Leading the Academy Awards this year with 9 nominations, it was no surprise that “Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, brought home four prestigious awards for Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Director and Best Picture. The film reaches an admirable balance between content and aesthetics, between reality and symbolism, serving as an in-depth exploration into the concept of artistry and a witty criticism of present-day commercial Hollywood blockbusters.
The protagonist of the film is Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), who used to be famous for his role in the Hollywood blockbuster trilogy, “Birdman.” Riggan is trying to rebuild his career with a Broadway play, an adaptation from Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”
Unsatisfied with one of his cast members, Riggan caused an accident to replace him, whose role is later filled in by Mike (Edward Norton), a volatile method actor. Although it seems to be the perfect choice at first, Riggan realizes that the pretentious Mike is stealing his spotlight. At the same time, he finds out that Mike and his daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), are flirting, and a well-known critic, Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan), is more than willing to “kill” his artwork.
The central theme of “Birdman” is artistry, which Inarittu chooses to explore in depth instead of breadth. The film revolves around the tension between film and theater, two visual art forms, which have been going on for decades, and the artist’s desire for fame and recognition. The representative of film—or more specifically, Hollywood films—is the voice inside Riggan’s head, that of his inner “Birdman.” This imaginary character talks Riggan into making another blockbuster, giving him superpower, flying him over New York City, injecting into his subconscious a sense of self-superiority over ordinary people. It serves as a symbol for Riggan’s pride. The typography of the poster, which places the “I” in “BIRDMAN” slightly higher than others, also signifies the ego.
Furthermore, this “Birdman” functions as a subtle criticism of the star system in Hollywood, who are revered as gods but, in essence, normal human beings. The magnificent scene in which Riggan hovers in the sky also refers to the overuse of special effects in blockbusters, a tactic commercial filmmakers use to attract young theater-goers in this age of the “world picture,” the domination of the image. The specific choice of the character “Birdman” also echoes “Batman,” “Spiderman,” “Superman,” and “Ironman,” a criticism of countless superhero blockbusters that are known more for visual pleasure than creative content. Riggan, widely known for playing “Birdman,” dazzled by the ephemeral spotlight, is now struggling with life and on the verge of losing his career. Easy come, easy go. The short-lived memory of celebration is fading.
On the other side of the frontline is theater–Riggan’s attempt to relive “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” The reference to Constantin Stanislavski’s method acting, which is based on improvisation, is a sharp contrast to Riggan’s controlling personality. This controlling, perfectionist personality is also expressed in Inarritu’s aesthetic choice of filming in one seemingly long take. The camera moves constantly, but we always find ourselves in the same house or just around the corner of Times Square.
The overwhelming sense of claustrophobia haunts the film from the beginning to the very end. Is it just the architecture of the theater or the complications of Riggan’s mind, trying to transform his “Hollywood mindset” into “theater sensibilities”? The (seemingly) long take, bearing influence from “The Russian Ark,” is also a rebellious move against the cut, the signature characteristic of cinema.
I would call Riggan’s shot at his nose in the end, the climax of the film, a masterpiece. It was definitely foreshadowed, given Mike’s prior suggestion to use a real gun instead of a fake one. However, it still comes as a shock to the audience, both in the diegetic world and in our real theater space. Throughout the movie, it is apparent that Riggan’s sole purpose in producing the play is to regain the spotlight. Evidence is found in his envy for Mike, his quarrel with Sam, his superhero fantasy and his over-obsession with critic Tabitha Dickinson.
Riggan’s decision to use a real gun, to sacrifice himself for the act, is a revolution. He disregards the superficial value of fame and truly immerses himself in the play, blending his body and spirit into the flesh of the story. He has finally achieved it: becoming the character. The tremendous number of positive reviews Riggan receives afterwards, I believe, is not in his plan. Fame, now, becomes the effect of an excellent performance, not the motivation for a good act.
Shot from behind, the film also does not immediately reveal which body part gets shot. We viewers are left questioning–did he die or did he not? I sighed with relief realizing that he is still alive. But the funny part comes in–his nose is broken. This is no coincidence, since the nose is a prominent feature of Birdman. Riggan sets himself free from the temptation to go back to superhero film, to superficial acclamation.
At the very end of the movie, the viewers now have two options: going with reality or joining the fantasy world. In a reality perspective, Riggan might have killed himself by jumping out of the window, freeing his spirit from the superficial material world. However, his daughter’s smile invites us into the fantasy world. This surrealist taste implies that Riggan has become a true “Birdman,” instead of merely playing a role in a Hollywood movie.
There are a lot of remarkable elements being used in “Birdman.” The drumbeats in the background music really create a singular ambience of the theater–everyone is a rush, everything is at stake. They complement Riggan’s tangled psychological world. The use of dark colors – green and black – in the theater space, compared to the warm yellow of New York City fantasy, visually draws the contrast between reality and imagination.
However, in my opinion, the film also possesses certain weaknesses. First, I would question the character Tabitha Dickinson. She wants to destroy his Broadway career with an article, before even seeing the play. Her sole motivation comes from her contempt for Hollywood actors. Despite its justifiability, how can a prejudiced critic succeed in the world of journalism? She is portrayed as an extremely powerful writer, but her action in the film proves the opposite—she is rather narrow-minded.
The whole “Ratatouille” motif of a demanding critic who has the power to deny people’s efforts is quite cliché. Second, the alternation between reality and fantasy throughout the plotline is excellently seamless, until the taxi driver is shown asking Riggan for money. This detail crosses the line and destroys the subtlety of this bridge, providing overt proof that Riggan has been dreaming the entire time. Indulging the ambiguity, from my viewpoint, would be a better choice.
Despite a number of weaknesses, I find “Birdman” an excellent fit for “Best Picture.” It embraces both content and style, and does not let one triumph the other.
At the end, it seems as if Riggan has escaped from Iñárritu’s film itself–we never see him afterwards. He has escaped the widescreen of the cinema and perhaps, is hovering in glee out there in another world that we can only fantasize about.