Before we see anything, we hear the drums. Forceful and arrhythmic like jazz improv at its most primal, they open Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) by commanding the appearance of the film’s title credits—every time the drumsticks strike, letters materialize on cue, spraying across the otherwise black image like a Jackson Pollock painting. Visually, it appears as if the letters forming the film’s title are determined by sonic chaos. Similarly, the film itself is driven by a madness not entirely of its own creating. Yes, Birdman is crazy. It’s wildly erratic, navigates a vast spectrum of tones, and nearly collapses beneath the weight of its meta-cinematic conceits, but all this is merely Iñárritu’s way of zeroing in on the larger insanity of the theater and cinema scene in our mass media-governed society. At times the film lumbers on account of its ambition, but its lunacy translates into genius precisely because Iñárritu refuses to reduce a complex institution of artmaking into a presentable thesis or salvageable point. He tries to capture everything at once, which would be a fault for most filmmakers but, in this case, is a staggering strength. Before we know it, the movie has become like a Pollock painting itself: from this passionate mess, a work of art emerges.
The film chronicles the episodes that occur in the days leading up to the premier of a stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Directing this project is Riggan, an aging actor who once played an iconic superhero, Birdman, and who is now mounting the play in an attempt to recapture his past glory. The actor playing the actor is none other than Michael Keaton, 20 years since Batman and Batman Returns placed him among the pantheon of actors who popularized comic book heroes for the moviegoing public. The similarity between Riggan’s career and Keaton’s own—the erstwhile Batman has had few memorable roles since his nights prowling Gotham City’s rooftops—suggests that Birdman may on one level be a publicity stunt. What better way for a commercially unsuccessful actor to reenter the limelight than to have him comment smartly on his own career through a movie role? The self-parody would appeal to both academics and audience members who are sympathetic to the actor’s plight, two major moviegoing demographics that would surely galvanize his return to fame. Perhaps all this is true and Birdman has an exploitative streak. But to focus excessively on this potential foible is to miss the greater significance of Keaton’s casting. By linking the fictional superhero icon with a real-world equivalent, Iñárritu also links the conflicts, dramas, and absurdities of the film’s world to our own, a connection strengthened by references to actual actors in actual movie roles (“Michael Fassbender is working on the new X-Men movie,” a character remarks at one point, which was probably true at the time of “Birdman” ’s filming—“Days of Future Past” was released just earlier this year.) Iñárritu’s film may be make-believe, at least for the most part, but its aims have a documentary edge.
And it is through a traditional attempt to faithfully document the world, to preserve realism, that Birdman delivers its most incisive commentary on the arts/entertainment industry. It is now more or less common knowledge that the majority of the movie—at least an hour and a half of its 117-minute runtime—appears to have been filmed in one take. This aesthetic flourish is not so surprising when we consider the man behind the camera: Emmanuel Lubezki, the virtuoso who shot the ten-minute-long take in Children of Men and the 20-minute one in Gravity—it was only a matter of time before he decided to tackle the American equivalent of Russian Ark. For those first two films, the intent of the long take was to heighten a sense of realism by preserving the spatiotemporal unity of the movie environment. And so appears to be its purpose in Birdman, except the film deliberately presents physically and temporally impossible phenomena within the take by way of FX effects. At points throughout the film, we encounter things like floating objects, multiple time lapses, and, most strikingly, a massive phoenix-dragon roaring from Manhattan’s rooftops.
By employing one of cinematic realism’s most telltale techniques then subverting its authenticity through the blatant use of FX wizardry, the film foregrounds the questionable fidelity of the film image in the digital age, in turn inviting us to question whether the seamlessness of the long take itself is legitimate (read: it isn’t). This question of authenticity is echoed in the character Mike (Edward Norton, fantastic), a method actor who demands that he be give real gin to drink alongside the character he plays, and who claims that his most honest self appears when he is onstage. In Birdman, Mike functions as an elegiac figure who grasps onto a bygone ideal of realism in the performing arts—the film uses him to convey a similar nostalgic longing for the fading presence of analog cinema, which has been replaced by commercial mainstream entertainments that sacrifice artistic considerations in favor of computer generated spectacle.
Despite this, the film never turns cynical about the digitization of filmmaking, though it comes close in a brashly satirical scene in which a character breaks the fourth wall to mock our mindless enjoyment of FX-heavy action movies. If anything, the beauty of Birdman‘s technique attests to the wonders that are possible with such technologies—however constructed it may be, the long take is gorgeous to look at, and the tension between the temporal continuity of the take and the disjointed time within the shot imbues the story with an arresting surrealism. And though the film lampoons Hollywood’s over-reliance on special effects, it also pokes fun at the other extreme as well: aesthetic purists who are enamored with “high” art and turn their noses up at popular “low” art. Mike unwittingly parodies this elitist attitude when he says with peerless arrogance, “Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige.” But the line is so deliciously spiky that we can’t help agreeing with him, at least a little, and that is indeed how Birdman operates. It jerks us back and forth between polar extremes until we are left in a state of energized ambivalence, unsure of what to think and yet exhilarated by the lengths to which the film will go to show us every angle on an issue.
All this is a mere sampling of the ideas the movie engages with, which are too numerous for this review to discuss in-depth. Birdman grows richer as it moves along and even more in retrospect—it’s certainly a film I will be seeing again, hopefully soon. There is one more aspect of the movie, however, that must be mentioned because it sets the film apart from other postmodern works that use their characters to comment on larger structures of art and society. For that, I turn to a quote by filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder regarding Bertolt Brecht, a 20th century German playwright who specialized in drawing audience’s attention to the constructedness of his plays. “With Brecht you see the emotions and you reflect upon them as you witness them but you never feel them,” Fassbinder said. “[…]I let the audience feel and think.”
And so does Iñárritu in Birdman. To be sure, the film is a head-trip and a tangled mass of self-reflexivity, but it also produces sublime intensities of feeling. The best part is, these two facets are not mutually exclusive. And why should they be, when the process of making art is rooted in emotion? A film that foregrounds the artistic process should capture, to some degree, the agonies and ecstasies that create and are created by art. The movie does this first and foremost by bringing us close to its characters, overcoming the postmodern impulse to remain distant by inviting us to identify with their fears and dreams as expressed through art. The film doesn’t consider art abstractly but explores the ways in which it impresses upon real life, and how life in turn shapes artistic vision. We see characters whose personal demons play themselves out onstage, and others who carry the spirit of performance back into the realm of the quotidian. One becomes a metaphor for the other, the roles reverse and become entangled.
In its engagement with art’s intimate relationship with lived humanity, Birdman joins the likes of Marcel Carné’s Children of Paradise and Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, films-on-theater that are not about deconstructing art but building vital stories that are inextricably bound to the practice of making art. Returning once more to the long take, we see an aesthetic flourish that captures exactly the effect Birdman produces. The unbroken shot makes its way onstage and offstage, through the dressing rooms and out onto the New York streets—the spatiotemporal continuity of the shot evokes the experience of watching live theater, which we would experience in real time, real space. Through the long take, Iñárritu has filmed life as theater, merging the two urgently and indelibly. And it is only through cinema—the technology of the movie camera—that this marriage is made possible. Birdman, whose frame medium is film, takes this life-theater union and adds cinema as a third dimension. Subsequently, the film brings its multimedia realities into our reality, our lives, on the one hand simply by virtue of its playing in theaters nationwide but more tellingly through its meta-cinematic devices, which invite us to recognize and engage with the various, complex ways in which art is enmeshed in our existence. How rare it is for a movie to grapple this fervently, this completely, with the complex role of art in society. It’s a sight to be seen.