Birdman explores the selfishness of validation
“A thing is a thing. Not what is said about that thing.”
Such is the underlying mantra that carries the absurdly cacophonic dark comedy Birdman. It follows washed-up movie star Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) as he tries to restart his ailing career by directing, writing, and starring in a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Thomson, in particular, is trying to recover from his decision to walk away from his career-making “Birdman” superhero franchise. After a trilogy, he decides to walk away from his iconic superhero character, the one responsible for his initial superstardom and now bruised ego. Still attached to the power Birdman once gave him, he finds connection to the real world through his “telekenetic powers.” Whether the powers are real or not is somewhat irrelevant. What matters most is the major question that challenges us as the audience; to wonder how far ego can serve Riggin, and people in general, to achieve true self-fulfillment. When does ego inhibit Riggin’s ability to function as an artist, and a human being, in the “real world”?
It’s dubious at best that director Alejandro González Iñárritu would randomly select Keaton, an actor notable for his work in the Batman films of the late ’80s and early ’90s, as the main character struggling with the balance between maintaining artistic integrity as an actor, and Hollywood celebrity. Fellow actor Edward Norton, who played the Hulk in the 2008 reprisal, also supports this intriguing theme of commercial versus artistic sense. Does the importance of cultural relevancy trump the need to validate oneself as an artist? Riggin certainly struggles with this question nearly to the point of mania, in which the actual voice and persona of Birdman haunt and taunt him for his subsequent failures as an actor. Even if he is a mediocre performer, does the success of Birdman substitute for any personal failures Riggan suffers?
There is one particular scene which is possibly the most bitter yet liberating part of the film, in which Riggan actually confronts his trepidation as an artist when he tries to woo the favor of renowned New York Times theatre critic Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsey Duncan). One review from her could singlehandedly make or break Riggan’s play. When he tries to tell her about how he wanted to become an actor, she cruelly shuts him down, telling him that no matter what, she will write the worst review ever. To Tabitha, Riggan represents an entitled Hollywood elite who uses their commercial success to stomp over the genuinely creative minds that are undeservedly forced into the backburner of anonymity. She feels it her responsibility to put a stop to this commercial takeover in the once dignified realm of theatre. In what could be a moment of complete disheartenment for Riggan, he turns the tables on Tabitha, saying that her critical reviews are simply an excuse to sugarcoat her uninformed conceptions of celebrity versus artist. To Riggan, Tabitha is dismissing the fact that Riggan is putting his entire life into this play, thus ignoring the noble artistic sensibility that Tabitha claims she wants to uphold. She doesn’t admit he is wrong, but is still intent on destroying his career. Both characters strive for artistic integrity, but their skewed ideas of what counts as integrity are what keeps the segregation of commercial versus artistic success alive and well.
The film is a triumphant work that reinvents and reboots the rather lackluster and monotonous genre of comedy existing in American theaters today. Most comedy films today are filled with farcical, one-dimensional comedic breaks filling in for the otherwise lazy filmmaking. It is assumed that comedy is only about telling jokes, filmed statically, which offers no development within the dynamic of a film.
Birdman, however, blazes through the comedy genre with a no-nonsense sense of momentum that is magnetically driven by the pacing of the film. It not only expects the audience to catch up with the story, but challenges them to dive into the absurdity of this journey. This is demonstrated especially through the compelling wizardry of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (he served as the cinematographer for a little film called Gravity), who collaborates with Iñárritu to edit the film as one continuous take. It’s nothing short of unbelievable — the amount of thought that goes into crafting a film that appears to be one 122-minute tracking shot. There are none of the cutaways or clear transitions between scenes that we are so used to to help us distinguish the structure of a story. It engages the audience with its seamlessness, almost to the point where it is exhausting. One moment blends into the next with no clear exposition or time for us to stitch scenes together. The camera use is meant to communicate that the story moves along the same way time does. Again, the film is draining due to its devotion to being a filmic reincarnation of time, but it’s ultimately rewarding in its fearlessness in depicting the absurdity of life (even if it’s through its own outlandishly experimental ways).