Unlike many films where an opening quote is an attempt to add meaning which doesn’t come through in the work itself, or an alignment with a superior piece of art, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) uses Raymond Carver’s words to establish many of the threads which weave into its dazzling tapestry. In fact, Birdman is one of those rare films in which everything included – characters, setting, plot, music, humor, lines of dialogue, imagery, even meta-textual elements – work in sync with each other. The film itself is a short story rewritten over and over until the only words left are those drenched in meaning.
The start of the narrative immediately alerts us to the surreal qualities of the film, making their amplification easier to believe among the grimy realism which surrounds it all. Set almost entire within the confines of a single Broadway Theatre, director Alejandro González Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki keep the camera in near constant motion, racing and spinning around each of the main characters through the network of hallways and stairs that connect the stage to where the real drama happens.
The almost complete lack of film cuts (the only exceptions beginning in the very beginning and near the end) creates a theatrical element to the film, a feature somewhat akin to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope. Yet unlike most films with a heavy theatrical element, Birdman doesn’t have that heighten stage banter that, while fun, lessens realism. There’s a line early on where Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) criticizes one of his co-stars for “acting.” The lack of patter grants this type of “acting” no place in Birdman.
Of course, it’s a movie, so there’s still plenty of acting, but nearly none of it rings false in any way. Keaton, in an Oscar-worthy performance, so fits the character of Riggan that it’s impossible not to have his past roles spring immediately to mind. The character’s history is similar enough to his own that evoking thoughts of Tim Burton’s Batman only benefits the movie and the performance. When the voiceover laments the success of superhero movies and reminds Riggan that he paved the way for them, our memory immediately reminds us that this is true not just in the reality of the film but in our own. Our real world knowledge actually makes the fiction that much richer, and Keaton’s performance that much more true and nuanced, something that very few films have ever successfully pulled off.
Blockbuster filmmaking, especially of costumed heroes, is often a source of scorn (and eventual virtue) throughout Birdman, a commentary made funnier by the fact that two of Keaton’s co-stars, Edward Norton and Emma Stone, are veterans of the superhero genre. Similar to Keaton, Norton’s known history as a both a great actor and a very intense (reputedly difficult) one feeds his performance. He’s at once commanding and engrossing but also shallow and pitiful. It’s odd then that he seems almost forgotten as the film goes on.
Stone is also very good in a thoroughly unglamorous role, the exact type no one would expect following her part in a summer blockbuster, while Zach Galifianakis turns in a small but meaty and funny turn that’s not the silly or deadpan part he’s known for. The heart of this dysfunctional troupe is Naomi Watts, rising their spirits before her own comes crashing down. The roving camera assures each of these performers their own spotlight, and each of them delivers during his or her time on stage.
It is absolutely no coincidence that Birdman uses a Raymond Carver collection as the basis for its play within a play, or that Sheakspeare is cited later. The dirty realism of Carver’s work becomes a raison d’être for Riggan and the rest and forms the motif of the entire film, from the cluttered rooms to the characters’ personal miseries, the flurries of surrealism, even to the raw bebop drum soundtrack that punctuates the brief, intense exchanges. Best of all, knowledge of Carver (or of Keaton as Batman) isn’t necessary to appreciate the film. It works if you know Carver, it works if you don’t know Carver. It just works.
Unfortunately, unlike its stylistic influence, Birdman carries on a bit too long at times, reaching about three logical end points. As well, its own stylistic rules are occasionally violated in odd ways, such as when a YouTube video has the multiple camera angles which the film itself eschews. However, the use of social media and other modern phenomena become a needed puncture to the bubble in which Riggan exists, solidifying and breaking his search for meaningful work, because in the outside world, nothing of meaning goes noticed. Birdman so effectively blurs the line between fiction and reality that its critique of art and criticism of art inform the fictional characters and almost make reviews of the work itself feel redundant.
The magnificent thing about Birdman is that, like the best short stories, there is nearly nothing which doesn’t serve two or more meanings. It’s almost impossible to talk about one part of Birdman without talking about every part of Birdman, that’s how inseparable it all is. It’s the perfect mixture of style and substance, realism and surrealism, critique and celebration. There’s so much more I would like to write about but it’s best not to give any more of it away.
Birdman is a dazzling feat of filmmaking. We may never know where the lines between fiction and reality are, and there is indeed virtue in that ignorance.