Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2014)

by Christopher B. Barnett

Much of the buzz surrounding Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman has to do with the director’s technical prowess. The film is largely set in the St. James Theatre in Manhattan, and Iñárritu revels in its labyrinthine structure — his handheld camera following the actors as they dart hither and thither around the place, bounding up narrow stairwells, slipping (or tumbling!) into dressing rooms and break rooms, almost unfailingly accompanied by the chaotic percussionist score of Antonio Sánchez. Moreover, as numerous critics have noted, Iñárritu edits the film as if it were done in a single continuous take, even though it is set over a few days. As the plot barrels toward its denouement, this technique serves to heighten the urgency. We don’t so much observe the anxiety of leading-man Riggan Thompson (an Oscar-worthy Michael Keaton) as experience it ourselves. The medium, to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, assumes the message. Indeed, Birdman is the kind of film that epitomizes the very nature of cinematic art: its combination of camerawork, soundtrack, special effects, voiceover, and editing “re-present” life in a way that only film can.

And yet, is there more? Does Birdman have a message beyond Iñárritu’s considerable ability? After all, one reviewer has accused Iñárritu of essentially showing off, foregrounding technical wizardry at the expense of story. It is an interesting criticism, but is it a fair one? On the surface, at least, the plot of Birdman is not hard to comprehend. Riggan is an aging moving star, famed for his portrayal of the superhero “Birdman” but dismissed by critics as a hack. Now, with his career in decline, he has decided to return to his thespian roots, adapting Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” for the stage. It is a bold but desperate move. Riggan’s personal life is in shambles, and his cast — led by the difficult “method actor,” Mike Shiner (Edward Norton, brilliant as usual) — is comically helter-skelter. Can Riggan overcome these obstacles? Can he, after years of CGI-enhanced popcorn flicks, deliver the performance of a lifetime and, in turn, silence his critics?

So far, so good. But Iñárritu is not content with such a straightforward narrative. Thus he imbues Riggan with real (or, at least, ostensibly real) superpowers: Riggan does not just play the Birdman but, in fact, seems to be the Birdman. We see him telekinetically smash objects, and he is capable of flight. This conceit could be a grand metaphor, or, as noted, it could be mere silliness on Iñárritu’s part. What is clear is that Iñárritu has no interest in sorting out this question for the viewer — an intention that becomes unmistakable in the film’s final scene.

What, then, are we left with? Part satire, part melodrama, part fantasy, Birdman never claims an identity. It’s a postmodern film for postmodern people, whose cynicism is too flinty for either comedy or tragedy. While another film might depict Riggan’s redemption or his comeuppance, Iñárritu is content to give us neither. But, perhaps, that is the message. In the real world, Iñárritu suggests, things are rarely as they seem: superheroes may be madmen and vice versa. Moreover, there are no objective grounds for deciding between the two. One sees suicide where another sees salvation.

In Iñárritu’s capable hands, Birdman offers a punto de vista worth pondering. Yet, with Christmas fast approaching, it’s also a reminder of an older story — alas, one bearing so much redemptive pathos that Dante, with an earnestness alien to the world of Birdman, called it a “divine comedy.”

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