A fictional film! AT LAST. After a slate of screenings of, and trailers for, “true stories” at last we come to a completely original, FICTIONAL story. The curse is ended, and originality prevails! Rather than a historical, emotional roller-coaster, we now have a surreal tale of an aging Hollywood actor trying to throw off the shackles of his blockbuster days by pursuing his more artistic desires that also doubles as a clever parallel of the lead actor’s real life career-
…wait…YOU TRICKED ME!
Now Showing this week is Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), directed by Alejandro G. Inarritu. Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a washed up actor known for his roles as the superhero Birdman in some early 90s blockbusters and is now trying to regain some sense of relevance by directing and starring in a Broadway play. Riggan hopes the production, which is an adaptation he wrote of one of his favourite author’s short stories, will lead him to be remembered for something truly brilliant and artistic rather than simply as “the guy who used to be Birdman.” The film begins the day before the first public preview of the play, and complications with a new actor being brought in, Riggan’s failed relationship with his family and a ruthless critic run the risk of tearing the production, and Riggan’s livelihood, asunder.
If you didn’t know already, Birdman‘s clever connection to reality is that Michael Keaton, much like Riggan, is an actor very well known for portraying Batman in the late 80s and early 90s before turning down further sequels and kind of disappearing into obscurity. Yes he’s appeared in bit parts now and then, ranging from appearances in The Simpsons to 30 Rock and most recently in the reboot of Robocop, but nothing tremendously noteworthy or leading-man-esque since his stints as the Dark Knight. Fast forward to now, and he is appearing in a very artsy, clever film that has thrown him into the spotlight and reignited his career, with an Oscar nomination for Best Actor as well as winning the Golden Globe in the same category. So while the character of Riggan is speaking out for typecast actors everywhere, he is also Keaton speaking for himself. Furthermore, the film contains a significant dialogue between artists and critics which I personally struggled with, given I’ve represented both sides of the argument, but was a joy to ponder.
But at the film’s core, Birdman is about artists suffering for their art, in a similar vein to Black Swan several years ago. Where Black Swan was about dancers, and the physical and emotional toll that industry brings, Birdman focuses on actors and all the different problems they can suffer from. Possibly my favourite aspect of Birdman, as an actor myself, was seeing each member of Riggan’s cast representing a different type of actor. There was Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a talented actor whose arrogance and ego has completely ruined his ability to function outside of performing; Lesley (Naomi Watts), a woman so driven to become a star that she is constantly on the verge of breaking; and the actor Shiner is replacing, Ralph (Jeremy Shamos), who can’t perform powerful emotions as anything other than intense expressions. And lastly there is Riggan, who is killing himself, personally and professionally, for something that in all likelihood won’t be a success. It was both hilarious and nostalgic to see all these personalities clashing, and it is most certainly an extra layer of enjoyment for anyone who has worked in the performing arts.
In further comparisons to Black Swan, Birdman is very surreal. But unlike Black Swan, the surreal aspects feel very firmly established outside of the reality of the film. Riggan is constantly struggling against the berating internal monologue of Birdman himself, who also occasionally physically manifests to wreck havoc as Riggan’s immense anger. It was clear when the events unfolding on screen were the product of Riggan’s delusions, with the sole exception of the film’s conclusion. The film’s final moments felt a little bit off, as I struggled to believe the results of certain characters’ actions. No spoilers here, but suffice it to say that if you hate interpretive endings then you’re going to be pissed.
Returning to the surreal aspects for a moment, one of Birdman’s best attributes is its cinematography. The film is presented as a single take, using clever edit points to maintain the flow of the camera panning through the Broadway theatre and surrounding streets. Special effects were kept to a minimum, bar one instance that was AWESOME, and the whole thing felt very natural despite the onscreen weirdness. It must be seen on the big screen, it looks that good.
Before I wrap up, let’s talk about the performances. They are all, regardless of part size, stunning. Keaton shines as Riggan (probably because is kind of playing himself), showing us a very honest performance. His outburst scenes were one thing, but his ability to express the intention behind his character’s smaller moments was what really sold him for me. Edward Norton was deliciously arrogant as Shiner, from his first wanky rehearsal session to the chaos his “process” brings. As Riggan’s daughter Sam, Emma Stone gave a standout performance in one particular scene where she monologues all of Riggan’s problems. While there was a hint of exposition to it, her delivery made it seem more natural and, as a result, a much stronger punch in the guts. All three deserve their Oscar nominations, but as to their worthiness to win? I’ll need to see all the others first.
Birdman might just be my pick for Best Picture at the moment. Granted, I have not yet seen all the others so this may change, but where The Imitation Game gave me a powerfully emotional story, The Grand Budapest Hotel an example of gorgeous cinematography, Birdman gave both along with an intellectual discussion I shall be ruminating on for many more days to come. It may be too weird a film for some, but I would highly recommend you check it out.
See you next time!
*bird topics not guaranteed