Birdman is perhaps Inarritu’s best film and if not, then it is the first one where it looked like Inarritu was having fun. If you have followed the work of this brilliant director then you know what I am talking about, if not, then let me remind you: Trilogy of Death – Amores Perros (2000), 21 Grams(2003), Babel (2006) – and last but not least, Biutiful (2010), perhaps one of my favorite films ever made. You will agree with me if I notice that these films are not exactly light, or cheerful for that matter. Therefore, in comparison with its predecessors, Birdman almost feels like a comedy, even though it is everything but that.
The story follows Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), fading star of the superhero blockbuster movie Birdman, who hopes that the work he is doing on Broadway will revive his career thus making him the star on American sky once again. During a rehearsal, the actor (as it happens to be the one with the least talent) is hit in the head by the stage lighting, which marks the beginning of the film. They need a replacement and they need it fast but as faith would have it Woody Harrelson is shooting new Hunger Games, Michael Fassbender is working on the new X Men and Robert Downy Junior is not available due to the fourth, fifth, sixth installment of the Iron Man. Fortunately for Riggan and Jake (Zach Galifianakis), Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a great A-list actor and a close friend of Riggan’s lead actress Leslie (Naomi Watts), is available and willing to join the cast.
If you perhaps did not catch Inarritu’s not so subtle joke of listing superhero A-list actors in this scene, I urge you to watch this brilliant scene again. Missing it or missing the importance of it is like missing the entire point of Birdman, especially since we know that all of these names – starting with the pioneer of the genre Michael Keaton himself who just happens to be the very first Batman, all the way to the Incredible Hulk played by none other than Edward Norton – are directly responsible for the cultural genocide we are facing today. To make things even better, Inarritu uses this fact very consciously only so he would hire Michael Keaton and Edward Norton to play, not their superheroes alter egos as many would wrongly assume, but the representations of the real-selves (Emma Stone is a nice touch since she is also one of the representatives of the comic book characters Inarritu played with). Therefore, no one else could possibly be fit to play Riggan Thomson and Mike Shiner, respectively. In this way Inarritu pushes the story all the way to the beginning thus coming to a full circle. This is what Birdman is about. It is about a man’s struggle with his own fragile self, with his fettering ego. It is a story within a story, a film within a film, a powerful commentary on the society of spectacle we all live in today.
Michael Keaton is, just like Riggan Thomson, a former Hollywood star everybody knows and remembers fondly but with a certain amount of pity, considering that he, unfortunately and with no explanation, vanished from the big screen, which placed him among those actors whose careers burned down like Icarus’ wings. Using this information shamelessly, Inarritu creates a thin line of demarcation between the actor and the character he plays, which becomes the main means of expression and the skeleton for the story. In other words, Inarritu, forms a cause-and-effect relationship in which Michael Keaton (actor) becomes Riggan Thomson (character the actor plays), and vice versa. Using this process Inarritu inserts the character traits of the real person into a fictional character while simultaneously inserting the character traits of the fictional character into a real person. This is the framework and context of Birdman. Without it, the film as we know it, would cease to exist.
On the other hand we have Edward Norton who, through the part of Mike Shiner, insufferably arrogant, almost impossible for artistic collaboration, but extremely talented actor, reminds the audience that it is precisely this reputation that cost him the part of Hulk (which was ultimately given to Ruffalo) and the contract renewal for The Avengers (2012). Attributing the real situations to the fictional characters played by the actors, central figures of the real situations that Inarritu attributes them, is an example of intertextuality and pastiche at its best.
What must not ignore or forgot is that, in addition to the postmodern play with the text (through screenplay, directing, acting) for which the Birdman absolutely deserves to be on the list of best films of 2014 (if not the best), there are three additional and equally important aspects of this masterpiece that make it so. Of course, I am talking about the masterful cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki, editing of Crise and Mirrione and production design of Kevin Thompson.
That being said, if you have thought that what you are seeing is actually a single continuous shot you were only partially right. Film is shot and edited in a way that it looks like it was done in a single breath but in reality, this was not the case. The entire film is done in number of shots each in the average duration of 10 to 15 minutes, which was also its maximum length. Continuity and impeccable fluidity is achieved with the great help of scenography that was designed and built like a maze (in three levels) in which spaces, of different purpose, just like the shots, just follow, one after the other, effortlessly. The reason for this kind of scenography is of a technical nature since it directly supports the creation of the illusion of having everything done in a single shot. However, all of these spaces, integral parts of the maze, were aimed at only one thing – to follow and support the psychological state of mind of the protagonist. Specifically, with the change in mental state of Riggan Thomson, the space would subtly change as well: hallways would get narrower, ceilings would lower down, light would muffle – all in order to evoke the claustrophobic state of mind the character has found himself in.
On the other hand, we have a scenography within the scenography (Riggan’s play) which is just one of the proofs as to how much attention has been given to this aspect of film. The kitchen, as the central space of Riggan’s play, has intentionally epitomized the spirit of the 50s, which is hardly surprising given the fact the 50s are characterized as the golden age of Broadway, thus suggesting Riggan’s spectacular comeback. And what a comeback it was! Bravo!
Birdman is a unique example of smart meta text which masterfully avoided the trap of complacency, pretentiousness and mediocrity in which even the best and most skillful of directors tend to fall (Nolan and Tarantino come to mind). With the help of a great cast and skills of his incredibly talented technical team led by Lubezki and Thompson, Inarritu was able to seemingly tell a simple story, told using complicated means, almost effortlessly. Or at least, that is the impression the film has given away. The result is a grand, timeless film we will talk about for many years to come but will Birdman be labeled as a film that brought Batman back to life, and for how long, that remains to be seen.
For what is worth, Michael Keaton is my pick for this year’s Academy Awards and needless to say Inarritu fo pretty much every other main award.
P.S. Special thanks to my friend Raghav Juyal, for the title.
Text written by Monika Ponjavic
23. 01. 2015.