Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Cult-Movie Review: Birdman (2014)

What is Birdman (2014)?

The answer to that question is not exactly clear-cut, or simple.

On a surface level, the Academy Award-winning film from director Alejandro Inarritu is the immersive story of a once-popular movie actor -- Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) -- who attempts to make a comeback that he, rather than his fans, feels is legitimate.

His fans desire desperately to see him in Birdman 4. However, Riggan believes that his quest for legitimacy leads to Broadway, and to a small theatrical production of a Raymond Carver short story.

Along the way to the play's opening night, Riggan contends with a disruptive actor, Mike Shiner (Ed Norton), who considers Riggan’s commitment to “art” somehow inferior to his own. 

Disturbingly, Riggan also sees and hears his feathered (and fictional) alter-ego -- Birdman -- at times….and the superhero is not always a benevolent premise. Rather, he is an insistent one.

Birdman is thus about a lot of things: acting, Hollywood, the theater, critics, and superhero films. 

The film’s most unique quality, perhaps, is its intentionally paradoxical mode of expression. 

On one hand, Birdman is lensed in a series of riveting, brilliantly-orchestrated long-takes. A dedicated attempt is made, via editing, to bridge these takes together, thus creating a kind of quasi-“filmed in one take” view.

Make no mistake, this approach is about immediacy, and about immersion too. The camera follows Thomson from locale to locale, from back-stage onto the street, and back to the theater again, and this mode creates a sense of urgency and tense, “you are there” realism.

It's more than that, actually.  

With the focus on personal squabbles, relationships gone bad, a possible unwanted pregnancy, drug addiction, and even, perhaps, suicidal behavior, Birdman might aptly be described as belonging to the school of aesthetics known as "dirty realism."  

That's explicitly the terrain of Raymond Carver (1938-1988) as a short story writer. The author wrote his literary works about blue collar individuals struggling and facing these very problems. And Thomson, in the film, is producing a play based on Carter's writing, and world view.

But then -- simultaneously -- Birdman adopts a different and opposite technique too.  

It violates its carefully-crafted sense of "dirty" reality to depict Thomson utilizing telekinesis (!), flying through the streets of Manhattan, or conversing with his superhero alter-ego.

Some critics have termed Inarritu’s approach here “magical realism.” They register the realistic tone and depiction of Thomson’s world, overall, and then the unexplained invasion of magical or supernatural elements, which go totally unexplained.

As viewers, we fill in the ambiguity about these fantasy moments with our own answers. 

Birdman is actually about mental illness, some critics report. Thomson is not merely a struggling actor, but a man bordering on schizophrenia as he tries to keep all the elements in his life from waging war upon one another.

Other critics view the film as being a commentary on the discipline or process of acting itself.  

Thomson may be playing a character in a dramatic play, but part of his mind is still occupied by the character he once played -- a superhero -- and the universe he once inhabited as Birdman. That universe is a place of flight, superheroes, exploding helicopters, and so forth. Accordingly, Thomson can’t purge his previous role from his imaginative psyche, and so still interacts, uncomfortably with it.

Both such interpretations are valid, and backed-up by events as they unfold in the film.  

Yet I view Birdman in terms of a different dichotomy.  On his odyssey of dirty realism and magical realism, Thomson veers and lunges between the poles of popular culture and high culture, and struggles to find personal and professional validity in either.

If we accept here the parameters of an “elite” vs. “populist” debate, we can explicitly tie Birdman into the larger context or conversation this nation has been undergoing since a least 2010 about politics, among other things. 

Who is the appropriate gatekeeper for our society? Do the people choose what they like and desire (as evidenced by pop culture) and where our culture should head? Or do a group of elites manufacture consent and guide us to their pre-ordained destination? Do they determine good taste (in terms of high art), and even the brand of leadership our country should have?

This is Birdman’s galvanizing crisis, one might conclude. Thomson can apparently only achieve self-respect from the outside approval of high culture gatekeepers (like the critic, Tabitha Dickson [Lindsay Duncan] who despises him).  

And he can only achieve pop culture fame via his career link to Birdman and the pop culture, which is epitomized in the film by Riggan's encounters with viral videos, movie posters, and even Twitter accounts.

Let me explain how these two worlds collide.  

Set on Broadway -- again in the world of dirty realism explored by Carver -- Birdman (the film) inhabits the world of the stage, of theater critics and the gatekeepers I mentioned. This is the world of Shiner, Dickson, and literary masters.  This world is small, cliquish and has hard/fast rules. It is a world guarded by reputations of literary excellence (Carver), starving-but -committed actors who commit to roles, not to fame or fortune, and by critical gatekeepers who assure that pretenders are not allowed in.  

If such pretenders do break in, they are exposed as fakes or wannabes.

But then, the world of the popular movies -- of superheroes -- invades the world of the theater in Birdman. Reality is disrupted by Thomson’s flights of fantasy.  

These flights of fantasy are all about popular but fantastic things, works of, for lack of a better term, "low" art. 



Blood and guts battles over city streets.  

The “fever dream,” pop-cultural elements of the film invade the always-moving, always panning immersive '"dirty" reality of the theater world.

One might conclude that this is all a metaphor for real life in the 21st century. Pop culture has invaded every other aspect of the culture. It has crashed through the barriers, blowing right past the gatekeepers.  

Indeed, the gatekeepers who once existed -- folks like Tabitha Dickson -- have been replaced or co-opted by fan boy/fan girl critics who are receptive to fantasy, horror, science fiction, and comic books. 

Superhero projects, meanwhile, have matriculated from the silver screen to TV, to Broadway even.  

The pop culture keeps pushing against high culture, and keeps invading it. 

What does it accomplish by doing so? Well, it erases the boundaries between these poles; the distinctions that differentiate these forms of art.

Birdman echoes that erasing of the boundaries in its dual but paradoxical visual approach of dirty vs. magical realism.

Thomson, after confronting Dickson, realizes that he will never be able to satisfy the demands of the old, but rapidly vanishing "high" culture. 

He will never achieve the respect of the critics. They will never see him as anything but the guy who played a superhero, and who had the money to spearhead a vanity project on Broadway.

But Thomson also concludes, via his muse, Birdman, that he has a path forward.  Modern audiences are changing too. They don’t really desire philosophizing, powerful dialogue and intimate characterization. Tastes have changed, and audiences want the blood and violence of the pop culture now.  

Accordingly, Riggan amends his play (which he directs) to bring violence and blood into the theater in a “realistic” way the theater has never seen before.  


He shoots himself in the face on stage.

This act, which blows off his nose, apparently, demonstrates Riggan's total commitment to the craft of acting (so that high culture cannot complain that he is a pretender). But his pop-culture alter-ego, Birdman represents the voice that allows him to bring blood and violence to a “cerebral” or “abstract’ art form in a way that will resonate with the pop culture, and on Twitter.  

In other words, Riggan's magical realism alter ego, a superhero, has allowed him to take dirty reality to a level never before imagined on the stage.

Putting this another way, Thomson realizes he is doomed to disappoint and fail his Broadway critics unless he imports what he learned from his experience as a Hollywood actor; that blood and guts -- the populist stuff -- gets attention, approbation, and funding.

The film’s subtitle comments explicitly on the “Virtue of Ignorance.” This is no accident. 

Thomson can’t play in the world of high culture, or literary culture. He isn't that deep a thinker. He doesn't really get it.

But without understanding that material (the Carver material, specifically), Thomson honors it by making it more real and visceral than anyone would have believed possible or likely.

And let’s face it, Thomson is indeed sort of a pretender. 

He’s famous for playing a superhero, and what’s the reason he picked Carver as his source material for a debut on Broadway? 

Carver, the author of his play, once wrote Riggan an encouraging note about acting on a cocktail napkin. 

This background story is an indication that Thomson is not a deep thinker.  He doesn’t love the work for what it represents, for what it signifies, or means in and of itself. He loves it because of what it means to him, personally.  He possesses the narcissistic attributes, one might conclude, of a Hollywood actor seeking fame and fortune. Carver encouraged him to stay in acting, so now he wants to direct a Carver story.

In the last scene of the film, Thomson flies out of his hospital bed like a real bird man. 

This is not a suicide attempt any more than the action with the gun blowing off his nose was a suicide attempt. 

This is Riggan's apotheosis, his reckoning that he can achieve power and reputation in the high culture by corralling the “gutter” authenticity -- blood and violence -- of the pop culture.  

He will soar to new heights, no doubt, in a resurgent movie career because of the stunts he pulled on Broadway. He has learned, from his opening night antics, that Birdman is not character to keep hidden or locked away, but his muse.  Instead, that muse will keep him connected to the popular culture and the will/desires of the audience.

In other words. Fuck this drawing room play. 

It only becomes real once the coarse emotions, spectacular action, and violence of the pop culture make it “live” for the audience.

The schizophrenic approach to Birdman --- immersive dirty reality/flights of fantasy -- echoes the schizophrenic career of Thomson, and his attempt to reconcile those opposites. 

Instead of being embarrassed by Birdman, superheroes and so forth, Thomson finally permits that anarchic voice loose inside the staid, cerebral world of high culture.

A less judgmental view of Thomson’s odyssey in Birdman might simply involve his technique; his devotion to craft. 

He never nails his role in the Carver play (or his directorship of it) until he grasps the odd fact that the Birdman part of him -- instead of being discouraged or sublimated -- should be allowed to come out and play.  

His path to ‘finding the part’ is by using what he knows. 

And what he knows is, finally, Birdman.

If this is the case, then the film represents a different kind of reckoning, perhaps. And that is simply, that subject matter doesn’t make for pop art or high art

Rather it is one’s level of commitment to that subject that matters most.  Thomson proves that he is committed to his role and his play at a perhaps insane level.

There’s a lot going on in Birdman. 

For example, the film boasts another kind of schizophrenia or division. 

On one hand it is about Thomson and his career. But on the other hand it very reflexively seems to involve Michael Keaton and his career choices, as well. 

Is this movie Keaton’s come-back, and reach for high art acceptance? Or is it a cheeky acknowledgement that even on Broadway, you can’t escape your superhero past. 

Birdman veers so wildly between its poles of extreme, immersive dirty reality and flights of fantasy or magical reality that it is bound to confound some audiences, or frustrate those seeking tonal consistency. Yet Birdman’s clashing forms of art are also a fact of life, as Michael Keaton’s involvement testifies.

One day you’re Batman, the next you’re Hamlet, or Willy Loomis.  

The dirty little secret, perhaps, of all good actors is that the experience of playing Willy Loomis and Hamlet not only can inform your turn as Batman.  

Oppositely, Batman can also inform -- can make or break -- your portrayal of Hamlet or Willy Loomis.

If that's really true, says Birdman, then the dichotomy between pop art and high art is finally dead. 

It's all the same thing, and Tabitha Dickson is a lonely voice in the wilderness, arguing for a dead kingdom. 

Popularity, to quote Shiner, is no longer "the slutty little cousin of prestige."


  1. John,

    Obviously (since it was my query), I was and am very interested in your take here, and you do not disappoint. I think that [i]Birdman[/i] is quite a film, and you touch on several of the reasons why in this excellent review. As I wrote in my original question, this film recalls for me George Cukor's [i]A Double Life[/i] (1947), in which Ronald Colman plays a past-his-prime stage star trying to rekindle his career with a production of [i]Othello[/i] that begins to intercept his life. Both films deal with actors contemplating their own reputations and legacies and deal with the issues you so thoroughly elucidate about high vs. low art (though Inarittu's film more directly deals with this, the fact that Ronald Colman's character of Anthony John is a stage, and not film, actor is noteworthy). (I think the two might make for an interesting double-bill (as would [i]Birdman[/i] and [i]Black Swan[/i], a pair of films suggesting lengths performers go to for their art.) Part of the weight behind Colman's performance is the fact that he starred in that film years after his last true film triumph, as though he was making a final statement that he still was master of his craft, and there is a similar meta-quality to the casting of Michael Keaton. Obviously, this gets read as a sort of followup to his two takes on Batman, and given how much of the current superhero film trend has been linked to Tim Burton's take on the Dark Knight, this becomes, as you note, a commentary on the entire genre.

    I think the sliding it does into magical realism is part of what lifts the film in my mind to another level--the whole world seems potential overturned at points, which is heightened with the (seemingly out-of-nowhere) moments of telekinesis & levitation, as well as the possible psychic breaks in which Birdman appears. One thing that I just realized during your review, however, is that the Birdman isn't older--Riggan is. Because we're watching an older Keaton, in my head I was making the superhero alter ego aged as well, but he's still the in-his-prime hero, the lurking shadow of Riggan's youth, and that, to me, makes the visions that much more haunting.

    Thanks for the great food for thought.

    1. Thank you, Hugh, for asking such a great question, and spurring me to write about this filmmaker and his recent works. I loved Birdman and The Revenant, but on rewatch found that I actually preferred the intellectual dance and amusing Birdman. Both great films, but Birdman is a one-of-a-kind.

  2. Anonymous8:23 PM

    Thanks, Maybe I should give this one a second watch. To be honest, it reminded me a lot of JCVD (2008) which I enjoyed more. Though, that may be just because I'm not a very deep thinker. I'd love to see you review that film, which I believe is underrate but has built a small following.

    For me JCVD just felt more real: like it was impossible to tell where the man stopped and the character began, and this made the film feel more tragic and his search for redemption more touching.