Five Comments on Birdman
It's been two days since I saw Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman and I'm still feeling exhilarated. On the most basic level, this film is like nothing else I've seen in a movie theater in a long time, possibly forever, and I urge you to see it simply for the experience (and ideally in a movie theater, since this is a work worth being immersed in). It's also a hard movie to write about, with multiple layers and themes, and a frenetic approach to plot that makes the format of a straightforward review feel inappropriate. So I'm highlighting a few points that feel interesting in a film about which I could probably say a great deal more.
- The first coherent thought I had about Birdman, even as I was still watching it, was that its overarching goal, the one thing it wanted to accomplish more than anything else, was to replicate the experience of watching a play through the experience of watching a movie. That's not an unusual desire, of course, but usually when directors aim for it their approach is to be super-naturalistic--to limit both the space in which the story takes place and the cinematic tools they employ so that the actors and the dialogue can come to the fore (and, or course, most of these films are adaptations of existing plays, while Birdman is an original story).
Birdman's approach is the exact opposite. It's trying to make you feel as if you're watching a play by constantly reminding you that you're watching a movie, and using the most blatant cinematic tools and gimmicks to recreate the experience of being in a theater. You see this in the by-now famous long takes that make up the movie. An eye-catching and, some would say, self-indulgent device, they never allow you to forget that you are watching something that was crafted, where a less present directorial choice might have let you believe that you are merely peering through a window that shows the film's events. But what these long takes do is force the audience to feel the physical space in which the film takes place as almost its own character, rather than a backdrop that is simply there to lend verisimilitude. They also force the actors to stay in character far longer than they would in a conventionally-shot movie, closer to what they'd have to do on stage. Most interesting to me was the film's use of sound. Birdman has a stunning, percussion-heavy score (by Antonio Sanchez) that does a lot to establish the film's frenetic tone and the increasing deterioration of its hero's grasp on reality, but the way it uses diegetic sound--doors opening and closing, dialogue that comes from off-screen--is particularly wrongfooting. These sounds are all much too loud, and they come from one side of the movie theater only, in a way that initially makes us wonder whether what we're hearing is part of the movie or happening next to us in reality (I don't think it's an accident that the first instance of this device is a cellphone ringing).
This is, of course, how plays establish their world, and particularly events that happen off-stage, with over-emphasis compensating for the fact that the audience is being asked to build an entire setting from a stage, a few props, and some sound effects. But when layered onto the real-world setting of a movie the result is hyper-realistic, almost an assault. Most movies try to distract us from their artifice. They use location shooting and a lot of clever sound editing to make us think that we're seeing something effortless, so that we can ignore the setting and focus on the story. Birdman wants us to notice the artifice, to do the work that we would have had to do if we were watching a play. It's putting us in the headspace of a theater audience even though we're watching a movie.
- This all feels particularly important because the underlying theme of Birdman is authenticity. The hero, Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) is a Hollywood star best-known for playing a superhero in the 90s, who is making a desperate bid for respectability by directing and starring in a Broadway play. He's insistent that he is trying to create something "real," and haunted by the fear that he is actually a fake--a celebrity pretending to be a serious actor. At the same time, he keeps seeing and hearing his titular alter-ego, who insists that it's actually the world of the theater that's a fake--why scramble for the approval of a few hundred theater-goers and the insular world they represent when you can be beloved by millions for playing something as primal as a hero?
Whatever he chooses, Riggan is dismissed a poseur, a hack who is after prestige and fame rather than art, and so it's perhaps not surprising that he becomes obsessed with realism as a means of elevating his performance. In this, he's joined by his co-star, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a blowhard who, by his own admission, is only honest when he's on stage. Mike is a brilliant actor, but he takes his commitment to realism to irrational extremes, bringing real gin onstage for his character to drink (and then bringing a preview to a halt when he realizes that Riggan switched the drink with water, insisting that doing so undercuts his performance), and trying to have sex on stage with his co-star and girlfriend Lesley (Naomi Watts) when he becomes aroused mid-scene. Riggan is frustrated by Mike's antics, but also clearly starstruck by his commitment. As his grip on reality slackens, and as he becomes convinced that the play will fail and make him a laughingstock, he buys further and further into the notion that creating something real on stage means being something real on stage. This culminates with Riggan bringing a real gun on stage with which to shoot himself in the play's final scene. The audience's response to Riggan pulling the trigger is ecstatic, even when it's revealed that he really shot himself. The New York Times's sour-faced theater critic Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan) writes a glowing review titled "The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance" (also the film's subtitle) in which she praises Riggan for discovering a new mode of acting.
There are a lot of reasons to question these final scenes, in which Riggan survives his suicide attempt, which I'll get to shortly. But I think that Birdman itself is teaching us, through its style, to doubt what we're being told. If making art was as simple as putting real pain, real joy, real horror on a stage and pointing a camera at them, then our culture would begin and end with reality TV. Art is the process of saying something real by doing something fake; it achieves authenticity through artifice, not in spite of it. In the film's earlier scenes, Riggan seems to realize this--he breaks through Mike's self-satisfaction by telling him a heartbreaking story about his abusive father, and then reveals that he was just acting--but he loses that understanding by its end, convinced that killing himself on stage is a meaningful artistic statement. But in a movie that constantly calls attention to its fakeness, to the work that went into creating it, it's impossible to take that conclusion at face value. What Iñárritu's hard work in making Birdman such a consciously artificial object tells us is that ignorance is not a virtue. Art isn't something that just happens; you have to work to make it, even if all that work is to make the audience think that you did nothing at all.
- It's not surprising that Riggan buys into the notion of realism as art, because as much as he claims to be devoted to his play, it's clear that what interests him isn't the work, but himself. As much as Birdman is a meditation on authenticity and art, it's also a portrait of a profoundly self-absorbed man, who, as his ex-wife points out, consistently mistakes admiration for love, and is desperately scrambling to earn more of the former. Riggan may claim that he's trying to create something real, but what he's actually trying to do is make himself real by winning plaudits and applause. Genevieve Valentine has written an excellent essay about reading Birdman as an indictment of toxic masculinity, with Riggan's downfall stemming from his desperate need to be the big man, the star, the alpha male, and from his inability to accept that in his real life, he isn't a superhero. But it's an observation that inevitably leads us to wonder what Birdman does with its female characters, and there the film is a mixture of success and rather bizarre failure.
Through the three most important women in Riggan's life--his daughter Sam (Emma Stone), his ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan), and his girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough)--Birdman does an excellent job of conveying the frustrations of loving someone who is so completely narcissistic. Despite being locked into Riggan's point of view for most of its run, the film shows us enough of these women to make them real, sometimes through only a single line delivery. "I want a baby but my body won't cooperate," Sylvia says, quite simply and almost with a shrug, in one of the film's later scenes. The contrast between her plain, undemonstrative acknowledgment of this heartbreaking fact and Riggan's movie-long tantrum over the far smaller tragedy of his failing career speaks volumes about the balance of their relationship, about who gets to be operatic and to act as if the world has ended, and who has to just keep going without giving in to self-pity. In another scene, Sylvia, who clearly still cares deeply for Riggan, has to remind him that their marriage fell apart because he was violent and unfaithful, something that Riggan has clearly not given much thought to. Sam, meanwhile, is the only person who manages to engage Riggan as a human being, not as an actor, and thus the only person who can come close to puncturing his belief that his play is a grand and meaningful endeavor, rather than just one more shout into the darkness among millions.
When the film's camera leaves Riggan, however, and follows these women on their own stories, a strange flattening seems to occur. We can see their humanity when Riggan is ignoring it, but it seems to escape Iñárritu (and his co-writers Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo), who locks them into simplistic roles and dead-end relationships. Laura and Lesley have a romantic encounter that comes out of nowhere and isn't referenced again after it happens. Sam falls into a romantic relationship with Mike despite witnessing the death throes of his relationship with Lesley, in which he is at his most immature and self-absorbed, and despite Mike making it clear that her main appeal to him is her youth and the reflected vitality he hopes to gain from her. It's not unrealistic for a young woman to enter into a relationship that is clearly a bad idea (especially as Sam is just recently out of rehab and very vulnerable) but the fact that, in her scenes with Mike, the film isn't interested in Sam as a person is a problem. She's human in her scenes with Riggan, where she's allowed to express frustration and anger in ways that aren't cute or flattering to him. But in her scenes with Mike she becomes the muse he sees her as, batting away his bad behavior in a way that only invites more of it, and skewering his faults without ever seeming to consider that maybe they make him an unsuitable romantic partner.
- A lot of the negative reactions I've seen to Birdman have concentrated on the character of Tabitha and the film's apparent disdain for critics. It's true that Birdman seems to have been written from the perspective that critics are merely frustrated artists, and it's always depressing to see otherwise intelligent, creative people reveal such a bizarre inability to grasp that most people who write criticism do it because they genuinely love it. But though Birdman doesn't offer the pro-critic perspective, I don't think it comes down as hard on Tabitha as I'd been led to expect. Yes, she's painted as a villain, informing Riggan that she's going to destroy his play before she's even seen it. But she also gets to explain why, and her reasons are largely persuasive--she's sick of celebrities like Riggan taking up oxygen in an industry that is already struggling, and doing so merely to gratify their own vanity--and in fact supported by what we see of Riggan in the rest of the film. Of all the characters in the movie, Tabitha is the one who most accurately diagnoses Riggan's faults and failings, and unlike the other women in his life she is someone he has no power over (a fact that clearly frustrates him enormously). In a movie that is ultimately so critical of its star and his delusions, it's hard to see how the person who most clearly expresses that criticism is meant to be a pure villain, even if she's hit with some easy and familiar (not to mention misogynistic) accusations.
- One of the reasons that I'm less down on the depiction of Tabitha is that I don't think we're meant to take the about-face in her review of Riggan's play at face value. My reading of the film's ending is that its final scene, in which Riggan wakes up to discover that he survived his suicide attempt and that his play is being lauded as a triumph, is a fantasy--that Riggan in fact died on stage. This is perhaps a bleaker conclusion than Birdman can shoulder--aside from the fact that Riggan, narcissist that he is, doesn't actually deserve to die, it leaves most of the other characters in a lurch, from the fragile Sam who clearly still needs her father, to Lesley, whose dreams of a Broadway debut have just been shattered. So I can't blame the film for ending more ambiguously, even if to me the true conclusion feels obvious--and to its credit, there's room to read the ending as something much stranger and wilder.