I loved this movie. It had just the right combination of dark humor, zaniness and bookishness for my tastes. I laughed often and hard although it was the kind of laughter that explodes out of me when something bad has happened or almost happened. It’s an embarrassed kind of laughter. Birdman was an honest and piercingly transparent look at the 55-year-old character of Riggan Thomson whose hope for a second chance at stardom propels the plot toward its resolution. Riggan’s raw humanity is oozed onto the screen. How honest is this movie? When I prepared calf’s liver in the past I used to surgically cut out the whitish bile ducts from the gelatinous mass of floppy burgundy flesh with a very small and very sharp knife. And this is what Director Alejandro González Iñárritu did. He took a small, sharp knife and carved into the psychic flesh of Michael Keaton to portray the character of Riggan, and Keaton, sensing that somewhere in this outpouring of emotion and intense posturing there lay a renewal for him, acted his way into a portrayal of self conjoined with character that may well go down in cinematographic history. He sliced out the emotional bile ducts of his soul and served him up to us on a platter. Salome has nothing on Iñárritu.
It was the role of a lifetime for Michael Keaton and I think only he could have played it. Keaton, who starred in two Batman movies, morphs occasionally into Birdman, also played by Keaton, and in a voice rising from hell’s depths, chastises and demoralizes Riggan as a has-been. Birdman wants to fly and Riggan, like a hen-pecked husband, is trying his level best to satisfy the Birdman‘s unrealistically outsized demands. He is trying to make it as, guess what, a serious Broadway actor/director/producer. He wants respect, serious Broadway actor, Broadway director, kind of respect, not the clamoring comic hero celebrity of his previous action hero stint and he wants it enough to mortgage his house and his daughter’s future on it.
In this riotous adventure of a plot, Riggan pursues his dream though the conduit of Raymond Carver’s play, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”, Iñárritu’s choice. Why this play? Why not some other? I think because Carver was a great writer and a critic’s darling but not a huge commercial success. He wrote well; he didn’t sell well. The short story he adapted to the stage is about love and essentially that’s what the movie is about. I read somewhere that when there is a framed story, a story within a story, the story within needs special attention. It contains a kernel of truth, and, if you’ve ever cracked a black walnut to access the meat, you know that this nut, this truth, is sometimes challenging to access. I think Riggan does it in a line from Carver’s play when he is brandishing a gun and we don’t know if he will murder someone or shoot himself and commit suicide.
In the Carver play Riggan’s character, Nick, asks, “What’s wrong with me? Why do I have to beg people to love me?”
That’s what it’s about. That’s the kernel, the crux of everything that’s important. Riggan is saying love me and, since he is an actor, he needs a whopping helping of love. He needs the love of the nation, the love of the world.
Riggan is intense, tormented about the play and he is especially unhappy with one of his actors. Instead of firing him, he has a stage light drop on his head. Enter the anarchist, Ed Norton, in the character of Mike Shiner, as a last minute replacement for the injured actor. Shiner’s flagrant ego and dominating self-aggrandizement almost drive Riggan to the edge. In the play’s preview performance, Shiner upstages Riggan by displaying to the audience a gigantic hard-on immediately before Riggan’s big soliloquy where he shoots himself in the head. The result? Shiner is praised for the honesty of his performance and Riggan is ignored as weak. Shiner’s dirty trick almost causes our hero a nervous breakdown, but when a theater critic praises Shiner for his authenticity, the next show is a sellout. Riggan recovers.
What is this kind of writing? Take a flawed hero, give him a goal, then create obstacle after obstacle and set them in his path. Any one of the obstacles has the capacity to undo him but this is a comedy and each obstacle twists around to be a positive. There were four writers on this screenplay and I can envision them saying to themselves, “What else can we do to him? How else can we drive him crazy?” Take a simple plot — washed-up actor wants to make a serious play in order to make a comeback and throw wrench after wrench into the works, any one of which could be the disaster that brings him to his knees. But each one, each wrench, each disaster, instead of stopping him, drives him further towards his goal. It’s a spiral, a vortex of a plot, a tornado.
Now what else can the writers do to complicate matters? Why not throw in a little magic realism. From the beginning we are treated to the non-logical presence of Keaton’s magical powers. We see him levitating in the first scene and then on stage he is so angry with an actor that he causes a stage light to fall on Ralph’s head. Does Riggan have superhero powers left over from when he played Birdman? Am I supposed to swallow this? But I’ve been primed. There are lots of super humanoid powers going on in cinema these days and I’ve become inured to it. Okay, so he’s superhuman. That’s interesting, isn’t it? Magic Realism comes to the movies without the “sound and fury signifying nothing” or maybe with it. Cinematic Magic Realism is only the first of many literary tropes in this movie.
There is a heavy reference to the Labyrinth by Jorge Luis Borges. In Borges it is not the actuality of what happens that is important. It is the suggestion, the reverberation of it. It is the quintessence of a reality that is oft repeated, repeated through the ages, through the centuries so that there is nothing new, nothing original. We are in the immediate present but history and the future are referential. Borges was a inquisitive thinker who consolidated in one person both a left and right brain. He was a mathematical genius and a creative force. His labyrinth is both vertical and horizontal and his ideas are distilled to an apex of understanding. I have to admit that I don’t really “get” Borges. He’s difficult and I don’t want to devote the time I have left on earth to fully understand his work. It would have been better if I had met him earlier when my mind was sharper and I wasn’t so forgetful. For now though, I only need to understand him a little, enough to understand the reference to him in this movie.
Birdman is set in the James Theater’s labyrinthine maze. It moves not only horizontally through the theater’s halls and the streets of New York but vertically also. We see Sam sitting on the cornice of the balcony making me nervous playing Truth or Dare with the carefree and egotistical Shiner character. We see Riggan in flight several times. He leaves the mortal bonds of gravity and he and his transcendent ego fly above New York. As movie watchers we know what Riggan is feeling as he flies. He is a star. He is above it all and from the time he flies, the critical voice is silent for silence is one of the essential themes of the movie and he achieves it in the end, in the last shot. Birdman is silent. The world is silent. There is no drum roll. There is only the sweet absence of sound and it signifies success.
The movie prolongs the illusion of being one long shot without splicing. We move from the theater to the stage to the street, to the bar, to the theater without a visible break. This is the culmination of the kind of camera action Emmanuel Lubezki, director of photography, recently used in Gravity.
Birdman is a farce of mythical proportions, played by a human/mythical hero/anti-hero who once made it big but is now an older and wiser man making an ill considered stab at becoming a “legitimate” stage actor. He takes on the whole shebang of adapting a Raymond Carver short story to the stage, and of directing and producing the play. He hasn’t been successful up until this point in his life. He is divorced from a curiously supportive woman, Sylvia, played by Amy Ryan, and the father of Sam, played by Emma Stone, a young daughter fresh out of rehab. He has never written a play before. He has never directed anything and he has never produced anything unless you count his hangovers. He has let down everyone who loves him. He wants to make good and his whole universe is riding on this ill-conceived venture.
Alejandro González Iñárritu, the director and imaginative force behind this dark comedy of modern manners, is a Mexican who has directed and produced several Spanish language art-type films but who has never done anything on the scale of Birdman. Iñárritu is 50 and fears that life will go its ephemeral way into the no mans land of the future. He wanted to make his mark and says that he took a chance, a huge chance on this movie. He poured everything into this film–his hopes, his reputation and his future. It is an odd film. He took an enormous chance with it and has gloriously, nobly and without a doubt won. What he did is akin to the gambler who bets the bank on one roll of the dice and somehow miraculously wins. He took a chance in so many ways it’s hard to itemize them all. Raymond Carter was 50 when he died. Iñárritu is 50. Michael Keaton is 55 in the movie. This movie is a last-ditch effort for fame. It is a middle ager’s second childhood. Usually men buy sports cars. Iñárritu made a movie.
This is a movie of references, both literary and cinematographic. I’ve mentioned some of the literary ones. There are more. Shakespeare, for example, in the guise of Macbeth’s soliloquy, “Tomorrow and tomorrow. . . .” Another is the subtitle of the play, The Unexpected Value of Ignorance. The subtitle is something of a mystery. What does it mean? The phrase reminded me of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera’s novel, also about life and love. Could it be? I think yes. As I said, this movie is referential. In his novel, Milan Kundera referred to Friedrich Nietzche’s theory of eternal return, the idea that life happens over and over again, without end in an eternal spiral or wheel of life. Kundera found Nietzche’s theory heavy and burdensome. He came up with his own theory, the lightness of being, but just because it lost the heaviness of repetition doesn’t mean that life is easy or free or sweet. In fact, it is unbearable. If we only get to do it once, then choice is unbearable, unbearably light but still unbearable.
Iñárritu doesn’t explain anything. Like a child he asks more questions. It is up to us to answer them. At age 50 he realizes that if he doesn’t take a chance now, he may never be able to do it again. There is no more time to waste. So through the character of Riggan Thomson, he is telling us that he agrees with Milan Kundera’s lightness of being. Life will not return. He can live it only once and if it only happens once then he might as well fly. His character, Riggan, does fly. The Unexpected Value of Ignorance in the title means that he is an innocent. To be ignorant is to be innocent and to be innocent is to be ignorant. I think The Unbearable Lightness of Being in the movie therefore becomes The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance. Or, to say it again differently, if we are ignorant of the burdensome weight of eternal return, lightness is achievable and humanity can shed gravity and soar into a blue sky of silence.
Maybe we do the same things over and over as Borges says but each time we do those things they are new to us and that’s what is great about life. Iñárritu and his co-writers, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo meant for this movie to be a celebration of life, of throwing your whole self helter-skelter into it, of trying your best to achieve your goals and, above all, of appreciating fully the accidental gift of love that occasionally comes to us.
The spiral is an ancient mythological symbol and it is a life symbol. We humans are caught within its vortex and we spin like paper dolls in its wind. We can’t escape. Do we want to?
Others worthy of note:
Zack Galifianakis who played Jake
Naomi Watts who played Lesley
Natalie Gold who played Clara
Antonio Sanchez who did the original score.
 from an Introduction by William Gibson to Labyrinths: Selected Stories & Other Writings by Jorge Luis Borges, p xiv