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Movie Review: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

By Douglas Davidson

Few films in 2014 got me as excited for their release as Alejandro Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) which is why I was so disappointed that after several attempts, it left Charlotte theaters before I could view it. Luckily, after winning four Golden Globes and earning nine Academy Award nominations, Birdman is back in theaters with a wide release across the country and I was able to catch it during its second opening weekend. This picture is an extraordinary experiment in technique and storytelling, which requires the audience to simultaneously passively observe while remaining on high-alert for changes or shifts. Much like the jazz that Iñárritu (Babel, 21 Grams) employs for the majority of the soundtrack, Birdman doesn’t ask the audience to pay attention, rather, it requires that they stay in the present, ready to adapt and adjust as things happen.

Michael Keaton

On the surface, Birdman is the story of a former Hollywood action star, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), trying to restart his career by performing in a Broadway show. Watching him, we see him work through production and casting issues and personality conflicts in a desperate attempt to finalize the show that he’s personally financed, adapted, directed, and starred in. The trailers for Birdman make the film seem like an action vehicle, but the real focus is the turmoil of creation and what it can do to an already fragile mind. As things progress, and Riggan unravels under the pressures he both creates and perceives, the film evolves into a story of narcissism and humility, the dissolution of mental health, and how desperately we want our lives to mean something.

Emma Stone and Edward Norton

Iñárritu’s cast is built of enormously capable and talented actors in Michael Keaton as Riggan; Edward Norton as brilliant theater actor, but crazed Mike; Emma Stone as Sam, Riggan’s out-of-rehab daughter/assistant; Naomi Watts as co-star Lesley; Andrea Riseborough as Laura, Riggan’s co-star and girlfriend; Zach Galifianakis as Brandon, Riggan’s manager/producer; and Amy Ryan as Griffin, Riggan’s ex-wife. Impressively, each character has their place and not a single one would be considered wasted. Ryan’s Griffin is used fill in for the audience what Riggan was like as a younger man, while Riseborough’s Laura helps show us how he is now. Stone’s Sam serves as both Riggan’s greatest creation and failure – a child that he loved, but couldn’t figure out how to love. Watt’s Lesley has only a professional relationship with Riggan, but seems to represent an amalgamation of both Griffin and Laura in her dual role as girlfriend to Mike (Norton) and on-stage wife to Riggan. Then there is Galifianakis, turning in a serious performance, representing both the loyalty Riggan wants (the truth Riggan thinks he wants) and the internal drive to try harder to push into stardom (the lies Riggan tells himself).

Michael Keaton, Naomi Watts and Zach Galifianakis

While they all turn in amazing performances built on the truth of the moment – no false sincerity or unrealistic moment – what’s most intriguing is the juxtaposition of Riggan to Mike throughout the picture. Riggan is an accomplished Hollywood star, most popularly known for one role, staging a comeback by financing his own Broadway production. Placed in near direct competition is Mike Shiner, a theatre star whose immense talent draws people in droves to buy tickets, but whose personality and approach to acting drives fellow actors away. Riggan is desperate when he hires Mike and, while he begins to regret the decision to hire him, also finds himself adapting and tweaking his own style by taking risks he might not have otherwise. Mike pushes and pushes Riggan to move beyond his comfort, beyond the words on the page they perform, until – ultimately and clearly – the lines from Riggan’s mouth become truth; hard, uncomfortable, unforgiving truth. Riggan’s fears made manifest. By pitting Riggan “against” Mike on-stage and off, Iñárritu also places a mirror up to Riggan to show him the truth of his anger, his desperate desire to be loved, and his false perception of talent. In addition to this physical manifestation of discomfort, Iñárritu utilizes two significant techniques to help create a sense of consistent distress throughout Birdman: musical integration and camera work edited to look like one continuous tracking shot.

Zach Galifianakis and Michael Keaton

First, the music. Often, theater actors will compare a live performance to jazz – carefully planned, impeccably executed, but highly unpredictable. Like life, live performances require actors to be completely present so that they can adjust to what their fellow actors do or say. As such, Iñárritu utilizes jazz throughout the film as the primary transitional music, even, occasionally, integrating live musicians into scenes featuring Riggan which highlight the unpredictability of Riggan’s surroundings and of all his precious plans. Jazz is a thinking person’s music, with its rapid changes and complex structures, requiring focus on the part of the audience. While the music helps to represent the erratic nature of Riggan’s creative challenges, Iñárritu’s highly edited camera style creates a sense of fluid motion from one event to another. Like jazz, flowing from one note, one instrument, to another, the camera swims up, down, and around each character, being passed along, observing each event as it unfolds. Though some shots are authentically long track shots in which no clear stops are made, the entire film is edited to be perceived as one long shot. This forces the audience to only see what happens as it happens when it happens, removing the pacing breaks, like pauses in discussion and a change in perspective using a different camera angle, that audiences are used to. The music and the camera editing, in combination, subconsciously keeps the audience attentive and on-alert, leaving them feeling off-balance and uneasy with only a rare moment or two to reorient. Interestingly, the one-track camera style seems to transform the performances of each actor, putting them “on stage” only when the camera sees them, thereby, transforming the traditional voyeuristic cinematic experience into one more reminiscent of a playhouse.

Michael Keaton and Director Alejandro Iñárritu

The last element worth noting is the play-within-a-play structure. It won’t appeal to everyone, but personally, I love stories about making stories (Tropic Thunder, The Player, and Silent Movie). It allows the storytelling to lampoon the act of creation while providing an inside look into what it takes to bring a dream to life. Birdman is a cinematic display that made me understand the comparison of creating art to childbirth – Riggan is absolutely put through a grinder in his quest to create his vision of artistic perfection. To reach perfection, we see Riggan hire an actor (Mike) who is both brilliant and revered for his talent but also hated for his interpersonal and, often, professional behavior. We see Riggan struggle with finding financing and battling the all-powerful theater critic. Showing us his struggle is the real story, while the play, constantly evolving on its collision course with the first curtain rise on opening night, slowly becomes a metaphor for Riggan’s quest for identification.

Michael Keaton and Director Alejandro Iñárritu

Ultimately, Birdman feels like an extraordinary experiment in cinema. It dares to make the audience feel uneasy by using an alternative cinematography style that challenges what we expect to see and slowly bends reality through a narrative structure that, at first, causes us to feel excitement in its newness, but then dread at its increasing veracity. This is not a film for everyone. The pacing can feel, at times, slow and dialogue like exposition, but it’s never boring. So impressive is the display of mental deterioration of Riggan, that I feel a repeat viewing is necessary to ensure that I didn’t miss some subtle action or comment. Additional credit goes to Iñárritu for successfully simultaneously making a film that does makes a spectacle of the inner workings of getting a play off the ground, and using that as the metaphor for Riggan’s quest for redemption and meaning.

Final Score: 4 out of 5

Awards List:

Golden Globes

Best Performance By An Actor in a Motion Picture
Best Screenplay – Motion Picture
Best Director – Motion Picture
Best Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical

Academy Award Nominations

Best Motion Picture of the Year
Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role – Michael Keaton
Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role – Edward Norton
Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role – Emma Stone
Best Achievement in Directing
Best Achievement in Cinematography
Best Achievement in Sound Mixing
Best Achievement in Sound Editing

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