BIRDMAN (OR ‘THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE’) directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu (USA, 2014)
From the stylish opening credits and free-jazz drumming of Antonio Sanchez’s unorthodox soundtrack, this is a movie that is keen to make an immediate impression.
It is the kind of derring-do which could so easily have backfired and then been dismissed as nothing more than brash arty-fartiness. Yet Birdman postively revels in its showiness and having a excellent supporting cast, that includes Naomi Watts and Edward Norton in prime form, means that all the risks are calculated ones.
The story revolves around Michael Keaton as Riggan Thomson, one time celluloid superhero who now feels all too human as he approaches the third age. By adapting a Raymond Carver story for a Broadway show he wants revitalise his flagging career and, in the process, demonstrate that 60 is the new 30.
Much has been made of Iñárritu’s use of a ‘one shot’ filmmaking technique but this is no Russian Ark. More than the long takes, what struck me most was how the closeness of the hand-held camerawork gives the action a wonderfully intense, claustrophobic atmosphere.
There literally seems to be little breathing space in the backstage of the theatre and makes a fight scene between Riggan and his rival Mike Shiner (Norton) all the more comic.
Birdman is a film which mocks the the movie industry yet still manages to be a celebration of cinema. It exposes the bloated and fragile egos of actors yet shows how much power and vitality derives from playing a role.
Riddim thinks he can levitate, move objects at will, cause explosions and, above all, that he can fly. Cinema can make all these things happen but in the theatre (and in real life) you cannot depend on special effects.
It is is no happenstance that an aspiring actor hangs around the theatre shouting out the Tomorrow And Tomorrow speech from Shakespeare’s Macbeth :“Life’s a walking shadow, a poor player. That struts and frets his hour upon the stage. And then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury. Signifying nothing”.
All the sense of Birdman’s self-importance is put into true context by these lines. Riddim’s daughter Sam (a superb performance from Emma Stone) puts a 21st century spin on it in when she says:
“Well, there’s a whole world out there where people fight to be relevant every day. And you act like it doesn’t even exist! Things are happening in a place that you willfully ignore, a place that has already forgotten you. I mean, who are you? You hate bloggers. You make fun of Twitter. You don’t even have a Facebook page. You’re the one who doesn’t exist. You’re doing this because you’re scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don’t matter. And you know what? You’re right. You don’t. It’s not important. You’re not important. Get used to it”.
Stagey, contrived and self referential, Birdman stands on the brink of being an epic failure but ultimately takes wing and soars triumphantly.