The Best Postmodern Magical Realism of 2014: A Review of Alejandro Iñárritu’s a Birdman

birdman michael keaton edward norton

The Film: Birdman
Director: Alejandro Iñárritu
Primary Cast: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis, Andrea Riseborough
U.S. Release Date: 14 November 2014

Dori (that me) finally saw Birdman last weekend. Here’s a review.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Directed by Alejandro Iñárritu, Birdman tells the story of Michael Riggan (Keaton) as he works to put on a Broadway play that he hopes will reignite his career while cleansing him of his has-been status. About 20 years ago, Riggan starred in a trilogy of Birdman movies. He was on top of the world. He was everywhere. He was Robert Downey Jr. long before Robert Downey Jr. ever was. But then, he decided not to do Birdman 4, and everything sort of fell apart (or at least seemed to) after that.

In order to prove to everyone that he is more than just Birdman and that he still deserves recognition despite the fact that people have so many superhero movies to choose from that Birdman will be entirely forgotten by society in no time at all, Riggan writes a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love for himself to direct and star in. When Birdman begins, the play is just about to begin its run of preview shows. When Birdman ends, it’s just had its opening night. Stuff happens in between, and the majority of the film is set in (or on top of) the St. James theater. Now you know.

Quick Take 

Birdman is a meta, postmodern, and darkly delightful work of satirical and sometimes comedic magical realism. It’s also fine example of thoughtful and thoroughly engrossing film making. With Birdman, Iñárritu has created a film that questions the nature of everything from film and fame to love and reality, and the results are (more often than not) pretty spectacular. 

All Hail Iñárritu (and Giacobone, Dinelaris, and Bo)
I firmly believe that there is no better foundation for a great film than a quality script. Birdman is exceptionally well-written; its script is smart, thoughtful, and (almost) never feels hackneyed (*cough* *cough* Interstellar *cough*). Like a good play, there is something very tight about the film’s script. Each and every scene moves things forward and there are very few (if any) wasted interactions and lines. I would love to see this film win best screenplay at the upcoming Golden Globes (though I wouldn’t be too mad if it lost to The Grand Budapest Hotel). It’s that good.
Get Birdman on Blu-ray.

All Hail Emmanuel Lubezki 
LUBEZKIIIII!!!!! Damn, can this man shoot a beautiful film. He is the cinematographer behind Gravity and was the director of photography for The Tree of Life (two of the most visually stunning films I have seen in recent years), and he certainly does not disappoint with Birdman.

As you probably know by now, the majority of Birdman is made to appear as a single long take (in reality, it’s a series of cleverly edited long takes, but who cares). Just thinking about how well choreographed most of the film’s shots are makes my head spin. That said, the camerawork is actually much more than an impressive technical feat.

Birdman‘s elegant and expertly stitched together long takes are no gimmick; rather they really do improve and and advance the film in a number of ways. 

A number of the shots (or, more accurately, many parts of the shots) in the film are subjective—that is, they effectively place the viewer directly within the world of the film. Not only does this help to break down barriers between audiences and the film (which can be as exciting and engaging as it is disorienting), but it also blurs the lines between real life and the film and between fiction and reality. (It’s surely no accident that viewers of the film are never allowed to view Riggan’s play from a theater-goer’s perspective).

The exceptional length of most of the film’s shots further underscores the film’s overarching interest in confusing fiction and reality. As the shots seamlessly flow together across time and space to create one well-constructed whole, so too do celebrity and art, Hollywood and Broadway, life and theater, truth and deception, comedy and tragedy, and so much more blend into one another over the course of the film. 

In fact, the length of Birdman’s shots and the choreographed feeling that Lubezki achieves both work together to make the entire film feel quite a bit like a play. Characters come in and out of frame just at the right time, and any time that passes in between shots is lost to the invisible world behind the stage (read: lens). Given the film’s subject matter, it simply would not be as artistically effective if it were shot in a more conventional manner.

All Hail Michael Keaton
True fact: I have never seen any of Keaton’s other work (*gasp* *gasp*), so I can’t speak to whether or not his performance in Birdman is in keeping with his past projects. What I can say is that Keaton’s performance as washed-up-actor-trying-to-revive-his-career-by-writing-directing-and-acting-in-a-play anchors the film wonderfully. There is a energy and an urgency to his performance that is palpable, and he does a remarkable job portraying Riggan. 

After seeing Birdman, I may even force myself to sit through Burton’s Batman films just to see what Keaton did with that role (given my dislike for most super hero films as well as my lukewarm feelings toward Burton, this is pretty high praise). As Riggan, Keaton may not move audiences to tears or deliver any particularly inspired or shocking monologues that will stick in their memories for days, but he anchors the film and shines rather brightly within it all the same. There is an honesty to his performance (even his dishonesty is honest) that goes far beyond the fact that real-life-Keaton actually seems to have a great deal in common with on-film-Riggan. Keaton is electric, believable, and is so fully committed that the question of where he ends and where Riggan begins is totally eclipsed by the reality of his talent and of the story he is a part of.

Like Birdman more generally, Keaton’s performance seamlessly blends reality and fantasy while also entertaining and unsettling audiences quite thoroughly. 

Miscellaneous Reviewage
While Keaton is the actor who shines the brightest in this film, many of his supporting cast members are also worthy of praise. I particularly enjoyed Norton as full-of-himself-theater-is-truth-actor Mike Shiner. (Given the fact that Norton has both been nominated for several Oscars and has also played the Hulk in an all-but-forgotten super hero film, his presence in the film seems more than fitting). He is arrogant, he is ridiculous, he is talented, and he is a fraud all at once. Along with Riggan, Mike embodies the dichotomies, the lies, and the absurdities of acting and fame; Norton’s ability to convey the different sides of Mike convincingly (and to poke fun at himself and others like him in the process) is an important part of Birdman‘s artistic success.

Stone (as Riggan’s daughter Sam) and Galifianakis (as Riggan’s producer Jake) are also surprisingly good in the film and bring an electricity and an authenticity to both of their roles. As an actress in Riggan’s play, Watts does a fine job as well, though her performance does not end up making much of an impact. I was actually more impressed with Amy Ryan (who has a smaller part as Riggans ex wife) than I was with Watts; though, this probably says more about the writing and about Ryan’s talent than it does about any lack of ability on Watts’s behalf.

Switching gears: music time. Most of Birdman‘s score (Antonio Sanchez) consists of frantic and somewhat jazzy drumming. While such a score is rather unconventional, it fits the offbeat feel and the slightly crazed energy of the film rather perfectly. Like Lubezki’s unceasing flow of connected shots, Sanchez’s frenzied and percussion-heavy score propels the film incessantly forward toward its end.
Get the Birdman score. 

The Play’s the Thing Wherein I’ll Catch the Conscience of the Washed-Up Former Superstar (THIS SECTION CONTAINS SPOILERS. BEWARE!)
At one point in the film, Riggan attempts to convince himself that being a former superhero/action star is actually super bad ass and is probably better than being a critically acclaimed artist of some kind. He declares quite confidently (to himself) that “People, they love blood. They love action. Not this talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit.” Apparently, “talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit,” is all the theater is to Riggan in this moment—it’s also what the critic who threatens to destroy his play (just because he is involved with it) seems to want.

Fast forward to opening night of Riggan’s play (his last-ditch effort to prove his worth as an artist and to revitalize his quickly dying fame). He replaces his prop gun with a real one. He does what Shiner said he should do to make Shiner’s own performance more authentic. Except, he takes things a step further and actually shoots himself with it.

As Riggan walks on stage with the gun, it’s pretty clear (aka, heavily implied) that he intends to kill himself. He’s given up on his life and his career and is ready to check out. And yet, he lives. He shoots the nose off his face, but he lives. Whether he (just like a man mentioned by a character in the play) botches his own suicide or deliberately sacrifices his nose for the sake of some artistic statement is left open to debate.

Also left open to debate is whether or not Riggan was correct to claim that people love blood and action more than they do words and meanings. Riggan literally bleeds on stage. He shoots himself in the face. He falls forward. He appears dead. The house goes wild. They applaud his self-injury, his suffering, and his pain so enthusiastically, that it’s pretty damn disturbing. This wealthy and sophisticated Broadway audience may like to think that they love “philosophical bullshit,” but maybe they just want blood like everyone else.

And then there is the fact that the critic gives the play a glowing review after swearing to destroy it. The blood impresses her; it seems to convince her that Riggan is a true artist and that his play deserves to be seen by as many people as possible.

So, maybe Riggan was right. Or maybe the critic just wants him to keep bleeding. . . Maybe there is a difference between real blood and special effects blood that he (or she?) fails to comprehend. 

Signing Off
See the title I’ve given this post? (“The Best Postmodern Magical Realism of 2014: A Review Alejandro Iñárritu’s Birdman”). Well, I sort of hate it. Yes, Birdman is riddled with elements of magical realism, with a certain postmodern bitterness, and with plenty of meta shiz, but it should not be reduced to such characteristics. Birdman is a drama, it’s a comedy, it’s dark, it’s delightful, it’s a superhero movie, it’s not a superhero movie, it’s an exploration of theater and film and life and fame, and it’s a whole lot more to boot. No, it’s not perfect (whatever the hell that means), but any faults that one might choose to find in it are really quite negligible. This dark and refreshingly different film is brimming with artifice (how could a film about an actor putting on a play with other actor’s not be?), but it also has a huge heart and is more than willing to wear that heart on it’s sleeve. Like the postmodern condition, Birdman is also brimming with a certain quiet (and rather comedic) hopelessness, but that isn’t to say that it wants to plunge it’s viewers into despair. . . I’m rambling now, so I guess I’ll just cut to the chase: Birdman is an incredible cinematic experience, and it’s more than worth the 2 hours and $10 it takes to watch it. 

Perhaps it’s a tad bit silly to try to review a film in which a card stuck in Riggan’s dressing room mirror quite clearly declares that “A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing,” but hopefully what I’ve said here has at least convinced you that Iñárritu’s latest effort is a refreshing and thoroughly worthwhile film. If you haven’t seen Birdman yet, do so! (It took me a while to find a theater that was showing it, but the wait was entirely worth it). While my personal list of ‘Best Films of 2014’ will surely change a bit between now and Oscar time, Birdman is currently firmly positioned in my top 4 (along with Under the SkinThe Grand Budapest Hotel, and Gone Girl).

PS: Happy Holidays, People!
Thank you so much for reading! I don’t say so enough, but I really appreciate each and every person who takes the time to read even one word that I have written on this site. I haven’t (yet) been able to study film as much as I would like, and I spend most of my days writing and editing copy that has absolutely nothing to do with movies, so being able to ramble here means a lot to me. The last 6-7 months have been interesting, and I look forward to using 2015 to continue writing and learning how to write about my favorite thing in the world: movies!

Also, even though I haven’t posted about them here yet, the other films I have seen recently are Ida and The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, so, if you would like me to post about either of those films (or about a certain aspect of them), feel free to let me know.

Also also, I am really looking forward to A Most Violent Year, Inherent Vice, and Selma, and I’ll see them as soon as they play near me. So . . . expect reviews eventually. . . probably.

5 thoughts on “The Best Postmodern Magical Realism of 2014: A Review of Alejandro Iñárritu’s a Birdman

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