Where I come from, Kerala in India, there is a folk theatre form called ‘Theyyam’ which has performers dancing out the tales of mythology to the varying beat of the drum, and that is what struck me first about the use of the jazz beat to which the actors dance in and out of character. Birdman was a movie I had been waiting for the entire second half of last year, but was rewarded only recently. After two hours of the most intricately powerful drama, and gathering my thoughts about the same, I can confidently say that Alejandro Inarritu’s latest is one to stand the test of time, with the volumes it has to speak to the world at large. Pregnant with its thought-manure on popularity, existence and art itself, the film descends into a river of the meta, with references thrown all over the place in a none too messy manner, all the while not getting ahead of itself. If the intention of cinema is to send out a message, this is the one where it succeeded.
Birdman is about a range of subjects, but more than anything it tells the wretched yet redeeming story of existence and what it means to be part of history, but not have a stake in the present. The surrealism that it slips in the midst of grounded conversation, mostly directed from the towering figure and voice of the titular suited hero, it manages to do effortlessly and this pays off in an elation of the cranial sensation, bringing the enriching thought to peak. The first question that comes to your mind on starting the film is: ‘Why is Michael Keaton floating in the air?’It is a question left unanswered for most of the film, but that is probably fortunate considering the element of ethereality and magnificent weirdness that it brings to the experience. The character Riggan Thompson is a washed up movie star – a man who peaked in his tender years when he played the domineering man-in-tights, Birdman – and this divide in his ego is brought to surface through the switched tone. The viewer constantly finds themselves off the ground beneath, a place that usually stands for one’s comfort zone but here is twisted to be Riggan’s torturous dark half to his home up in the skies. This play of double sides of the same one is kept up throughout the stage, through every character and every word they utter; a conflict of the subconscious at arms with itself. The temptation that is Birdman swoops in and out of Riggan’s life, the life of a man trying to hold on fast to the ground, so that he may reclaim the stage he once owned from the sky. It is the same with Norton’s character of Mike Shiner, who knows his real self every time he takes the stage, while grappling with a mask over his off-stage persona; as with Riggan’s daughter – a girl bridging herself between the cynicisms that come with her age and the futile calls of a failed father. A most interesting facet of the film is the constant tension between Riggan’s fleeting self and Mike’s mightier-than-thou attitude, a two-faced coin we see several times throughout.
The most talked about ‘virtue’ of the film is the insanely ambitious task that Inarritu achieved, that of conducting his sets and actors to seem it all to be a single one-take shot, and it was simply marvellous to watch, I must say. But there is more to this than meets the eye, just as the singular gimmick that this year’s Boyhood buzz was all about, as has this satire’s significance been reduced to an undisputedly masterful technical feat. And as masterful as it was, there is also a deeper meaning for such a use of camera: to add to the meta-satire by crafting the film like a one-stage play, making the whole experience a rant on itself. Indeed Birdman is not free of all evils of mainstream production that is professes, rather it highlights them so that conversation can be had no doubt, about itself. The moving set and frame, usually following a character around (with the occasional exception of a hall or screen) strung together with a stream of jazz beats, rolling from one to the next, diversified with tone, imparts a candid and theatrical shade to the character-drama that it is. The beat is seen on closer notice to reflect the brain-impulses of Thompson, who has cymbals crashing in his head as he expresses his anger toward the unrelenting Birdman ego.
There is no better choice for the role of the conflicted Riggan Thompson, a man trying to make his presence felt in the art years after his one memorable performance as a winged crusader in a black-and-gold suit, than Michael Keaton who is, well, just about the same person. To a point, it can be read that Keaton is playing himself, but the nuances in emotion and acting itself that he brings to the show is revealing, and is a testament to his talent, as it especially is in his on-stage scenes, where although quite woven in, he manages to thrust in a different persona while performing the play. As he is practising his acting performance during his actual performance which might just be a mirror of himself, Keaton dances the thin line between expert know-all and the oblivious, honest and masked, and on a overarching progressive arc. It is quite apt that this soliloquy on acting and the art that their profession can create can muster more than few naked (some in the literal sense) and remarkable performances to boast of. Michael Keaton is most definitely the master of subtleties, constantly in a hurried tone that slows down ever so slightly for his stage, as it should. His natural age also hands him a platter of advantages, notably one of conveying his at-odds mental state through his most illustrious wrinkles. His tone is off-handed and irritated for the most, not entirely satisfied with anything that happens around him; and this built up tension is teased to explode, and when it does so, it delivers either some of the most insightful drunken rant on critics or with a squawk, floats up above the skyscrapers, looking down at all the people who he wants to be remembered by. What Riggan fears is the generalization that he might just fall into, pushed in by hordes of critics and bloggers who do not see him for what he is, something only his feathered friend seems to notice. It is this fear of being categorized that inflicts the desire in him to be exposed amazingly for all the world to see, and is what grants him that twinkle in his eye and the sheer euphoria while walking down the thronging streets of New York, dressed in tighty-whities and nothing more. The film relishes the thought of mental nudity, being the final stance of a person who has placed all his chips on the last game for his own existence.
Zach Galifianakis was to me, one of the most transformative performances that surprised me to no length, as he leaves his birth-ground of comedy to provide for once, the voice of reason and practicality in the passion-driven stage of Broadway. As Riggan’s lawyer, he is also a personification of the necessary evil that Riggan considers his grounded self to be. It seems that he is the one deciding the tone of Riggan’s beat, the one conducting the drums through the disaster that is the backstage, as he exasperatingly negotiates with the theatre-owners and their financers. Edward Norton, always one of my personal favourites, plays the most honest character he has portrayed in ages with this hateful man who thinks too much of himself while at the same time, understanding that his reality exists within the limits of the curtain, or at least the reality he wishes to inhabit. It is a known fact that Norton is not the most co-operative or the easiest to handle on set, and it seems as though taking up the reins from Keaton, Norton is also satirizing his own persona through the character of Mike Shiner – a wretched man who holds himself as a connoisseur of the finer arts, full of despise, perhaps shaded by jealousy, for superstardom and the masses of fandom that are commanded by half-good actors in suits of armour. He is a man who exudes a fraudulent air of someone who doesn’t care about anything, and yet falls prey to the sliest of temptations, from envy to lust. And with Emma Stone and Naomi Watts both rendering a darker side to their characters, broken and without self-respect, the film paints a wide canvas, one being in constant attempt to climb the ladders, and the other living in constant denial of such frivolous optimism.
Of course such a meta-satire on cinema and the theatrical arts themselves is expected to have a number of off-handed snide comments on the supposed vices of mainstream cinema, from tin-man suits to Michael Fassbender, and this is surely not lacking in that area. In fact, while keeping true to the overall theme of existence through art, Birdman also delivers sermons on art criticism, the difference between the creator and the judge, and at times unwarranted elevation of dramatic theatre above other blockbuster art. While there are problems with the view that the film takes in giving art a hierarchy, all is resolved with the bizarre yet all-the-more inspirational finish which nonetheless leaves little in Riggan’s life with solution. Perspective is what is gained, and the ‘unexpected virtue of ignorance’ is what catches up with all of us in the end. Riggan takes on the stage three times in the length of the film – the first where he tries to stick to formula, and it ends up that Mike ruins it on the whole as he clearly isn’t in control; the second wherein after deriving an unprecedented rush from the crowds who love Birdman, he masters the stage and takes control in an out-of-the-books play; and thus finally culminating in the understanding that he sources from his inspiration, making him realize that true life is to be pumped into his performance to give birth to art. This may very well be seen as an extensive satire of his understanding that the people are hungry for deviance from the normal, and a splatter of real blood across the stage on which the actor played his life was the right answer.
There are many ways to interpret the film, but there is only one judgment – one which will not be the cause of angry rants from the stars – of a stellar film that succeeds cleverly in bridging the alienated gap between art and the high-tuned drama. A veracious take on existence, art and so many other things that each of our insignificant lives are made of, Birdman soars to great heights in our minds as a thought-provoking letter to the world. Taking on the dilemma of a deprived limelight, Inarritu is able to guide us precisely through the surreal thought of an egotist as he indulges in his ego. Add this deep philosophy to the immense talent strewing it about and with each other in an artistic give-and-receive, and you have on your hands a masterpiece. Birdman has every right to be crowned with ‘perfection’, as from its ambitious direction to the very naked thoughts it converses, this raspy voice has a lot to tell us, and all of us are here to listen.