I often find myself wrapped up in writing about Story in film. I like Story. I get into the grit and value of the feels of movies- the way they play emotions and the way writers employ outside influences. Sometimes, though, there’s a story that screams cinema beyond interests of plot and dialogue- pacing and motion, the way the camera moves in, out and around…a story so beautifully envisioned on camera that I can’t separate the underbelly plot from the visceral montage sequences and the blend of sounds and music throughout. ‘Birdman’ is one of those films that refuses to be pulled limb from limb. You watch, it drives: welcome to the cinematic journey.
At this point, you may already know that in this film Michael Keaton plays celebrity actor Riggan Thomson who’s claim to fame is his successful role, “Birdman”- a superhero of Batman-like fame in filmmaker Iñárritu’s stage-small world of Times Square NYC. We start watching when Thomson is struggling to gain fanfare for his first Broadway production. Audiences are immediately positioned in the midst of his peculiar delusion: he is Birdman. His security as a performer is shot because he never truly acted, he was just famous. This is about a celebrity proving his chops in the face of no one wondering. It’s about an actor proving himself to himself in front of everyone who will look- they validate his world by watching him perform for the sake of his own image. So, he levitates, he breaks glass, he crushes unworthy stage-fellows, and, as he faces more intense naysaying, he blows up buildings and flies. Interestingly, I mean he thinks he does- we don’t see him commit unearthly acts. The camera swerves to his hip or head unsteadily transferring us from his thoughts of power to his imagining of being Birdman- the character everyone knows and paid to see in theaters, but whom no one takes seriously. The strange juxtaposition is more than an artistic musing in film form. Iñárritu explores the question of celebrity versus “true” performance so expertly that it borders looking political…almost like an attack on materialism.
In order to make a good impression, Thomson and his right-hand man (lawyer) Jake, played by Zach Galafianakis, employ lauded stage actors to support Thomson’s lead in the show. Edward Norton plays Mike, a mentally bloated but talented method actor who exists in flesh and blood only on stage. We see the examples of this as he walks his way around the winding fun house that is backstage at a Broadway theater house: he hits on anyone he wants, tests his colleagues, and while can’t he get it up in private he bears no hesitation to do so on stage. He is the Theater Actor- the one in his element on a stage, live. Thomson has come to be recognized on the street in the name of his fame, but he has not gained the inner feeling of success that drives Mike. They mirror each other: the two halves of the vision of success that can’t seem to come together without dramatic happenings leading them into fantasy. The camera spins and turns and closes in on camera lens to allow us to feel as claustrophobically driven to understand the grind of the protagonist in the made-up but very realistic world built by the filmmaker: painted in muddy green and violent yellow-tinged shadows, the aggressive dance of values between Thomson and his daughter (played with spectacular balls by Emma Stone), the peacock punches Thomson shares with Method Actor Mike, his gentle understanding of the leading lady, Lesley, played by Naomi Watts- a gritty, applause worthy performance, indeed.
Once Thomson reaches the height of his delusions, when instead of falling on his face he dramatically falls *through* his face by accidentally shooting off his own nose onstage, in that achy blue tainted hospital room, the story curves in on itself. He’s told by his lawyer/friend that he succeeded. How? He got everyone’s attention. He got hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter. He held attention for longer than a single string of 140 characters: 24 hours of renewed fame, coinciding with his stage performance. This is success. Of course this is anticlimactic for the protagonist who wanted to be the real Birdman: The Actor, with passion and palpable talent who is widely RT’d. And that’s when, upon reflection, the bandaged, very Twitter famous Riggan Thomson exits through the window. By the look on his daughter’s face- pure joy- it is not a jump, but a soaring leap. We end where we started with him. We imagine with him that he’s flying over New York, above the masses who worship him not only with their dollars and precious time, but like a god. Success.