is the star of Birdman? I ask genuinely, as director Alejandro González Iñárritu, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (fresh off an Oscar win for Gravity), and star Michael Keaton, seem perfectly content to live harmoniously in this wonder of a film, while also threatening to overwhelm each other to stand as the true star. It’s a film about egos though, so I suppose this is only fitting.
Keaton, playing washed-up actor Riggan Thomson, is mounting a stage production of the Raymond Carver short story, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, with the assistance of his friend and lawyer Jake (Zach Galifianakis). He wrote it, directed it, and is starring in it. As I said, this is a film about egos. Riggan’s anxieties about the the play’s reception – and the manifestations of these anxieties – are what drive the plot.
The rest of the story is fleshed out by the other characters: Riggan’s troubled, disgruntled daughter Sam (Emma Stone) and ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan) hang around the set and hint at past domestic problems. At the same time, there’s Riggan’s girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough) and ex-girlfriend Lesley (Naomi Watts), who both are starring in his play. Not only is Riggan Thomson’s professional life entirely circumscribed by the theatre, his entire personal life is as well.
The antagonists are the famous actor Mike Shiner (Ed Norton), yet another egomaniac, and theatre critic Tabatha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan). Mike takes over after a freak “accident” incapacitates one of the actors. He wows everyone by coming in with the script memorized and his intense method acting. As an egomaniac, however, he starts to threaten Thomson’s place at the center of the play, providing one more shade of backstage conflict. And then there’s Dickinson, the theatre critic out to shut down Riggan’s play due to resentment for pretentious Hollywood actors who think they can do Theatre.
And then, above it all, is the spectre of Thomson’s past Blockbuster success in Hollywood, Birdman, who presumably haunts Riggan’s consciousness – and possibly (possibly) endows him with superhuman powers . . .
The narrative begins with the last few rehearsals, before showing us the preview performances, and ending the day after opening night. It’s a standard enough time-frame, except for the fact that, essentially, the entire film is one long take, with no cuts. This has perhaps been the biggest talking-point of the film (besides Michael Keaton’s “comeback”), and it is for good reason, as Iñarritu essentially breaks the rules of the game with the camera, proclaiming himself, though not emphatically, as God of the cinema, someone who can do anything. He never tips his hat or winks at the audience, even when the film reels into some intense surrealism.
The recognition of where that surrealism comes from is something that’s been sorely amiss in other reviews of Birdman. Divorcing the film from its context is a naive thing, considering there’s something of a renaissance currently going on for Mexican filmmakers. Iñarritu, last year’s Oscar-winning director Alfonso Cuaron; Lubezki, who won for Cuaron’s film; and Guillermo del Toro all hail from Mexico, where Luis Buñuel made several surrealist masterpieces. Iñarritu seems to have taken a page from his book. Rejecting Hollywood’s audience-pandering, he has crafted a film that does not bow under Western ideas of what a good film is, does not write anything off as too weird, and yet ends up far beyond your typical ‘quirky’ indie film (indeed, Keaton’s character is introduced levitating in his underwear).
Birdman does what it wants. But under this Buñuel-tinted surrealism, there is a heart the size of a range-rover. Beneath the baroque, apparent layer of surrealism and ego-battles, Hollywood-Broadway satire and commentary on popularity and social media, there’s a desperate battle for human connection. Each character is striving to make a some connection with another. Riggan’s purpose for his play is to reconnect with the audiences of the world that once loved him. In doing this, though, he further disrupts an already dysfunctional family situation between himself and his daughter.
I’d like to talk about Michael Keaton and Emma Stone as father and daughter for a moment. In a film that is at times obscure, Keaton and Stone give performances that ground the emotional reality of the situations. They feel like a father and daughter. Stone, who is wide-eyed and pale and physically looks angry (all expertly emphasized by the wide-lens cinematography), creates the frustrated daughter with a father who hasn’t been the worst, but hasn’t been very good either. In her blind-fury delivery and forward-hunched stance, Stone expresses someone who just needs to say something; and so, when she finishes a tirade at one point in the film at her father, she has a moment of recoil. It is a direct, real moment in the film, transcending even the virtuosity of the cinematography. We see in it, and understand, how much Stone’s character has said out of uncontrollable pain and rage.
Keaton works perfectly with her, and his humility as an actor to go as far as he needs to is only tempered by his self-awareness to play subtle and quiet. The real strength of his performance is in how he listens and talks with everyone else. Once, I watched an interview with a costar of Spencer Tracy, who described him as one of the most generous of actors, great because he listened so much. He would stand there, listening to his costars’ lines, and then, only after listening intensely, would he respond. That’s Keaton.
Talking about Birdman is an exercise in being scattershot. The film is dynamic, but for all its fluidity its parts are fragmented. Instead of cohering to the traditional idea of what a film should be – even an art film – Iñarritu constructs a film that is allowed to be sincere and humble, honest and grounded in the family, and at the same time, an exercise in stylistic experimentation, an exploration of large themes about society and meaning – and that’s what makes the film so great – when at the end of the film, there’s a moment that is at once surreal and honest, beautiful and maybe kitschy, it works. Why? Because it’s Birdman.
Birdman was awarded Best Picture (Alejandro González Iñárritu, John Lesher, and James W. Skotchdopole), Best Director (Alejandro González Iñárritu), Best Original Screenplay (Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. and Armando Bo), and Best Cinematography (Emmanuel Lubezki) at the 87th Academy Awards.