One of the darlings of the film festival season has come to town. And like last week’s choice for this blog – Christopher Nolan’s ‘Interstellar’ – ‘Birdman: or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance’ takes the viewer on a flight of intellectual fancy. But while ‘Interstellar’ asked us to become neo-Stephen Hawking’s and try to comprehend the workings of the universe in quantum terms; ‘Birdman’ asks us try to understand the inner workings of an even more complex organism: the actor. And frankly, I’m not sure which is more mind-bending.
Under the direction of Alejandro Inarritu, the Mexican auteur of such boundary pushing films as ‘Butiful’ and ‘Babel’, ‘Birdman’ explores the world of an actor who created an iconic Hollywood superhero – now yesterday’s news – and who has written and is producing a Broadway adaptation of a complex work of modern literature. Using a fascinating combination of traditional and non-traditional cinematic technique, Inarritu develops a surreal narrative style that roams in and out of the minds of the characters. One moment they are fully real and present; the next they are off on flights of inner fancy, soaring over the streets of New York or into their past histories. And everyone here has a history.
One of the unique characteristics of the film is its star – Michael Keaton as Riggan. In Keaton we have the potential parallel of a Hollywood action hero (remember ‘Batman’ and ‘Batman Returns’?) who is trying to shed the perceived illegitimacy of his past by taking on the ‘serious theater’ – not only on stage, but backstage as well. You have to give Keaton credit – it is a gutsy decision to play a character who could be a parody of your own life (although Keaton has never acted on Broadway). And he pulls it off brilliantly. Simultaneously self-aware and self-absorbed, he is the perfect foil to the Broadway lifer he must bring in to help save the show – Edward Norton as Mike. As Mike openly and consistently makes clear, he has no ‘real’ life except on the stage – everything else is a sham. Once again, we have another character simultaneously self-aware and self-absorbed. By this time you are starting to get the gist of Inrarritu’s subtitle – the virtue of ignorance; or in these character’s cases, the virtue of ignoring self-awareness in favor of self-absorption.
And this is a core theme of the movie: is it better to live in the here and now, fully aware of all of the pros and cons of ‘real’ life; or is it better to live in a fantasy world of one’s inner life? Is this why some people choose a life of pretending to be someone else – the life of the actor? I’ve been around actors for much of my life, and actually find them to be more thoughtful and self-aware than ‘Birdman’ seems to suggest. But there are some interesting insights here, and they are played out in different ways and to different extremes by each of the four primary actors in Keaton’s play, including himself and Norton, as well as Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough.
The real brilliance of Inarritu’s film, however, is how the blithe ignorance of the actors is reflected in the reality of the other characters, particularly Emma Stone as Riggan’s daughter and Zach Galifanakis as Riggan’s lawyer and producer. Stone is particularly good as the victim of a hedonistic Hollywood childhood now trying to recover from the many addictions that childhood has left behind – both physical and emotional. Having lived a life observing – and suffering from – the ignorance that stardom can create, she is the cynical observer of the people around her while simultaneously attempting to find a foothold in something real and concrete upon which to build her life. The contrast between hard and soft, of jaded adult and needy little girl, and of temptress and cold observer is fascinating to watch. In my opinion Stone steals the show as its rational center.
One of the most interesting of the ‘techniques’ noted above that Inarritu uses in this film is the virtual single tracking shot through the entire film. There are virtually no ‘cuts’ – scenes that move back and forth between different perspectives of the same action from different angles – in ‘Birdman’. Rather, the camera follows the actors down hallways and into rooms, swoops out of windows to fly over the city, and periodically goes to sleep at night only to wake again as the characters wake. The technique makes ‘Birdman’ exceptionally intimate – you never leave a character for more than a few seconds and move constantly from character to character without a break. The viewers’ involvement in this film is more compelling than anything I have seen in a very long time.
In the end, ignorance triumphs over awareness. And what are we to make of this? I am sure that philosophers could debate that question for ages. But my take is that the message of the film is that our fate is in our stars – to paraphrase another recent film. Whether self-aware of self-absorbed, our lives are driven more by the events swirling around us than by our efforts to control those events. This is a GREAT film to see with friends before dinner, or perhaps as an alternative for your book club. I guarantee a lively debate afterwards!