' ' Cinema Romantico: Birdman

Tuesday, December 02, 2014


Alejandro González Iñárritu's ballyhooed "Birdman" should be bracketed with an "And Starring" credit for his cinematographer, the renowned Emanuel Lubezki, so integral is his camera to this rousing cinematic piece of performance art. If the film is at least partially about illusion, then it's grandest illusion is making the entire hour and forty-nine minutes appear to unfold in a single continuous take, cleverly masking cuts and finding inventive ways to create transitions. It swoops and glides and occasionally hovers before re-engaging behind the curtain of the St. James Theater on W. 44th Street in Manhattan, employing the pre-eminent device of the cinema to re-imagine the language of the theater as a director and his cast and crew struggle to reach opening night of their Raymond Carver adaptation intact, like "Noises Off" on a handful of uppers. The camera's presence is so arresting, it charges headlong across the border of self-conscious. But then actors, from Marilyn to Monty and beyond, are often self-conscious, and it becomes a struggle to free themselves of that self-consciousness once they take the stage or appear on the screen.

This metaphysical quality affirms itself in the casting. Michael Keaton, once a bright Hollywood star prowling for a comeback (which has never made sense to this blog because this blog still adamantly contends Mr. Keaton's directorial debut in which he also starred was the best film of 2009), plays the lead role of Riggan Thompson, a once bright Hollywood star prowling for a comeback. The lines are blurred further because Thompson's most famous role is a vaguely-defined superhero called Birdman, just as Keaton's most famous role was Batman, one he chose to stop playing after a sequel which, in the broad narrative, instigated his "downfall".

Yet it's not just Keaton. Edward Norton, an incredibly talented actor saddled with long-standing rumors of being "difficult" on set, plays an incredibly talented actor who is "difficult" on set. Naomi Watts, the supremely skilled Australian always made to speak with American accents who toiled for years before getting her true shot in Hollywood, speaks with an American accent as an actress who has toiled for years before getting her true shot on Broadway. The marvelous, eternally underused Amy Ryan is marvelous and underused as Thompson's ex-wife. (The gregarious Emma Stone plays Keaton's daughter, just out of rehab, and while Stone distinguishes herself well, boy, just think if they'd cast Lindsay Lohan.)

Still, in spite of the cast's overall strength, this is Keaton's show, the Art Blakely leading his Jazz Messengers, underscored by the soundtrack that is strewn with snare drum played by Brian Blade. In fact, Keaton acts as if he's sitting at an impossibly larged drum kit, so full of movements and mannerisms is he, allowing him to work in harmonic tandem with the free-flowing camera. It is not, however, merely a supremely busy performance, but one that means to mire him in the self-conscious madness of his own mind and, like the most famous role of 'em all, the Prince of Denmark, stick him in the trappings and suits of woe, struggling to employ his role as a means to express his inner-torment.

"Birdman" does not exactly allows these ideas to quietly manifest and burrow themselves into your brain, instead flashing them in front of your face like a brightly-lit theater marquee. Norton's cocky and committed Mike Shiner, in fact, repeatedly asserts that he only places he feels alive is the stage, which would sound more believable if he was relaying it to an interviewer for an Esquire cover article. Then again, a late sequence finds a hobo spouting off the "life is a shadow" monologue from Macbeth. As Riggan passes, the hobo pauses and wonders aloud if he's overdoing it, which has to be a sly nod in an already self-aware endeavor. Keaton's overdoing it and Norton's overdoing it and even Stone is overdoing it a little and, God Almighty, is Lubezki's camera overdoing it and I'm pretty sure they don't care. I'm pretty sure that's part of the point.

As the troubled production progresses, the film's trajectory seems weighted toward an end point "you can see coming", one that will soar all the way to the brink of "artistic truth". But then the movie barges right past that brink, casually dismissing it, right past the showbiz satire and into the land of full-on farce, as if mocking all the verbal conjecture that came before. Keaton, or is it Riggan, removes a mask (functioning as a hilarious nod to a certain musical) only to still see himself as someone else, sort of, and the actor and the actor's role and the role of the actor's role all become tangled and unquantifiable.

It was no less an authority than George C. Scott who said that what he looked most for in an actor's performance was "joy", and Keaton's hyper, tic-laden performance is the embodiment of joy. What it "means" becomes meaningless and the concluding shot, open-ended only on the surface, asks us to look up at the screen, up at the illusion, and give ourselves over whole-heartedly to that joy. As you wish.


Anonymous said...

Excellent review here, Nick! Definitely one of the most self-aware films I've seen.

Alex Withrow said...

Oh, I absolutely think it was intentional to have everyone over doing it. This movie is so damn over the top, and I absolutely loved it. Also love your parallels between the characters and the actors playing them. So, so true.

Kevin Powers said...

Incredibly well written comments on a truly clever movie. Agreed with Alex. Good connections between the characters and actors here.

Derek Armstrong said...

I like this movie. How much? It's a secret for now. ;-)

Top rated God Is Real site info said...

Some of the big ideas about drama and about the viewing public hit home, and some get mired in soap opera.

Marlene Detierro said...

If you love cinema, then this film is for you. If you love theatre then this film is for you. If you love music, especially improvised (jazz) music then see the movie with you eyes closed and immerse yourself in the music (drumming) of Antonio Sanchez. Brilliant stuff.

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