“Birdman”: Dancing with the Devil in the Broadway Lights


My expression most of the time while watching.

Two weeks ago we drove to the other side of the city to see Birdman in the only art-film theater in Indianapolis. I’m annoyed that it later opened more widely and is now showing at two theaters much closer to home, but there’s no use crying over wasted gas. Ever since then I’ve been struggling to translate my reaction into words that capture my enthusiastic response without being mere labels. There’s a scene about that, and it’s been bugging me ever since.

If you know the movie only from its elliptical ads, you’ll quickly learn Birdman is not slapstick superhero spoof. This isn’t Condorman or Superhero Movie with better effects and a more famous cast. Satire is one of the film’s numerous modes, but costumed metahumans and the summer action blockbusters they inhabit are just a couple of the many subjects facing the scrutiny of director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel), who’s more interested in deeper goals than in brainstorming cheap Batman jokes.

Short version for the unfamiliar: Birdman is about the trials and tribulations of a motley crew of actors trying to put on a Broadway show without anyone sensible enough to tell them they’re doing everything wrong. Hilarity and stage gaffes ensue. It’s another loony backstage send-up like Soapdish, State and Main, Living in Oblivion, 30 Rock, Tootsie, and dozens more.

Well, that’s the bare chassis underneath, anyway. Take two:

Michael Keaton is a guy who used to do super-hero films and no one ever lets him forget it. Edward Norton is an intense Method actor who sees everyone around him as props he uses to make Art. Emma Stone isn’t the main character, but she’s more together than many of the melodramatic showoffs who surround her. Zach Galifianakis wishes everyone else would shut up, take him seriously, and listen to what he has to say. On a related note, these four thespians also play characters in Birdman.

…sorry, couldn’t resist. Take three:

Keaton is former star Riggan Thomson, a Hollywood has-been who’s writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway play because he’s in desperate need of respect and/or attention, though money would be a plus. Stone is his daughter and sort-of assistant, coming off her own therapy issues and rolling her eyes every time Dad opens his mouth. Norton is the critically acclaimed stage star who joins the cast as a last-minute favor and has his own ideas about How Things Should Work. Galifianakis is Thomson’s producer, manager, attorney, and de facto babysitter. Everyone’s at odds, nothing’s going right, the previews are a joke, and Riggan’s psyche is still being harangued by the imaginary creepy-stalker voice of the cheesy super-hero he played in three popular movies two decades ago. Can his precious Raymond Carver adaptation make it to opening night without flopping, and before everything falls apart?

Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Riggan’s well-meaning production includes choice female roles for Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough (Happy-Go-Lucky). Offstage, Riggan sometimes answers to his ex-wife Amy Ryan (The Wire, The Office). Venturing deeper behind the curtains, I also recognized the faces of Merritt Wever from Studio 60, in which she played much the same backstage-sidekick role, and Clark Middleton, the weird bookshop owner from Fringe who was last seen this year in Snowpiercer.

Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Birdman has so many levels playing out at once that my wife and I were taking turns naming them on the drive home. See the film for yourself and follow one or more thematic threads:

* Hollywood blockbuster satire! As Riggan’s mental state deteriorates and reality slides out from under him, eventually the EXPLOSIONS! in the trailers make more sense and his true feelings about his resumé comes to the forefront. It may be no coincidence that Keaton’s fellow players have their own big-budget box-office-smash experiences to draw from and/or rue as the veteran costars of The Incredible Hulk, Amazing Spider-Man, King Kong, Oblivion, The Hangover, and more. (Related Easter egg: keep an eye out and you’ll see a Man of Steel ad in one distant background. If that’s a coincidence, it’s a pretty funny one.)

* Roman à clef about the pitfalls of fading stardom and weak comebacks. Riggan’s life is fraught with money issues, ignored loved ones, poor reviews, missed opportunities, bad choices, autograph seekers both judgmental and not, and a short-attention-span media, one representative of which has a rapturous fit when he misunderstands one of Riggan’s answers and thinks he’s just announced Birdman 4. Riggan’s exasperated responses speak to living the high life years beyond the point when it stopped fulfilling and started grating. And yet…this late in the game, what else can he do?

* Masks and identity! Riggan yearns to redefine himself as someone that everyone else thinks is awesome, both in the play and in real life. Norton admits he has no identity of his own except those he adopts on stage, and only then does he come alive. Other characters come and go with their personae and the little things they keep submerged. Just like Birdman himself, I’m sure.

* The time-honored respectability feud between Hollywood and Broadway. The so-called Great White Way has more than its share of high-caliber actors who enjoy long, august careers without ever gracing a single screen, all without benefit of editing, multiple takes, nine-digit budgets, or computer effects. And in the other corner, there’s Hollywood, the entertainment scene America loves best. When actors cross the No Man’s Land from one side to the other, can it be amicable or is a Hatfield/McCoy throwdown inevitable? In Riggan’s case, his past box office earns him an obligatory spotlight, but one of his worst enemies is a theater critic named Tabitha (Tony Award winner Lindsay Duncan, a survivor of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland), who despises his co-opting of the sacred theatrical arts. In her eyes theater is better than everything, hardly deserving of being reduced to an easy fallback position for a glory-seeking hack like him. To Riggan, acting is acting, and his vitriol meets hers in response. Their single title match ends in a draw, leaving the viewers to vote for the winner based on their own prejudices.

* The inherent dichotomy of Riggan’s existence: he thinks surrounding himself with fans and fame will make everything better, but lives in virtual isolation in multiple forms. He alienates his ex-wife. He’s too distracted by himself and his self-appointed, self-serving mission to connect with his daughter or his ostensible girlfriend. He avoids all social media, even though that’s a pretty easy path to fan collecting for anyone who’s ever been famous, even if their fifteen minutes expired ages ago. Even in his very perception of everyday living, he keeps himself so remote that moving objects from place to place is visually expressed for him as imaginary telekinesis. He lives life in a bubble of his own making and wonders why there aren’t any crowds hanging with him inside it.

* Is his telekinesis imaginary? What about the other unreal happenings later in the film? Are they all in his mind, or is something Fringe-like going on? Has Iñárritu ventured into magical realism or Fight Club delusion? (This level is an easy fistfight-starter for you and your friends. Have fun!)

* The comeback play is based on a decades-old short story by Raymond Carver, whom Riggan fondly remembers from a crucial moment in his youth that would change the meaning and purpose of his entire life. In his post-glamorous midlife crisis, Riggan’s scheme to lure the masses back to him is by rebooting a forgotten old thing that meant a lot to him as a wide-eyed, impressionable kid. Curiously, this is also the exact impetus for 90% of all comics, movies, TV shows, and cartoons based on toys, games, comics, movies, TV shows, and cartoons. Later in the film, one character spots a clue that undermines Riggan’s cherished memory and threatens to make a mockery of every decision and event that branched off ever after from that fixed point in time. Somewhere in there is a side moral-of-the-story that maybe sometimes fixating on stuff from childhood isn’t the most effective way to form a firm foundation for our adult future.

Nitpicking? The language is relentlessly harsh, albeit native to the environment, all things considered. Any inattentive, uninformed parents who see a super-hero suit in the ads and immediately load the kids into the SUV for an afternoon matinee are in for a whole lot of shock and befuddlement.

So did I like it or not? The imbalance of typing between the last two sections speaks for itself. Birdman offers a lot to ponder, a lot to sort through, a lot to decipher, and a lot to appreciate wherever your head’s at. Even on a visual level, everything’s all experimental overachiever. Nearly all of it was filmed and edited to appear as one long tracking shot, like Hitchcock’s Rope but with the added benefit of computers to seal the cracks and simulate instant time passage. I like to think most of the transitions were naturally seamless, just like a real, unforgiving, unstoppable Broadway play. The nonstop continuity, the claustrophobic immediacy in those narrow playhouse backrooms, and the haunting image of that nondescript audience beyond the stage edge all combine to turn the world of Birdman into a dark, psychologically intimidating closet where it’s easy to turn paranoid and forget who you really are and what you believe.

Nowhere was this more evident to me personally than in the scene where Emma Stone drops her disaffected-young-adult facade for the longest minute in the world and tears Riggan’s soul out with a visceral verbal flaying that someone’s helpfully posted on YouTube (NSFW: language). Her words and vehemence strike down to his deepest fears about his own relevance and whether or not his work and his existence even matter to anyone anymore. The scene begs more questions of whether or not validation is something we really need, how much our self-worth is based on what we think others think of us, and how daunted we become if we dwell for too long on how/why some people’s lives seem to “mean” more than ours.

(Let’s face it: it’s a point that’s uncomfortably relatable for a lot of us who write, draw, act, joke, post, tweet, or art for a living or for a hobby, on the internets or otherwise.)

Toward the end, Riggan and his daughter cap off their conflicts with a denouement that rightly suggests the singular connections we make are more important than the crowdsourced ones. If the audience is happy and entertained, that’s great, but fans and paying customers maybe shouldn’t be the most important people in our lives.

…anyway: so far on my scorecard, Birdman is Best Film of the Year.

How about those end credits? No, there’s not exactly a scene after the Birdman end credits per se. While the names roll on, we’re treated to more uptempo sounds from jazz drummer Antonio Sanchez, whose invigorating handiwork is 98% of the movie’s score. Behind those beats is the ambient noise of Manhattan street life, punctuated at the very end with a guy shouting something in Spanish. Unfortunately I took German in high school, so I have no idea what he said. Rats.

3 responses

  1. Randall, the depth of your analysis, of Birdman and human nature in general, is thought provoking. I’m not sure most people would recognize all of the themes you mention. This one goes on the “must see” list, and all because of your recommendation.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Sunday Reads: 11/23/14 | Jason C. Stanley

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