Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) 2014
It’s a rare occasion that I get the chance to watch a movie that has Oscar buzz surrounding it. I missed out on my chance last year with Blue is the Warmest Color which lost it’s chance due to the release schedule making it ineligible to be France’s choice as a Best Foreign Film nominee. But when you look at movies that specifically take a look at superheroes, really the only other time that was in consideration was back in 2008 with Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. And many people claim that film as being the reason why the Oscars changed their rules to allow up to ten films in the Best Picture category was strongly due to the fact that The Dark Knight didn’t make the cut, but probably would have if more films were allowed. I haven’t seen nearly enough potential Oscar nominees this year, and the only ones that even have a small chance at entering into the big categories are this one and possibly Snowpiercer which also has a similar struggle because of its release date. But as for Birdman itself, it has some strong performances from everyone in the cast, and there are some impressive storytelling decisions in the direction of this film. It’s one of those films that I can tell has a lot to dig into that a single viewing can only scratch the surface, but it’s one that I greatly enjoyed and can’t wait to watch again in the near future.
One of the first things that I had heard about and noticed is how the film is shot. It’s a single camera that follows different characters in a simulated single take following the production of a Broadway show. I say simulated because the two hour film doesn’t take place over the course of two hours of the characters’ time, but over the course of a few days through the play’s previews on to the opening night. There are jumps in time that occasionally take place via an establishing shot showing the setting or rising sun, or does so through a more invisible jump in time where the constantly moving camera rotates around a character and people appear in the scene. It helps to give it a sense of distorted reality which is augmented by several of the moments when the camera is following Riggan Thomson who often hears the voice of Birdman in his head when he is alone and is able to move things with his mind. Or not. It’s another one of those distorted reality moments which is never fully clear, especially when it comes to the final shot of the movie. There are times when his telekinesis is explained in a more logical sense, as when he is by himself he starts destroying his dressing room by merely flicking his hand and it will spontaneously destroy itself, but when Galifinakis’s Jake comes in he is seen physically picking things up and smashing them. It also comes into play later in the film when Thomson seems suicidal and appears to leap off the roof and flies across the New York streetscape before “landing” back in front of the theater, forgetting to pay the cab. But there are moments that aren’t quite explained as in an early scene where an actor that Thomson isn’t happy with has a light fall on his head, which Thomson takes credit for. The question is left open whether he thinks it was through his telepathy, or if he merely set up the accident through more traditional means.
There’s also a level of meta which further helps to distort some of the reality in this film. Riggan Thomson is an actor past his prime who was known for playing the role of a famous and iconic superhero named Birdman in a series of films twenty years ago, and of course Michael Keaton himself as an actor is well known for playing Batman in Tim Burton’s first two movies and has spent many of the past several years outside of the spotlight. Edward Norton also plays a self absorbed actor named Mike Shiner who comes into the play to replace the injured actor. Shiner quickly becomes difficult to work with because he feels the need to rewrite the dialogue, and wants to be more method in his acting such as using real alcohol because his character should be drinking real alcohol, or trying to have sex with his actress girlfriend for real on stage. Norton himself has a reputation for being difficult to work with and it has been cited as one of the reasons why he was replaced as Bruce Banner in the Marvel movies due to his rewrites on the Incredible Hulk during production. There’s also an interesting scene that takes on the aspect of film criticism itself, or more specifically theater criticism, in a similar way that Ratatouille did with food criticism. Here, the theater critic is presented as someone who has a preconceived notion of the experience she will have before she even steps foot into the theater due to what she thinks she knows about the actor Riggan Thomson, or as she calls him, the celebrity Riggan Thomson. It’s a view on criticism that I have no doubts exists, though I do think it’s diluted due to the sheer number of people contributing to film criticism out there.
There are also some amazing visuals presented throughout the film, despite using what could feel like a very limiting film technique using the simulated single-take, there is a lot of gorgeous moments and opportunities for symbolism. One of the most frequently used is the reflection. This is a cast of actors playing actors playing roles, and there’s always the transition of what face we see vs. what face we show others. When Riggan is by himself we see one aspect of him, but when he’s with his ex-wife we see a different aspect of him, just as we see something different when he is on stage playing the character in his play which has him wearing a couple different wigs to further change the look of himself. I also loved the score and how it would occasionally integrate into the movie universe. Throughout most of the film it’s a very jazzy, but basic drum beat, and at one point the characters walk outside the theater and we see the street musician playing the drumset. Thomson even tosses him some change. Later on we hear what seems like vocals to the soundtrack, and again Thomson walks outside to see a street person hanging onto some random scaffolding shouting out what seems like ravings of a lunatic. And yet a lunatic who is shown with a dozen fluorescent halos tangled up above his head, and he suddenly breaks character and asks Thomson if it was too much, as if he was being directed by Thomson in his ravings. There’s also a moment towards the end of the film where Thomson gives into the voice of Birdman in his head and imagines himself in the next Birdman sequel: Phoenix Rising. There’s explosions, helicopters, and a giant mechanical vulture-like creature that looks fantastic and unexpected in this film supposedly set in the real world.
Throughout the entire film, what really helps ground it is Keaton’s portrayal of Riggan Thomson. It’s such a complicated character and as an audience, we get to see many different sides of him. Whether he’s discussing the importance of the success of their production to his friend and lawyer Jake, or his suicidal tendencies to his ex-wife. I also really loved a moment very close to the end where he has bandages over his face that makes it look like he is wearing a superhero mask, the part over the nose especially makes it look beaklike, and that is an important moment where he sheds this mask which makes a nice statement towards how he feels like he finally is shedding this Birdman persona, even if what happens next muddles that slightly. There are so many turns to his character that it’s hard to tell exactly what is going to happen next. There were several times when I thought things were going to go one way only to have them go in a slightly different way. From the trailers and what is seen within the movie, there are many moment where you worry about Thomson’s sanity. But there’s always the question at the back of your mind that there is something else there, that there’s something real within his insanity, especially when it comes to the final scene which leaves on a confusing sense of hope and wonder. Enough cannot be said about how this film really grabs your attention and spins it around until you’re not entirely sure what’s reality and what isn’t, but the characters always feel real and it’s fascinating to see what is going to happen next. I can’t recommend this film enough and I can’t wait to get the chance to see it again. Until next time, this has been Bubbawheat for Flights, Tights, and Movie Nights.