Journey 110: Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

birdman poster

I wanted to save this movie until last, watching the Best Picture nominated films, since it won. I’d rather see the others so as to have a body of work to compare the winner to. However, with the final two films not scheduled for release until next month, I picked Birdman up to watch anyway.

Birdman stars Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, Amy Ryan and Andrea Riseborough. This dark comedy/drama was directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu from the screenplay he helped to write. It is rated R for language, brief sexuality and brief violence and has a run time of 1 hour and 59 minutes. Birdman was nominated for 9 Academy Awards, and won in 4 categories, including Best Cinematography, Best Original Screenplay, Best Director for Inarritu and Best Picture.

Riggan Thomson (Keaton) is an aging actor, best known for his role 20 years ago as super hero Birdman in a series of films. Determined to break from that stereotype and be known as a true artist, Riggan writes, directs, produces and stars in a Broadway play based on a Raymond Carver story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. His venture is fraught with mishaps and teeters constantly on the brink of failure. He fires one inept actor, replacing him with crowd pleasing but unpredictable and hard to work with, Mike Shiner (Norton). Riggan’s leading lady, Lesley (Watts) is a wanna be Broadway star but is untried. His girlfriend and play co-star, Laura (Riseborough) just wants to have a child while his best friend and attorney, Jake (Galifianakis) feels he is the only person grounded in reality and keeping the play afloat.

On the homefront, Riggan’s daughter Sam (Stone), who is working as his assistant, is fresh out of rehab and confronting life challenges, while his ex-wife Sylvia (Ryan) pops in and out of the St. James Theater, checking on Riggan and their daughter. Mike is as explosive to work with as his reputation suggests, money is always an issue, and the previews can’t seem to go without at least one minor hitch or major disaster. The most well known critic in New York City despises Riggan, seeing him as a celebrity rather than a true actor. She threatens to write a review that will destroy his play. Riggan’s own daughter seems to support the critic’s view of him. She blasts him for being out of touch with the world, with reality, and what’s important and relevant to people.

In the midst of all this swirling chaos, which is sometimes dark, sometimes humorous and most of the time, gritty, are Riggan’s intense battles with himself. His alter ego, Birdman, constantly talks to him, in a complaining, derisive voice that seeks to cajole Riggan into returning to his only meaningful role. That battle rages during the entire film, as Riggan desperately tries to rise above that role, wanting to prove to himself as much as others that he is so much more talented than Birdman, that he matters, that he is loved for who he is, really.  At his worst, Riggan loses himself in that other self, displaying signs of telekinesis and exhibiting the ability to fly, without the costume. On the opening night of his play, Riggan gives the performance of his lifetime, leaving a lasting impression on everyone, including his co-stars, his family and the critic.

This was an interesting, if somewhat difficult, film to watch. The director shot the film as one continuous shot, with very few edits, contributing to the film’s grittiness and realism. The narrow maze of corridors in the theater plays as big a role in the movie as the actors do, as much of the film takes place in those shadowy hallways, the bare bulbs overhead highlighting many of the poignant moments in the story.

I felt sadness and compassion for Riggan, and indeed, for all the characters, portraying over the top versions of struggling actors, poking fun at Hollywood and the very roles actors become famous for. I admire film and television stars for following their passions and excelling at what they love doing. This film cracks that rosy perspective a bit for me by showing the stark difficulty in pursuing such passions, in always seeking approval and admiration, in breaking free to be seen as more than the last role. Sylvia, Riggan’s ex-wife, tells him that he is doing what he has always done….confused admiration for love. At the heart of it, this movie is about love, seeking it, anxiously, in all the wrong places, while not being able to find it within. And ego’s attempt to find and take love, or a shallow version of it, wherever it can, at whatever cost. It’s so bleak, yet real, hard to watch, yet the same egoic attempts happen outside the movie.

I haven’t seen Selma or American Sniper yet, but I can see why Birdman won the Oscar for Best Picture. I’ll be thinking about this movie for a while, pondering the possibilities in the ambiguous ending. I’ll end this post less so, with the opening words of the film, which are actually on the tombstone of author Raymond Carver, who really did write the short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”:

And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?

I did.

And what did you want?

To call myself Beloved. To feel myself Beloved on the earth.

birdman scene

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