Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is one of the few works of media to have left me in stunned silence.
First off, if you’re a cinephile, stop reading this review and go see this movie right now. It’s playing at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. Go in with the least information and emptiest bladder possible: it’s important not to miss a second. Whether you end up loving or hating the film, Birdman a work of pure cinema that should by experienced by anyone who considers themselves a lover of the medium.
Now to actually talk about this thing.
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is the latest film by Alejandro González Iñárritu, a Mexican director whose work is consistently either reviled or beloved. His previous films include Amorres Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel. You really need to see them for yourself to find out which side you land on. They, along with Birdman, contain a recurring theme: that in the end, every work of art is, like every person, two stories — the one that they tell and the one that they are.
Birdman is a masterpiece of self-referential filmmaking. It’s a film about a washed-up film actor adapting a Raymond Carver short story into a stage play. The actor, Riggan Thompson, is played by and based on Michael Keaton, star of the 1989 Batman film. The play and its progression across four performances echo Riggan’s emotional and artistic state. He also has unexplained godlike powers that switch between being real and imagined throughout. At various points, the film references Roland Barthes, Jorge Luis Borges, Raymond Carver, and David Lynch, and each of those is earned. Testicles are symbolic.
However, Birdman is also about the different ways people express themselves. It’s a film about a number of complex people with their own well-conveyed internalities who nonetheless cannot communicate with each other for entirely understandable but fundamental reasons. This is conflated with genre and the different ways they approach and value art. From actors to critics, all are lovers of art for multifaceted, legitimate reasons that are nonetheless largely incompatible and in conflict with each other.
At the same time, Birdman is also an incredible technical accomplishment. Shot by Emmanuel Lubezki, the cinematographer on Children of Men, The Tree of Life, and Gravity, there is maybe one cut in this film’s 119 minute runtime. One shot spans four days of story-time and circumnavigates the city block-sized setting several times over. It contains several dozen radical shifts in tone, from several meditations on suicide to robotic pterodactyls overtaking the city in fiery destruction.
Birdman is also a character piece about a man whose egoism drives him beyond his abilities and towards self-destruction. Riggan Thompson is an “actor personality” in the worst way — he considers art a showcase for himself, demands to be the center of attention, and takes everything personally. He’s forever associated with a role he played 30 years ago, Birdman, and desperately wants to move past that in order to be taken seriously as an artist. But it’s only through embracing his identity as Birdman — who hovers over the film as Riggan’s throaty interior monologue — that he’s able to create art that transcends all competing artistic standards, albeit in a naive way.
On the other hand, Birdman is a meditation on verisimilitude. What makes something real in cinema vs. theater vs. criticism? What makes something real in our lives? What does it mean to yearn for the real? Birdman‘s answer to that is “human connection.” Those that yearn for the “real” desire human connection that is, for some reason, out of their reach. This connection can only be achieved through reunifying repressed or dissociated aspects of the self.
Actually, Birdman is a dark absurdist comedy in the vein of Luigi Pirandello. Riggan Thompson is a thinly-veiled fictionalization of the actor playing him, Michael Keaton. Keaton was a once promising actor who continues to be defined by his lead roles in the 1989 and 1992 Batman films. This film is implied to serve the same purpose for Keaton that What We Talk About When We Talk About Love serves for Thompson in-film — an artistic second-life and escape from a tortured legacy that nonetheless succeeds only by being deeply tied to that legacy. Much of the film’s humor comes from its flippant attitudes towards dark human impulses. Horrible events are consistently undercut with the ridiculous. Riggan is nearly driven to suicide by delusions of himself as a screeching man in a rubber bird suit. His actual on-screen and on-stage suicide attempt results in his personal and artistic rejuvenation. I think that the film’s most important scene is going to be often overlooked — it’s when Riggan tells his ex-wife about a suicide attempt he made after destroying their relationship. He goes to the beach and walks into the surf to drown himself, but then he starts feeling stings all over. He runs out of the water, screaming and covered in jellyfish. After rolling around in the sand for a while, he gets in the car, drives back home, and moves on. That’s Birdman.
And it’s all constructed around a joke about Christian Bale’s Batman voice.
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