And did you get what/you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
The epigraph that opens Birdman serves to ease the audience into the more ethereal aspects of the restless film, a reminder that beneath the entertainment value in art of any kind, its true form always flickers with the burning questions of an examined life. The words come from the final poem of Raymond Carver’s A New Path to the Waterfall, the writer’s last collection before his death—a reflection on human life as he neared the end of it, with the kind of bare-boned clarity that comes from impending doom.
We are then quickly introduced to Riggan Thomson [Michael Keaton], and a healthy dose of magical realism. But the idea of life rolling towards its inevitable death—and the choices we make in between—still twirls through the viewer’s mind. At its core, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is about a man trying to leave behind more than his own memories, grasping for significance in an overpopulated world, and asking, do you see me, do I matter? Though the particulars seem to step away from director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s work in Amores Perros, 21 Grams, or Babel, the film is in his tradition of telling stories from very specific lives, often as they are unraveling, to dig through to the parts that we unknowingly share.
The film wrestles with its questions at a frantic pace, brimming with ideas and tangents and world-building that dances with spurts of the supernatural, balanced by the mortal sadness of a forgotten life. Riggan is a washed-up actor once famous for his iconic comic book role as Birdman, trying to reclaim his spotlight, as well as his long-lost dignity as a serious actor, by directing and starring in a self-penned Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” As the play heads closer to opening night, the personal and professional stress riding on such an undertaking begins to chip away at Riggan’s grasp on reality. Though Carver’s style of “dirty realism” was known for its focus on the suffering and secrets of ordinary lives, Iñárritu seems to be inverting the subject towards the troubles of society’s most glamorous by engaging with the underbelly of modern fame and the endless circles of an ambitious life.
What do we talk about when we talk about fame? Is it the work, the access, or just the social status of being on the public stage? In a globalized world, how has the nature of it changed? Human motivation has a way of always normalizing new heights, so with more people than ever watching each other with viral eyes, it also provokes more potential for dormant attention to chase. Our need for validation in our ability to impact the ripples in the ocean tide expands, as well, to wider waves. Throw in the pseudo-celebrity platform of reality television and it numbs our idea of what constitutes notice and acclaim.
“Farrah Fawcett died on exactly the same day as Michael Jackson,” Riggan tells his ex-wife, Sylvia (Amy Ryan), in a panic backstage. The subtext being that for all her success and place in American pop culture, her death, and thus her life, was totally eclipsed by the shifting politics of fame. “You always confused adoration for love,” she tells him. The recurring motif of flowers in the dressing room almost certainly symbolize the fickle lifespan of stardom, pretty in bloom, but by nature, grown to wilt.
At one point, Riggan’s daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), fresh out of rehab and begrudgingly working as his assistant, unleashes a tirade on her father’s narcissistic tendency to disengage from modern life, refusing to release his grip on bygone conditions around past glory. It hits on the suffocating cruelty of aging out to pasture in a world transformed by technology, like a forever falling dream. The way Stone’s face settles after the fury leaves her body is a miracle. He stares back sheepishly, knowing what she said is true, but without the faintest capacity to break the cycle. Bright lights, big city, and goodbye to all that’s sane.
It’s difficult to understand what that effect of worldwide attention must be on the human brain. One of the points of Carver’s story is that we can never, from the outside, really know someone’s situation. Certain things must be experienced from the inside to be understood, as much as they can be discussed in detail around a small table and a bottle of gin. As the film keeps reminding us, a thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing.
Birdman looms over the psyche of Riggan Thomson, acting as the vessel for his own disembodied thoughts, and the slipping manifestation of his mental health. In a time when make-believe can appear so real, when the things actors pretend to be are so much more extravagant than ordinary life, the mind may not be built to withstand that kind of schizophrenic breach. Riggan flies through Manhattan, his coat like wings, to the entrance of the theater, and yet we see a cab driver run out after him, presumably for the fare left unpaid.
In a definitive scene towards the end of the film, Riggan is hustling through Times Square in his underwear, mobbed by starstruck tourists who just want to bear witness to his being. He looks unhinged; he has some place he needs to be, but in a weird way, in some place deep, he feels the rush of superhuman feeling he once knew, like a junkie just granted one more hit. He has always confused adoration for love.
Birdman is a movie that exists in the world of movies. When films now have to contend with global markets, when China is one of them, how do the things we make as a culture bend towards the dollar, or the yuan? DC Comics has its ten-picture filming schedule set through 2020, beginning with the upcoming Batman v Superman, and just this week, Marvel announced a competing schedule through 2019.
As Riggan’s best friend and producing partner Jake (Zach Galifianakis) notes when they need to find a new actor at the last minute, the franchise model has taken over the industry—Woody Harrelson is in The Hunger Games, Michael Fassbender is in X-Men (“the sequel to the prequel”), Robert Downey Jr. is Iron Man, and Jeremy Renner is one of The Avengers. Instead, they find Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a pretentious and revered theater actor, available after being fired from his last project, who says hilarious things like, “Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige.” He joins the play through the referral of his girlfriend Lesley (Naomi Watts), an insecure actress looking for her big break in Riggan’s play, and they both represent archetypes of different kinds of performers.
The film’s casting plays with, or at least winks at, its actors’ previous real-life roles. Norton, known as an actor’s actor, was the Hulk (a role he was more or less reportedly fired from for being difficult before the start of The Avengers), Emma Stone co-headlined The Amazing Spider-Man reboot, Naomi Watts is in the next three installments of the Divergent series, and there is no escaping the cape of Batman to the inside lane of the movie’s knowing grounds. Keaton, who turned down a fifteen million dollar deal to continue the role of Bruce Wayne in the original Tim Burton series, plays an actor trying to make amends with the same decision to walk away twenty years ago. His Birdman voice even sounds like the Christian Bale version of the Dark Knight, and Riggan has a fixation with being upstaged by George Clooney, who stepped into the role Keaton vacated in the ’90s. Though Norton is great, as he usually is, Keaton has the more subtle role, cycling through all these silent layers in his head as it all swirls around him.
Birdman is a high-wire act. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, whose work includes Children of Men, The Tree of Life, and that 14-minute opening sequence in Gravity, works to make the whole film seem to unspool as one single take. Without the moviemaking safety of broken segments edited together, when an actor misspoke, or a camera operator missed his exact cue eight minutes into rolling, it was back to the beginning. There are few strategic, darkly-lit cuts that go without notice to the untrained eye, and the elaborately staged effort and meticulous preparation by the cast and crew in these long, extended scenes is stunning. Iñárritu sent a photo to the cast before filming began of Philippe Petit, the tightrope walker famous for his Twin Tower feat, with the message: “Guys, this is the film you are doing. If you fall, you fall.” In that way, the poles of theater and motion pictures collapse into one.
Shot in New York City’s St. James Theater, the conceit is a cinematic trick of urgency, that helps to capture the intimate echo of a Broadway play, with its gazing eyes, and majestic stage. The camera weaves around the actors and the action with nimble buoyancy, a wandering insight into the subjectivity of Riggan’s perspective. It allows us to see the world as he feels it, and decide for ourselves where lies the truth.
The almost exclusively drum score by Antonio Sanchez keeps the anxious pace of Iñárritu’s glitch-filled dream. Visually, the film is free jazz (like a tonal cousin of Louie), floating between propulsive fun and moments of serious isolation in the streets of New York City. The musician’s music, its attempt was to bring jazz back to its intended roots, without the template for convention, fitting for a film geared towards cinephiles as an antithesis to the vogue of blockbuster-driven craze. Everything surrounding the film seems to brings us closer to the internal life of Riggan Thomson—the increasingly narrow corridors, the unsettling icepick score, and the punishing filming techniques all create a tension that keeps bending, until it breaks.
So what do we talk about now when we talk about life? Is it the pursuit of success, to be fully known, and the allure of public praise? Setting goals for a better life is good, but maybe not when it short-circuits our interest in the everyday. “How did we end up here?” Birdman scowls in the opening scene. Through the prism of his super-ego, Riggan wonders if he’s better than his circumstances suggest, and it plays to the common feeling of falling shy from your own imagined life.
Though there are lots of questions to unpack, Birdman boils down to the same essential question of how we spend our days, and how those days add up to our years. How we make our story matter, and whether legacy is the point of existence, in how we measure the worth of our lives. If we can find a way in our brief time here to get closer to these questions, and in turn, closer to what feels like answers, then that seems to be, no matter the shape, the work we are here to do.
Perhaps it rests not on reputation, or flashing lights, but how we approach our encounters with other people’s lives, however big or small, and that we try to make them good. It’s not about how impressive it looks on the page, or how much influence we can amass over a hundred years, but to live in such a way that at the end of it, no matter what you have, you may look around at your life with an exhale, and say, I was here for it, I was really here, so that whether anyone else knows about it or not, you may rest your head on the pillow in peace.