In the opening credits to Alejandro González Iñárritu’s new film Birdman appear these lines, which form the epitaph on Raymond Carver’s tombstone at Ocean View Cemetery in Port Angeles:
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
The quotation serves as well as anything to describe the motivation of the film’s protagonist, the aging actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), who twenty years before, after becoming a worldwide sensation playing the superhero Birdman in three films, walked away from the franchise and into acting obscurity. In the movie, he is putting Hollywood behind him and trying to come back repackaged as a serious artist on Broadway, directing and starring in his own adaptation of one of Carver’s best-known short stories, “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love.”
Unless you’re six years old or have been living your life under a rock, you will likely recognize the deliberate irony in Iñárritu’s choice of Keaton as his leading man. Not only did Keaton rise to the height of popularity in 1989’s Batman and 1992’s Batman Returns, but he also famously turned down a $15 million paycheck to make a third film in the series. Thus Keaton is playing himself to some extent, as his character tries to rise once more into the spotlight, “to feel himself beloved on earth,” but this time for something more artistically respected than playing a comic book hero.
This self-referentiality continues to spin out as the film advances. Riggan Thomson’s co-star, whom he refers to as “the world’s worst actor,” is accidentally but fortuitously struck by a falling light during rehearsal, and Riggan and his lawyer and agent Jake (played by the surprisingly slim Zach Galifianakis) discuss several other possible actors to bring in at the last minute, but all are currently committed to other superhero movies. Finally, leading lady and nervous first-time Broadway actress Lesley (Naomi Watts, whose first Oscar nomination came for Iñárritu’s 2003 film 21 Grams) volunteers her live-in boyfriend Mike (Edward Norton), a popular but notoriously difficult, yet extremely talented Broadway star.
In case you need reminding, Norton’s biggest blockbuster role was as The Incredible Hulk in 2008. And Norton, of course, did not play the Hulk again in the Avengers follow-up. Norton told NPR that he declined the role because “I think you can sort of do anything once, but if you do it too many times, it can become a suit that’s hard to take off, in other people’s eyes.” The sentiment could apply just as well to Keaton’ case, but for Norton, there were also rumors that his own well-known obsessive perfectionism made him too difficult to work with, a trait that the actor also shares with his character of Mike in the film.
And just in case that is not enough, Iñárritu has also included Emma Stone, fresh from her role in the new Spiderman blockbuster, as Riggan’s troubled daughter Sam, just out of rehab and working as Riggan’s less than enthusiastic assistant.
The film’s self-reflexive theme is underscored by its imagery: Riggan is photographed only from behind until he looks in the mirror in his dressing room, where we first see his face. In a later scene, he has a discussion with his ex-wife in which he can be seen only in a mirror, and as the film draws toward its bewildering conclusion, we see Riggan’s face again in a mirror as if for the first time. It is as if Riggan only exists in his own reflection: if art, whether film or theater, holds a mirror up to nature, Riggan exists only in that mirror, only in the art through which he longs to be, as the film’s headnote says, beloved on earth. The popularity he seeks is scoffed at by his foil Mike, who tells Sam at one point that he really doesn’t care what people think of him. His kind of art exists for its own sake, to be admired rather than loved. “Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige,” he tells Riggan at one point. At the other extreme is Sam, who in a long monologue midway through the film tells Riggan that his dream of theatrical prestige is pointless in today’s world—performing a thirty-year-old story by a dead white guy for a thousand “rich, old, white people” is meaningless in the face of today’s only real source of power, popularity, and prestige: social media, which can reach millions in the blink of an eye. His work just does not matter. As if to underscore Sam’s assessment, on the play’s second preview night, Riggan accidently locks himself out of the theater, catching his robe in the locked door, and has to dash through Times Square in his tidy whities to come into the theater’s front door and make his next entrance—a video of which is tweeted and reaches 300,000 people before the performance is over.
So the film questions the purposes and effects of art, creating a dichotomy of theater vs. film (and the more extreme case of social media), of popularity vs. prestige, of meaningfulness for the few vs. mattering to the millions. Against Sam’s lambasting of theater art at one end of the spectrum are balanced Mike’s Broadway snobbery against film acting, and the powerful New York critic Tabitha Duncan (played, in another self-referential casting decision, by the distinguished London and New York theater actress Lindsay Duncan), who plans to “kill” Riggan’s play before she has ever seen it because she resents popular, untrained film actors foisting their amateurish productions on legitimate theater.
But a major thrust of the self-reflexiveness of Birdman is to blur the distinctions between theater and film. First, of course, the film is about the production of a play, and in it we return to the same two scenes of the play on three consecutive nights, so that the recursive narrative form forces us as viewers to apply those scenes to new things we have learned about Riggan’s life in the interval.
Second, the film seems much like a play: filmed on location at Broadway’s historic St. James Theatre in just thirty days, the finite setting has the feel of a staged play, and—because the dialogue drives the plot from beginning to end in a way that reviewers of today’s visual-heavy movies are likely to call “talky”—Iñárritu and co-writers Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo have created a script that seems much more like that of a theater drama than a film .
And most stunningly, Iñárritu’s cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, whose long shot that opened last year’s Gravity netted him an Oscar, has outdone even that tour de force in Birdman, creating a film that has the appearance of consisting of a single long continuous take, emulating Hitchcock’s 1948 Rope. Birdman does in fact contain some transitions and subtle cuts, but the overall effect is astounding in its breathless motion, and more than that, gives the film the continuous action of a play—forcing its actors to perform as they would in a stage production as well. Thus the film itself provides in its own form a reconciliation of the popular and the prestigious, of the high art of drama and the popular culture of cinema.
I realize I have made the film sound like an essay on critical theory and aesthetics. But it is also popular entertainment. There are moments of broad humor—as Riggan runs through Times Square in his underwear, for instance, he is stopped by fans who want his autograph, (which he gives them)—but also moments of high drama. Keaton is more than just convincing as a self-doubting actor worrying about his legacy. He is also a father worrying about his daughter and worrying that he was not there for her or for his ex-wife, and he seems unaware that he is repeating those same mistakes with his current girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough). But more disturbing than these things is the voice that he hears consistently inside his head: it is the voice of his former Birdman self (a hoarse croak reminiscent—in the film’s metafictional way—of one of Keaton’s successors, Christian Bale, in his turn as Batman) that speaks consistently to Riggan about his Broadway project’s likely failure and the past cinematic glories he wants him to return to. On top of that, Riggan seems to seriously believe that he has telekinetic powers, and that, for example, he caused the light to drop in his first co-star to eliminate him from the play. He also seems to believe that, like Birdman himself, he can fly.
As an audience, we are inclined to believe that these things are all within Riggan’s own mind—particularly since the rest of the movie, like Riggan’s play and Raymond Carver’s fiction, is starkly realistic. The opening shot of the film, however, showed a rear view of Riggan in a yoga pose, hovering in the air. So we need to remember that Iñárritu has stated his literary influences have been modern Latin American masters like Julio Cortázar and Jorge Luis Borges. The latter is particular known for his use of “magical realism”—a style that blends magical or fantastic elements into an otherwise realistic narrative in a way that suggests a broadening of normal western conceptions of reality. Do these magical things really happen to Riggan? The film leaves the question open to interpretation, but Iñárritu definitely allows you to believe in them. After all, if we are going to have a film that blurs the distinctions between serious and popular culture, between high and low art, between drama and film, we need to include a blending of the cinematic magic of Birdman with the realism of Carver.
You shouldn’t miss this movie. Come Academy Award nomination time, expect Iñárritu to receive a Best Director nod. Lubezki is a shoe-in for a cinematography nomination, if not for the Oscar itself. Keaton’s performance is generating buzz for Best Actor nomination, and Norton and Stone could easily garner supporting nominations for themselves. This is an entertaining and an intelligent movie, well-acted and technically brilliant. Four Shakespeares for this one for sure.