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Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Birdman

You seem to have something stuck to your head.
Want me to, uh, get it for you?

dir: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

2014

This film is totally fucking nuts!

And that’s not a bad thing at all.

In fact it’s quite enjoyable, visually confronting, artfully constructed and pretty well acted by almost everyone involved. There is a lot of yelling, a lot of virtuoso camerawork, and a lot of people struggling for credibility.

It’s not unique in cinema to do this, but it’s very hard to watch this and not think that there are fourth wall breaking – meta elements in the flick, considering that Michael Keaton is playing a character called Riggan Thompson whose claim to fame is that he starred as the superhero in some flick called Birdman decades ago.

I hope that almost everyone knows that Keaton, who up until then had been considered a pretty successful comedic actor, also played a little known superhero called Batman in a couple of movies with Tim Burton.

No-one points out, of course, that they were pretty shitty movies. Well, the first one was, maybe the second one was okay.

Of course, Keaton hasn’t exactly been in the wilderness since then, having been in a stack of flicks. If there are autobiographical similarities between Keaton the actor and Thompson the character, perhaps they’re just coincidental.

The biggest difference perhaps is that while Keaton doesn’t possess superpowers, Riggan really seems to. When we first see him, he’s in his undies and he’s levitating in the lotus position.

If you’ve seen the flick, or even if you haven’t, you could reasonably ask yourself, or me, is he really floating? Is that, like just something that happening in the character’s head, or is he really floating? What about a few of the other perfectly mundane yet magical things he seems to do throughout the flick, especially when he’s stressed?

Honestly, I don’t think it matters. It doesn’t seem to matter to him. Reality and the ‘reality’ within this flick is a fluid concept. Thompson sees a few things, and does a few things that don’t really change the circumstances of his life.

He is a hack actor struggling for credibility, struggling to be taken seriously. Against all reason or sense, to make up for the only thing that he’s known for, his success long ago playing a superhero, his penance is to script, direct and star in an adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story called What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. As our crazy time with Thompson and the lunatics around him commences, they’re doing the final rehearsals and previews prior to the play’s opening night.

Play? No-one said there were going to be any fucking plays, did they?

Regrettably (if you hate movies that revolve around a theatre, or the Broadway scene), almost the entirety of the flick transpires at the St James theatre. All the actors are playing actors. Riggan is the central character, and around him are arrayed a lot of people, most of whom hate him, some with more justification that others, and all of them are clawing at his eyes and soul for attention, or just because they want to take him down

Riggan has poured all his energies and the last of his money into this play, which most would consider a fool’s errand, all with the hope of finally being considered a serious artist. A poster of Birdman roosts on his crappy dressing room wall, reminding him of his greatest success and the source of all his insecurity. Birdman’s voice, which sounds like a mocking parody of the voice Christian Bale doing that Clint Eastwood voice for his Batman flicks, tells him the things he doesn’t want to think about with disturbing regularity.

During the first rehearsal we get to see, one of the actors in this four-hander seems to be pretty crap. He’s not a good actor, and Riggan keeps thinking about how much he doesn’t like this guys acting, until a spotlight falls from the rafters and gongs the guy on the head.

When talking to his long suffering manager (Zach Galifianakis, playing somewhat against type), Riggan intones “I made that happen.”

Of course he did. Well, of course he kind of did and kind of didn’t. It happened not because Riggan controls the entire world, or is delusional enough to think that he does (though he is delusional enough to think this play could save his washed up career), but because Riggan needs to punish himself further.

This Broadway theatre stuff is hard enough as it is, but there need to be added complications, because he hasn’t really suffered enough in his life, suffered for HIS ART, DARLINGS. Hence the fellow actor (Andrea Riseborough) thirty years his junior telling him she’s pregnant with his child. Hence Riggan’s drug addict daughter (Emma Stone) haphazardly working as his assistant and acting like a fuck up all over the place, judging him for all his failings as a parent.

Hence Mike Shiner (Ed Norton) coming into the play, trying to steal Riggan’s last chance at glory. Mike is a highly acclaimed theatre actor (which, at least in this flick’s supernatural universe, means that theatre actors are way more respected and rewarded than film actors, which is a thoroughly quaint and sweet notion) who is also a complete prick of a human being.

That’s funny to me, and it’s perhaps meant to be funny to cinemagoers, because for all of Norton’s actual acclaim as a serious film actor, he’s also notorious for being hard to work with, and there are a fair few number of actors and directors who’ve vowed never to work with him again.

I doubt he’s spoofing his own persona here, because the method actor in the play within the film within whatever the hell this is, is a complete nutjob with zero fucks given about other people’s opinions of him or his childish behaviour.

Of course there are a million other things going wrong, there’s Riggan battling his own slipping grip on sanity and the difficulties of keeping this production afloat, and then he has to deal with not only his resurgent alcoholism but also the fact that Mike Shiner is alternately sabotaging and taking credit for the play in the press, and also trying to fuck Riggan’s daughter.

It’d be enough to blow the mind of a lesser mortal, let alone a desperate actor like Riggan. It’s good that I thought of that word, ‘desperate’, to describe him, because Keaton has a desperate, manic air about him almost the entire time. We are given to feel, and to believe, like he does, that he has absolutely no power on what is going on around him, that no matter how frantically he treads water, he’s still going to drown in his own mediocrity, and that all the efforts he could possibly muster and manage aren’t going to save him.

We found out, just when it looks like everything is going to come together, just when it looks like drowning Riggan will make it to Credibility Land just before expiring, the theatre critic from the New York Times tells him that she hates him just for existing and that she’s going to destroy him with a review she’ll write without even watching the play.

Critics, huh? Don’t they just totally suck?

Riggan lets loose in all his drunken glory, screaming at the critic, who I guess is a stand in for all critics, as the talentless hacks that they (we), people who’ve never created anything worthwhile in their lives, who attack people just for having the temerity to try to create something meaningful.

That’s put us all in our place, hasn’t it?

But that’s not the end, is it? This, being something of an existential farce, has many more ways for Riggan’s life to go both right and wrong before an insane and absurdist ending that is nonetheless probably the best ending something like this could hope for.

If it all sounds like it’s a depressing drag, you have to appreciate that all of this is going on at a fevered, and, for me, hilarious pitch. There’s also this percussive jazz score in long sections of the flick that make it feel like you’re being cheerfully mugged in an elevator or being hustled down the corridors of the St James along with the characters at gunpoint. What’s even sort of funnier is that we occasionally see the drummer just off camera playing the score that we’re listening to.

Keaton is fantastic in the role. I won’t say he’s a revelation, because I’m not sure that Keaton the actor and Thompson really are that similar as people, but he makes us believe in his desperation and his vanity, and his shittiness as a person that he at least, at this late, way too late stage, tries to apologise for to the people he’s hurt in the past.

Everyone’s strong in this, but really it’s all a bit of a stunt film, in that the real hero of the flick is the cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki. It’s all put together so that it looks like one continuous shot covering several days (not that that’s what anyone who’s watched it will actually believe, since there are plenty of times when you know the edits have happened. It doesn’t suffer from the tedium (at all) that a few of these other ‘experiments’ have caused, because however it was filmed, the camerawork is so well done that we always feel like it’s in the service of the characters and their performances. At least that’s how I felt.

It might not be as great as his work in Children of Men, but it’s still incredibly impressive.

I don’t really know whether it deserves all the plaudits and the awards and such, and I have no idea how it will fare at the Oscars this year, since even though Hollywood adores nothing more than movies about its vain self and the tortured souls that constitute its ranks of the damned, it’s not really based on a true story, and those get primacy no matter how fictionalised they are. Still, I had an absolute ball watching it, and thought it was one of the funniest comedies of 2014.

Wait, what? It’s not a comedy? Well, okay, it was the best fantasy flick of 2014 then.

There. Problem solved.

8 times I wonder why, if ignorance has unexpected virtues, why I still have so many of one and so few of the others out of 10

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“What has to happen in a person's life to become a critic anyway? What are you writing? Another review?” – well, lots of things happen, really, but it’s neither here nor there – Birdman, or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance

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