In a bog standard VUE Cinema myself and two of my amigos (one high) sat down to prepare for what would be 119 minutes of Michael Keaton roaming around a New York theatre in his underwear, wig or any other ridiculous costume I had seen in the trailer. Like many of the films I go to see I try and avoid all reviews, critiques and criticism; nobody makes my mind up about a film but me. However, Birdman offered what I felt was a lot more than Keaton, Norton, Stone etc. throwing a shit fit in a theatre…..A lot more!
The audience is greeted by Keaten levitating in his dressing room, meditating, gathering his thoughts, encapsulating himself in a realm of fact and fiction, drifting in and out of reality whilst listening to his inner ego (which is in fact Birdman) whilst at the same time trying to ignore it. It is his ego that provides the narration throughout the film and gently reminds the audience of Keatons successful, yet turbulent time as former comic strip character Birdman. He is suddenly interrupted by his attorney, career beacon and best friend Jake (Galifianakis) as they discuss their up and coming theatre preview.
It is here when the audience really experiences, for the first time anyway, the fast paced dialogue the characters interject between each other as well a the never ending tracking and following shots, a technique by no means new to cinema but one that is timeless, daring and emphasised BIG TIME in this film.
A number of events unfold where Keaton is forced to hire Mike (Norton), a fantastically dramatic, troubled and self-absorbed theatre actor who loathes Hollywood, and to an extent Riggan (Keaton) because of his Birdman persona and claim to fame, but is ultimately the star of the show. Mike makes his mark straight away by changing the script, disrupting the progress of the show etc. However, the film voyeuristic nature allows the audience to see how the two characters rely on each other. Riggan is a paranoid, ageing actor who has invested everything into this production including his money, emotions and reputation, where as Mike is a lost soul, drifting from theatre production to theatre production, waiting for the ultimate show to define himself as an actor and artist. If you think we’re balls deep you’re not even close.
Riggan is also confronted with another frontline of strife, his daughter, Sam (Stone…..fit). Sam is a product of a failed marriage, lack of guidance and absent father, subsequently this resulted in her becoming an alcoholic or pothead, there never is a specification. Sam, at first, is presented to us as Riggan’s PA but after time the audience identifies her as Riggan’s id (the opposite to ego), She belittles him, taunts him and reminds him of his insignificance in comparison to the grand scheme of life and that no matter how hard he tries to define himself as an actor and artist, it will amount to noting, and he will be forgotten like the rest of us. Fun ey?
So as we skip much of the story Riggan finds himself in a bar. The previews have gone, somewhat well (you can decide that I suppose) and he meets New Yorks most powerful and notorious theatre critic, Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsey Duncan). Now we’ve all seen a bitch in film but Tabitha really does take the bitch cake. She is so full of venom even I wanted to march up to her and throw her drink in her face, then spit on her, then punch her in the gob and then…..well you get the picture. Riggan confronts her and she puts him down, a symbolic reminder of a wider society referencing an individuals past to determine what one will make of themselves in the future. She does not like Riggan for his role as Birdman and ultimately, with her influential writing, plans to sabotage his theatre production. Riggan takes the news badly and drowns his sorrows by looking into the bottom of a whisky bottle (in a brown bag which is of course the done thing in America, apparently).
It is when he battles his hangover that Birdman (his ego) is at his strongest and tries to convince Riggan to give up this theatre nonsense and go back to the glory days as Birdman, sell 1 billion dollars worth of merchandise and prepare for death “happy”. Riggan declines and the mix of emotional strain, self-determination and alcohol…..as well as a bit of weed expands into his opening night. What happens next, well you’ll just have to find out for yourself.
Now then, the making of the movie. We’re all aware that a long tracking shot adds tension, allows the audience to follow the exact movements of the character and in some ways allows us to walk in their shoes. Now imagine that throughout an entire film. I have to admit that at first it made me slightly uncomfortable, however, after a while you subconsciously embrace it and enjoy it. Alejandro G. Iñárritu, the director, has created an atmosphere of tensions and anxiety while dipping in and out of lives and situations simply by walking through a door or allowing the camera to switch stories as another character walks past. The transition from day and night, fact and fiction mirrors Tony Kaye’s simple rendition of the past by simply switching to black and white. In this sense, Iñárritu has created a technique that is itself unique, which in my opinion highlights him as a true auteur.
The cinematography, helmed by Emmanuel Lubezki, is truly beautiful. He capitalises on colours, both bright and cheery to dark and depressing to dissect not only mood but time and space.
Sound is an important aspect in this film. Firstly the main setting is an old New York theatre so creaky stairs, hard floors and stage mechanics are all part of the show. It goes further than that. There is no such thing as diegetic and non-diegetic sound. If we hear the jazz drums in the background thats fine but we will soon stumble upon the source of the noise, a soulful jazz drummer busking in the street, but as soon as your mind is at rest as you know the source of the drums the film will flip that upside yo head because he’ll then be sitting in the kitchen of the theatre. The drums, in my opinion, symbolise the mounting pressure Riggan has at any given point. It is almost a signal to the audience that it is all about to kick off!
This film is ultimately about a man who wants to obtain what so many of us want to achieve: worth, success, legacy, power, money etc. It is a story of a man that has to endure all the shit one gets thrown at them when embarking on a new project or journey. Riggan, and his eccentric mind, just handle it in a slightly different way.
The film is a triumph and acts as both an enjoyable source of comedy but also deep concerning issues over individual behaviour, family, work ethic, determination and endurance. The entire film has a sad undertone which touches everyone in one way or another. It’s message is deeply haunting but at the same time inspiring and motivational. In my estimation, Birdman is a film that will not be forgotten about quickly and is a defining picture in Keaton’s, Norton’s and Stone’s careers.
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