by: Douglas Grant
Across the Margin makes its case for the best film of the year with Birdman…..
There was a time when I was aware of two truths while walking into the theater to see a film by Alejandro González Iñárritu. The first was that I would have much to think about after leaving. The second was that I would most likely be extremely depressed. And while the director’s latest film, Birdman, certainly has its share of melancholy, the overall takeaway is a departure from the dark roads he’s led us down before in Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel, and Biutiful. There is an underlying ray of hope in Birdman, a strange yet purposeful impression of contentment that bubbles to the surface as the film climaxes, that makes it one of 2014’s cinematic triumphs.
The themes of Birdman are transparent and heavy-handed. What does celebrity even mean anymore? What defining principle sets apart the serious actor from the movie star? Who has the right to say which actors should be able to transcend both Hollywood and Broadway? How can an actor from the days of old find his or her place in this new landscape characterized by click-bait, likes, follows, and viral videos? Yet even as all of these questions ominously roost at the film’s core, there is still an elemental ambiguity to the film which leaves the audience frustratingly divided, as is seen in the scenes where Riggan is living inside of his head. But more on that later as we discuss the ending of the film.
Michael Keaton has given us perhaps the most honest performance of his career in Birdman, one that mirrors his own life as an actor to the point where we don’t know exactly where Keaton ends and Riggan begins. After all, besides Christopher Reeve, it was Keaton who paved the way for all of the Hollywood actors who would don capes and masks. What the superhero genre has turned into since the early nineties – at least according to Iñárritu – is escapism of the most mind-numbingly simple sort, characterized by heavy explosions and trite one-liners. Like Riggan, Keaton has gone through a lull in his career where perhaps he was seeking a road toward redefining himself, a road toward once again attaining a sense of relevance. Riggan wants to be taken seriously in adapting Raymond Carver’s Late Fragment for the Broadway stage, but almost everyone is his orbit sees right through the charade. But is it really a charade? It’s apparent to all that Riggan wants his star to rise once again, but those closest to him fear it’s for all the wrong reasons. When public perception starts to dictate his own sense of self worth, ex-wife Sylvia asks him, “Why do you always confuse love with admiration?”
The other noteworthy role Keaton forcefully undertakes in the film is Birdman, the alter-ego voice of doubt that plagues Riggan in his moments of silent contemplation, whispering brutal honesty into his ear with a gravelly voice of reason.
Only Edward Norton could have played Mike Shiner, the artistically fixated actor who serves as Riggan’s antithesis. This is Norton at his best, a borderline misanthrope full of self-doubt who puts his love of the craft above all else. He is there to remind Riggan that the former Birdman is – and only ever will be – New York’s guest, even when he reluctantly begins to accept that Riggan just might be the real deal. An unapologetic eccentric is what Norton gives us, but one who is unwaveringly dedicated to his vocation, making Norton and his character, Mike, the same two-sided coin as Keaton and Riggan. Mike’s disdain for Hollywood actors is just one place where Norton shines. When Riggan sarcastically apologizes to Mike for being popular, Mike is validated in his scorn for what Riggan represents. “Popular? Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige.” Although Mike and Riggan are juxtaposed as symbols of two opposing forces, Mike is not the antagonist of the film. Birdman is a story of man versus himself, or even man versus society, and Mike’s presence isn’t meant to be adversarial, as is evident in the way his character begins to fade in the third act. Mike Shiner is the return of the Edward Norton we remember with fondness but haven’t seen in quite some time, a cynical character appropriately weighing in on how much his world has changed in so little time, and how it’s moved on without him.
In a film so heavily laden with symbolism, Emma Stone as Sam is brilliantly frank in her ability to play spokeswoman for the youth of today, trying to open up her father’s eyes to the fact that he is no longer playing the game he thought he was, the one he once excelled at. Although the disenfranchisement angle is the most blatantly obvious route her role could take, Stone pulls it off with a subtle grace that makes Sam a multi-dimensional character the audience sympathizes with, even when she unmercifully cuts Riggan to his core. “You’re doing this ’cause you’re scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don’t matter. And you know what? You’re right; you don’t.” On an interpersonal level, Sam is what matters most in the film. No other relationship of Riggan’s is as important as the one he has with his daughter. Sylvia still loves him, but it’s clear she’s moved on. His romantic relationship with Laura (Andrea Riseborough) isn’t real, and is inevitably coming apart. He has fellow cast member Lesley’s (Naomi Watts) gratitude and admiration, but this won’t sustain him. Only when Sam rests her head on her father’s chest at the end of the film do we get some sense of resolution. Riggan has achieved what he’s set out to do when the positive reviews roll in for the play. This is the production he’s diligently adapted for the stage, directed, and starred in, but at that moment all that matters is his daughter’s love. Since Emma Stone is an actor we so easily fall in love with, we are right there with Riggan in that momentary sense of peace.
In the past we’ve applauded the likes of David Fincher, Stanley Kubrick, and Martin Scorsese for their ambitious long takes. Here Iñárritu has followed in that same vein. So when discussing the film’s beautiful cinematography, this is a good place to start. In keeping with this tradition, Iñárritu has taken a novel approach to this type of filmmaking. The final edit is a bold move on the director’s part. The entire movie flows as if it was filmed in one shot, keeping us centered in the story, the flow so natural it makes the transition of the scenes appear seamless. The only time the cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, cuts away from Riggan and the story is to provide us with glimpses of symbolic imagery, like the beached jellyfish that represent Riggan’s failed suicide attempt, or the burning tale of some incendiary object falling from the sky that illustrates the Icarus metaphor. Yellow, red, and particularly blue lighting are all employed as symbols of certain stages of character development. And something pleasantly unexpected occurred sometime during the filming: Iñárritu showed us that he truly understands New York City, as we were all treated to through Lubezki’s lens. In the past the director has given us stunning shots of Barcelona, Tokyo, Mexico, and Morocco, but the way in which he’s captured on camera that Manhattan “feel” only lends to our ever-increasing respect for Iñárritu’s talent.
The film’s score was a back and forth between the jazz drums of Antonio Sanchez and the classical pieces of Gustav Mahler, Maurice Ravel, Sergei Rachmaninov, and John Adams. Sanchez’s snares and cymbals are visualized in the two scenes when drummer Nate Smith appears onscreen. Both instances accompany any character development that Riggan is going through. Whereas the classical score helps to translate a good deal of the film’s emotional content, Sanchez’s jazzy percussion often serves as waypoints for scene transitions. A film’s score is an integral aspect of the overall production – though oftentimes underrated – and in this instance the score is an important vehicle for communicating some of those nuances that help us to understand the change Riggan is going through.
Riggan’s confrontation with critic Tabitha Dickinson is Birdman’s climactic showdown. Two people in show business from different worlds have it out over a lack of respect for each other’s chosen profession.
Tabitha: Entitled, selfish, spoiled children. Blissfully untrained, unversed, and unprepared to even attempt real art. Handing each other awards for cartoons and pornography, measuring your worth in weekends. Well this is the theater, and you don’t get to come in here and pretend you can write, direct, and act in your own propaganda piece without coming through me first.
Riggan: You just label everything. That’s so fucking lazy. You’re a lazy fucker. You know what this is? Do you even know what that is? You don’t. You know why, because you can’t see this thing if you don’t know how to label it.
This is where we return to those heavy-handed themes. This is where art imitates life in layman’s terms. Where is the line drawn between art and entertainment? How do we distinguish fame from critical acclaim? And on and on. Birdman is a candid commentary on contemporary thespianism, a film that’s only obscure when it explores Riggan Thomas’s character arc. It would be presumptuous for me to say what I made of the ending, but even if I was to put it eloquently it probably wouldn’t be true, because after several viewings I still haven’t decided. Every plausible answer I’ve been provided with during discussions seems to undermine the plot in one way or another. Did he die on stage when he shot himself, making everything that followed a dream sequence? Did it matter that Riggan actually did win over Tabitha with his performance, his “super realism”? Did he jump to his death or did he fly away? I’m convinced that Iñárritu doesn’t even know himself. Nevertheless, I’m not adverse to an open-ended interpretation. I know many movie-goers demand absolute closure, but I’m not one of them.
Birdman is more than powerful performances from an extremely talented ensemble. It’s more than beautiful cinematography, a smart script, or an arresting score. The film is a culturally significant piece of art for 2014’s time capsule. It illustrates our desire for relevance in a society where anyone can be relevant, but no one can. But underneath that is a character study of a man who had achieved greatness superficially and then lost it, a man who’s been given the opportunity to win it back, and to do it right this time, even if it costs him everything.
“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.”
-Raymond Carver, Late Fragment