Birdman’s story is awards season catnip, a foolproof middle-brow example of Oscarbait if ever there was one. It’s all right out of the playbook. Let’s check the boxes, shall we? An aging, past-his-prime central performer in a showy role? Check. Said performer playing a loose-version of himself in real life? Check. A talented cast of supporting players doing some of their best work in smaller roles? Check. Commentary on aging and performance? Check. The theater? Check. Monologues? Double Check. Add in some long takes and you’ve got Birdman, right?
Well, kind of, except director and co-writer Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu decided to wholly and absolutely decimate the film’s middle-brow core with a blast of pure lightning in a bottle. His chief delivery mechanism: Emmanuel Lubezki long takes. Or, long take might be more appropriate, for the film unfolds as if through one movie-length single-take . Of course, there’s trickery afoot, but the seems are noticeable only because those who pay attention to showy long takes know a quick, hectic camera movement usually means a cut lies hidden within.
For the film’s duration, when the camera isn’t busy cutting, it chooses to spend its time breathing down the neck of one Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) as he skulks about the backstage of and side streets around a New York City theater attempting to restart his career in a more respectable light by adapting Raymond Carver’s play “What we Talk About when we Talk About Love”. Sounds easy enough, right? But Riggan is hunted down by himself at all angles. Sometimes his ego is more subtle, such as a starry-eyed look or a strutting swagger with more than a hint of the un-earned. Often, though, his past is more concrete, in the form of the nagging, ever-present weight held on him by the mega-blockbuster superhero franchise, Birdman, he headlined twenty years ago. Or a daughter he doesn’t validate, or a lover he doesn’t see as anything other than a manifestation of himself. Versions of himself surround him, and they refuse to let go. He haunts himself, and he does it through everything he can find: people, locations, little details he sets up almost so they can cause him to fall. Mostly, though, he’s just haunted by that insidious camera. It won’t leave him alone.
The effect of said camera is seamless and stunning, playing itself with a nervy energy and jazz-like improvisation. If most cameras stay back and “let” the story tell itself, this one dives in with youthful vigor. It’s always there – it never leaves Riggan, for he can’t leave himself. The effect goes beyond bombastic and into numbing. And speaking of jazz, the staccato, ever-punctuating musical score, almost 100% jazzy drums, is positively relentless and perfectly matched to the unending, formless nature of the visual blast of primal power Lubezki gives us – it’s essentially the same few notes over and over again, permeating everything, and never letting us find ups and downs in Riggan’s life. It’s all one big monotonous blur.
Both are playful, yet neither ever let us feel comfortable rattling around in Riggan’s brain. Long takes are typically used for a wide variety of reasons, but the center link between them is to establish a sense of cohesive structure. Lubezki and Gonzalez Inarritu not only manage to technically explore the long take perhaps more than any pair ever before, but they give it the finger in doing so. Instead of striving to convey cohesive narrative, they use it in pointedly disjointed, even contradictory ways. Primarily, they establish a sense of confusion and disjointed worry by following Riggan on end, and never letting him or us get comfortable with a literal cut of the tension. It moves around him like a whirlwind, capturing the myriads of free-form ideas battling for control of his head and placed right on top of each other, never marked by logical separations or conventional narrative flow. By denying us these conventions, the film puts us right up in Riggan’s brain and captures the formlessness and unending nature of his mind mid-freefall
Yet, at its most radical the camera seems like Riggan’s mind has actually left his physical presence and gone off to spy on other characters, dissociated from Riggan but sharing his ever-curious desire to judge others. Its unchained, vertiginous odyssey around Michael Keaton’s weary face soon approximates not only his mind in distortion, but another outside perspective, poking and prodding, judging, beckoning, and generally stepping all over his already fractured consciousness. It doesn’t conform, in other words, to the tendency for the long take to convey one cohesive perspective, for it actively depicts a man who no longer has the privilege of a singular perspective. The net effect, of a camera at once of Riggan and wholly not Riggan, uncannily captures the character beside himself, torn within his own mental consciousness. The camera plays around in Riggan’s mind. But it may be that Riggan’s mind, more than anything, is playing around with itself.
Birdman, and Birdman’s camera-work, is all the more shocking for exposing something heretofore untold about Gonzalez Inarritu: a sense of comic zing and caustic, blackened humor. His previous films have been dirgey, solemn affairs dealing primarily in doom and gloom. The worry here is that the flighty visual sense would conflict with such leaden storytelling. But there’s no reason to fear, for Gonzalez Inarritu displays a commanding understanding of his material and elevates it to worried, anxious comedy that mocks Riggan as much as it attempts to understand him. Elsewhere, the fun he has with the theater gives other late-year Oscar hopefuls a kick in the teeth, poking at characters with lived-in, little details like set design and costume (Edward Norton, who plays a bad-boy theater star is graced with a perfectly self-conceited ensemble that conveys his holier-than-thou indifference better than anything in the film).
Best of all, the camera itself adopts the most devilish grin for the comedy, dancing around people like figurines and moving from passive follower to active participant in the mayhem and self-destruction. There’s a tendency in film circles to claim that the long take is a largely observational gesture, something done to connect little details in the environment without ever commenting on the implications of this environment. There’s a tendency to validate, in other words, the little details observed and not prescribed to us. Birdman’s camera, whoever he or she may be, is having none of this. It isn’t ready to observe its characters; it’s ready to screw up their day. It’s a deeply prescriptive film for this reason, and it isn’t even always sure what its prescription is.
Oh yeah, and Michel Keaton is in this movie, or so I am told. And he is playing a man who played Birdman twenty years ago and hasn’t done much since. Oh, snap, wait a minute, Keaton played Batman twenty years ago and hasn’t done much since. Would you look at that, a coincidence for the ages for all of us to snuggle up in bed with meta-commentary. But, seriously, the stunt-casting on display here is almost as successful as the stunt-directing, completely blowing any concerns of gimmickry out the window as Keaton gives undoubtedly his best, most lived-in, most dangerous, most charismatic, and most forceful performance ever. It’s a work made for superlatives; he insists on himself in the way the camera does, and he isn’t afraid to show it either.
Fittingly, he’s playing a theater actor, or rather, or rather an actor given to the indulgence and broad portrayals prone to theater actors. With the rigidity of the cold, hard line between “life” and “performance” increasingly a non-issue, this sort of “big” acting would seep into the life of a man always out to prove in every waking moment that he is a Capital-A Actor, and it’s entirely fitting for Keaton to act in a desperately broad way as he does here – it is the character, and it gives us a sense of a man lost to acting, and lost to himself. Come to think of it, the film has quite a bit of fun with “acting” in general in the way it forces its actors to intentionally “act” on camera, but Keaton takes the case for earning the layers upon layers of contrived meta-narrative the film heaps on his shoulders. He holds everything up like he’s been waiting for twenty years for it. Maybe he has.
Flaws aside, Lubezki, Gonzalez Inarritu, Keaton, and co. have clearly found their playground with Birdman, and they are doing more to play around in it than just about any artist types this year. Even if they do bend the rules a little bit and do things the playground shouldn’t conceivably allow them to do, they’re undoubtedly having fun while they do it. And so what if the film occasionally lapses into visual showmanship for the sake of it? It’s wonderful, fidgety, impatient, skittish, restless visual showmanship the likes of which we don’t see much in Oscarbait films anymore, a sort of grandstanding mass of implacable energy meant to do all manner of weighty things. But mostly it’s just desperate to get out and entertain in an omnivorous, take-no-prisoners kind of way, and that is exactly what it does.
That Birdman has plenty to say about the state of modern filmmaking, that it turns the mirror around and reflexively stares Hollywood in the face with equal portions of sugar and spice and never directly demonizes or sermonizes to Hollywood, that it reflects a certain unspoken anxiety and tension deep within the bowels of Hollywood about its relevance to modern society; all of these are valid reasons for the film’s greatness. But most valid of all is that it attests to all of these things with an eye for cinema, creating a product that at the core could only ever be cinema, that draws its power from the visual language of cinema, and that shoots the language of cinema into the future.
Score: 9/10 (updated post-second viewing around Oscar season)