Even after I’d left the cinema, the drums from Birdman were still echoing through my head, chest and existence. The slowly building tide of hype that had seeped into my awareness had done little to prepare me for watching this film. To call it a comic book movie is to misunderstand the points this film makes and the forms that it plays with…
The show must go on
The film centres around a down-on-his-luck actor, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), who is attempting to derive meaning from life and his career by putting on a stage adaptation of the Raymond Carver short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. But not only has Riggan written this adaptation of a story by one of the greatest figures of 20th Century American literature, he’s putting the play out on Broadway, directing and acting in it as well. Of course his personal life is in pieces and he’s hardly holding things together, as he tries desperately to use the play as a means to escape his past as the actor of one of the highest grossing comic book super hero movies of all time, the “Birdman” of the title.
Now, this could have all been a standard film about redemption and finding a new place in the world, but the film’s director Alejandro González Iñárritu and its writers ( Alejandro, again, and Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo) make sure that it is anything but standard and leave you guessing right until the end how things will pan out. But the show will go on and oh, how it does.
One of the most stunning aspects of Birdman is how the film appears to be done in one long take. Cuts are deeply hidden, though potentially obvious when the screen goes a bit black, because the characters of delved into the depths of the theatre, but it is a fantastic technical achievement to have gotten the film to look like this. What I also really liked about the use of this one long take effect is that it was as if the film was reflecting the nature of the play contained with it, because in theatre there are no cuts, only curtains, entrances and exits.
But it’s not just this one take effect that is visually interesting: most of the film takes place within the theatre, on and off-stage, and around a single block in New York City. There’s so few locations in the film, but you don’t feel underwhelmed by the lack of locales. There’s so much passion in what is happening between the characters that while it seems that Riggan is meant to be feeling confined and unable to escape, we as an audience are offered little chance to get bored while we look at the same poster again and again.
Just to further reflect the film’s apparent board like aspirations: there is a tonne of dialogue. The film has characters spilling out their guts for you, but it never feels wrong that they have taken it this far, because the general aesthetic of the film is built so much towards reflecting theatre. And there’s a level of intensity to the performances from Keaton, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, Edward Norton and the rest of the cast, that you won’t get in your regular big budget, Hollywood film, because (again) it’s like they’re projecting (pun intended) a theatrical experience.
The critique I’ve been waiting for
Here and there, on Hex and speaking on Nerds Assemble, you may have picked up that I’ve been getting a little bored with comic book movies. And so I really dig the critique that Birdman offers up for this cinematic force that is showing no sign of leaving our cinemas any time soon. The film artfully, but brutally, looks at how the genre has distorted the careers of actors, changed people’s expectations when it comes to films and generally shows us “why we can’t have nice things” when it comes to comic book movies i.e. why there aren’t more Ghost Worlds and Road to Perditions on our cinema screens.
This critiquing happens not only through Riggan’s many reflections on what happened in his past (his comic book movie career is made out to have ended sometime before 1995), but also through contextualising the film’s universe with our own and including references to the success Robert Downey Jr. has found in the genre. Riggan also enables the audience to see how typecasting can mess up the careers of actors and actresses, but also how those in the acting profession may want to aspire to art – that multi-million, multi-film deals are not always the be all and end all in their lives. There is a lot in this film to think about, and I can’t help feeling that the film’s alternative title “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance” is directed at those who think nothing needs to change in mainstream cinema.
If you want to see a film that plays around with what it is to be a film – go see this. If you’re questioning the wisdom of Hollywood each summer – go see this. If you see nothing at all wrong with Marvel, Warner, Fox and Sony falling back on the same old gimmicks when it comes to comic book movies and don’t think they need to change: then you will probably hate this film. Everyone else: go and see it and get those drums stuck in your existence.
Birdman is out now in UK cinemas. Our reviewer bought their own ticket.