Birdman (2014)

Dir. Alejandro G. Inarritu. Starring Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone

The star of Birdman is Emmanuel Lubezski, the cinematographer who at this writing has won three consecutive Oscars for Best Cinematography in three seriously stylish films: Gravity, Birdman, and The Revenant. Technically speaking, this is one of the most remarkable films of the decade. Edits are hidden so that it appears that the vast majority of the movie is one continuous shot, and even in still moments the camera does not stay in one place for long. It often bounces back and forth like a boxer in the ring or an anxious child, never quite content to hang in one place for long. It’s one of the key means of tension between Riggan (Keaton) and Mike (Norton), who are like something out of a nature documentary, and it’s one of the few reasons why this film is bearable. I don’t love every choice, obviously – there are more rooms lit in single colors than seems really useful, the Christmas colors illuminating Riggan and Laura (Andrea Riseborough) while they talk about having a baby are either too clever by half or totally witless – but for the most part the semi-darkness, the obfuscations, the penumbras of the theater and its backstage are present. Lubezski manages even to light some scenes, such as the ones in Riggan’s dressing room during daylight, in such a way that the light looks granular. It’s like watching someone reinterpreting the double slit experiment while, in the foreground, someone loses all control of himself. Lubezski, editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione, and director Inarritu deserve vast credit for a technically innovative movie which should be thought of as a template for how to create tension in a movie without a decibel of sound. Is it Russian Ark? No (and let’s not fall over ourselves to pretend it is), but it’s daring nonetheless.

Keaton and Norton are on a different planet from everyone else in this film, although in fairness they’re the only ones with anything interesting to say. The former plays a washed-up film actor, best known for his performance as the superhero Birdman roughly twenty years before the events of this film; the parallels between Riggan and Michael Keaton, who played Batman before I was born and will play the Vulture in an upcoming Spider-Man movie, are too many and too amusing to name. Casting Keaton, who is marvelous, is the funniest thing the movie does. For some reason (everyone has an opinion as to why), Riggan Thomson has put together a play which will either rehabilitate his reputation as a strong actor or bury him forever. In a desperate moment, after a piece of lighting about crushes one of his actors, Riggan manages to get acclaimed stage actor Mike (who’s unhappily married to a cast member, Naomi Watts’ Lesley) to fill the role. Riggan has put up a lot of his own money to produce this show, which he also wrote and directed aside from starring in, and Mike is not polite about it; the two of them have a fabulous first reading together, but it’s because Mike is aggressive about altering some dialogue. Things get significantly worse. Mike is dismissive of Riggan at all levels. He comes on to his daughter, Sam (Stone with eye implants), lectures him about theater, makes fun of the reason Riggan became an actor (a good review from a drunk Raymond Carver in his youth), and then uses that story as fodder for a puff piece in the New York Times. He is a magnificent, even an arresting actor, but an enormous tool. Norton, whose up-and-down film career is like a less severe version of Keaton’s, is even better in this part than Keaton is in his. Norton has one of the most eminently punchable faces in film (which really says something about Jared Leto being the most punchable-lookin’ dude in Fight Club), and that obnoxious but cooler-than-you persona erupts in this part. The balance that he and Keaton strike together is the balance that two bighorn rams have when they run at each other headfirst on a cliff; it’s incredible, despite the rough terrain, how rarely they stumble.

While everyone was arguing about which should be the favorite for Best Picture in 2014 (the great Birdman vs. Boyhood debate has really receded into the past, hasn’t it), one of the talking points I heard about Birdman was that it has a total of one scene where women talk to one another, and that ends with them making out for reasons which are never adequately expressed before, during, or after. What’s really shocking about Birdman and its women is that the film has not taken any strides between The Best Years of Our Lives and the present day. I argued about the former film (which is still a wonderful movie, don’t make that face at me):

Without those women, Homer lives upstairs in his parents’ house, brooding about his lost hands, and Fred disappears somewhere on the east coast, leaving no trace of himself. That’s read as tragic, and of course it would be deeply sad. But it is also deeply sad that Peggy and Wilma exist, in the film’s cosmology, to fix war veterans with their love and attention and affection, that in watching the film the audience comes to expect that they will retreat into someone else’s house from a job (Peggy is in nursing) or from a new opportunity (Wilma’s been dating Homer since forever).

There’s not a significant difference between the effect of women’s actions in The Best Years of Our Lives and Birdman. What if Sylvia (Amy Ryan) is just Milly all over again, deeply hurt by Al’s rejection of the handsome home she’s put together and by his ever-worsening alcoholism? What if Sam is Peggy, someone who could very easily go on with her career but who becomes most endearing when she’s with a man she’s fallen for? (If the Watts-Riseborough kiss is the most inexplicable moment in the movie, Sam’s “truth or dare” bit with Mike is the most grotsky. If Emma Stone was secretly playing a nine-year-old, then we didn’t give her enough awards for the performance.) Laura (Andrea Riseborough) is Riggan’s honey, a younger woman who can remind him of his prowess and impending impotency all at once. Women exist in this movie as they do in a movie nearly seven decades older: they exist to prove the relevancy and masculinity of men who would do better to suck it up and learn to carry on.

When Birdman isn’t re-litigating ’40s gender roles, it’s got some surprisingly Chekhovian overtones. (It certainly doesn’t remind me of Carver, whose writing is dramatic because it is pared down, not because it’s melodramatic the way that Birdman is.) I don’t just mean the Chekhov’s gun moment where Mike tells Riggan to get a different gun because the stage prop that Riggan is using isn’t scary enough, because that’s amateur hour. Riggan reminds me of Ivanov, who accuses himself of “playing Hamlet,” runs out of money, and kills his decent wife through neglect before reckoning with all of his misdeeds on his wedding day (with a young, beautiful, wealthy girl who’s decided to fix him) and shooting himself. Sam and Jake (Zach Galifianakis) play Sonya and Vanya to Riggan’s Serebryakov throughout; although we have some conception of what Riggan wants from his mediocre play, what could his daughter and his best friend possibly get out of catering to a man who’s making nothing of any value? Birdman falls short of Uncle Vanya and Ivanov in the same way it falls short of Russian Ark; the pieces are simply not as interesting. People speak the truth to Riggan about what he wants – what it boils down to is a mixture of a personal desire to do something good and a desperate hope that he’ll become relevant again – but for all the work Keaton puts into the character, it’s hard to recognize Riggan in ourselves. Many of us may feel that we’ve invested our lives in very little indeed, but few of us have had the crests that Riggan had in like, 1992. His is not the primarily the story of mental illness (which is folded in reasonably well), or the story of allying himself with something stupid, but the story of watching himself disappear when once he used to be everywhere. Treplev watches himself disappear, but it’s because he was unlucky in love and put aside by his mother. The Prozorovas disappear, but they were daughters and wives, teachers and telegraph operators. The Ranevskayas disappear, but they disappear because time has passed them by, because they’ve become suddenly poor. Chekhov’s invisible protagonists share characteristics with us. Are we really supposed to feel for a man who could be beloved again – is still beloved! – by his fans and paying customers if he’d just do another superhero movie? The film has a wall in the way of empathy, and even two hours as well-directed and well-acted as this can’t breach it.

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