But how can we talk about Birdman? It, like Raymond Carver’s elusive love, cannot be talked about but only around. It can only be seen in contrast to what is not seen, its presence detected by way of what it moves, and creates, like wind in the trees or antibodies in the blood. In contrast to the sticker taped on Riggan Thomson’s dressing room mirror (“A thing is a thing, not what is said about that thing”), sometimes a thing can only be understood by what is said about the thing. That’s why we say things about things in the first place!
I should back up here. Birdman tells the story of Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a former big blockbuster Hollywood movie star, famous for playing the eponymous character “Birdman” whom we are to understand as yet another desperate studio adaptation drawn from low-grade source material at best. Perhaps a comic book or cartoon or possibly even an action figure. The film suggests but does not declare. It cannot be bothered which such trifles.
Of course, none of this matters because Riggan is not merely an actor but an artiste! In a final bid for artistic credibility, Riggan sacrifices his finances, his role as a father, and his status as an entertainer in an effort to be remembered not only as “the guy from Birdman,” but as a real contributor to the world. His risky bid takes the form of a stage play adaptation of the Raymond Carver short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Riggan adapts the story and then stars in the play himself, a risky yet ambitious move as commented by co-star Mike Shiner (Ed Norton).
But things go wrong as they always do in movies. Actors go off-book. Actresses become flustered and lose motivation. An epic wardrobe malfunction leads to a viral video sensation. We observe the sinusoidal fluctuations of Riggan’s confidence at odds with his self-doubt as we count down until opening night.
Yes this is a story-within-a-story story that drama nerds will recognize for its Shakespearean roots, but fortunately, we aren’t meant to concern ourselves with the content of Riggan’s adaptation. We’re only to know that it is a thing and to wait patiently while they talk, and act, and live and breathe around that thing. Instead, Birdman shuffles in eagerly to be the play itself, and we are invited to sit back and watch.
Shot cleverly in a visual style reminiscent of a stage play (similar to the technique used in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 film Rope), director Alejandro González Iñárritu shows us about 3 days of New York time in a simulated single take. The chronology of Birdman ranges from the build up from the final rehearsal, through the chaos of previews, to opening night and its aftermath. We linger like files not on walls but hovering over shoulders and behind corners. In what must have been a series of repeated long takes, the film winds around itself in the labyrinthian tunnels of the St. James Theater on Broadway in a beautiful wash of stage blues, deep greens and burning reds. From our vantage point we’re able to observe what we hope to be the quiet, intimate, spaces between words and frames that are the soil from which art can grow. But also demons.
Birdman takes us through the tumults of, cliche as it may be, everyday life. The never ending search for acceptance and validation. The ceaseless tensions of time, futures haunted by unforgiving pasts and how we’re supposed to deal with that in the present. And, in a fiery tirade delivered by Riggan’s daughter Sam (Emma Stone), we hear a diatribe against the rat race of trying to remain relevant that simultaneously laments a world where true status equates to a trending topic on twitter. As if painfully self-aware, the film comes close to mocking these social media presences but wisely averts it. Instead it acknowledges their usefulness as tools in the modern world while nonetheless calling attention to the dissonance of “looking through life through a cell phone screen” in an effort to generate success through dizzying and perpetual cycles of tweets and retweets. All the world truly is a stage, with the men and women merely players, and nowhere is this more evident than through Iñárritu’s wandering lens.
The issues in Birdman are as old as Aristotle, the familiar problems of mimesis as a tool toward representation and the post-modern crises of when representation of a thing exceed the thing itself. As if in response to this uncertainty, Riggan’s alter ego of Birdman appears, launching us into excursions of magical realism that again question the boundaries between real and unreal, of what is and what is not.
The film is a delightful critique on the state of modern entertainment in the world and the ceaseless tension of art as an imitation of life and the vicious cycle of life returning the favor (although the film would never admit to it if asked). There are some familiar tropes but they serve a larger purpose. We see a homeless actor shouting Shakespearean soliloquies as if on command from a casting director. We see an angry rant against the parasitic nature of critics as power-wielding hacks. We see sexual dysfunction transformed as a metaphor for actual performance anxiety. I could go on, but these moments are not meant to be trite, but life, and if the film is cliche it only means that life itself is cliche.
So how does it end? No, really, I want to know how it ends and yet I don’t really think we’re supposed to. Much like life, the tensions between representation and reality dissolve into chaos and unpredictability as we try to clamber onto meaning. But perhaps the lack of meaning is the meaning, and this tale told in sound in fury really does signify nothing. (See what I did there?)
Good thing this film works so well as a comedy. A drama might have taken itself too seriously.