The Bird is the Word
“This portrait of an artist as a middle aged man is the most brilliant, varied and entertaining movie I’ve seen since Citizen Kane”
― Dwight MacDonald, original Esquire review of Fellini’s 8 1/2 entitled “Obvious Masterpiece”
Imagine the genius involved in melding the mid-life angst of Fellini’s 8 1/2, the raw emotion of Cassavetes’ “Opening Night” and the existential scope of Shakespeare. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “Birdman” is that film. The reward for his efforts was a half empty theater on a Saturday night at the hight of the Christmas Movie season. The exceptionally long lines at the multiplex were for “Penguins of Madagascar” and “The Hungergames: Mockingjay Pt. 1”. Ironically one of the major themes in Inarritu’s work is the pecuniary disadvantages of retaining artistic integrity. Poets and potters are rarely in a position where the bottom line effects their vision. Filmmakers and actors must wrestle with mammon. Broadway audiences have enjoyed seeing Patrick Stewart as Prospero and Bryan Cranston as LBJ, but those opportunities were born their work as Captain Jean-Luc Picard and Walter White. The magic of Inarritu’s vision is to acknowledge the seduction of the latter while presenting the arduousness of the former. It is not enough to deride being a matinee idol without acknowledging its intoxicating allure. Despite “Birdman’s” portraying the battle between temporal gratification and spiritual fulfillment it avoids the trap of sermonizing. It breaks from the narrow confines of squabbling egocentric thespians imprisoned a NY theater to become a universally hilarious koan.
The film opens with letters being arranged and forming short questions and answers:
And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.
The writer Raymond Carver wrote these words as his epitaph. Riggan, played by Michael Keaton, is “Birdman’s” central character. He has decided to adapt a Carver story for the Broadway stage. The film is anchored around the play’s debut. Riggan’s theatrical qualifications lie in his past screen glory as the action-hero Birdman. The opening titled conversation is interspersed with two brief obscure images. Are those sea creatures on a beach? Is that a shooting star or a crashing aircraft? The first visually clear sequence is Riggan FLOATING in the air in his underwear in a lotus position.The camera holds on him in the dingy room. There is something comically absurd about this image that plays against the initial highbrow arthouse seriousness of life questions and indecipherable images. Inarritu will tell his truth with a smile, a laugh and a hearty dose of magical realism. He also emphasizes absolute precision. There is a formidable technical prowess to Inarritu’s team. Although the action might appear as carefree as a Cassavetes’ improvisation, the lighting, sound and camerawork DEMAND everyone hit their marks with quartz-like precision. A half step in the wrong direction would put an actor out of frame. A misdirected head turn would compromise the audio. But the images and sound aren’t merely recorded. The camera empathizes with the action to the point where it becomes a silent narrator. This is best illustrated in the films rare moments of repose. It is as someone suddenly found a tripod to rest the breathless chorus. We see this in the opening shot of Riggan floating, the many dressing room scenes with the ex-wife or the other actresses, the sudden half minute halt in the hallway to acknowledge the distance applause, or the masterful slow choreography of the confrontation with the daughter. The effect is to physically bring the audience into the moment. Reading a script of this movie would be the equivalent of trying to understand a ballet through paper-based dance notation. Kudos to the brave producers who backed this project. They were obviously betting on the man and not the written word. They won.
In this film each seemingly random sequence contains the overall themes writ in miniature akin to the way each of our bodies DNA cell’s holds a master blue-print. Here is a small example. Our hero stumbles into a seedy, storefront liquor store which consists of a narrow hallway of christmas lights and a bullet proof glass booth which protects the clerk from the clientele. During the transaction we hear a man raging in the distance. On the grim sidewalk Riggan encounters the source of the howling. A down and out street performer screaming the “Sound and Fury” speech. They lock eyes and street-Macbeth morphs into a desperate actor channeling the Beatles “Paperback Writer”. The Scottish King can do it softer or louder or more colorful or less bombastic. Riggan ignores the street royal and fumbles on in a boozy haze. The only thing that differentiates him from the busker is his stint as the Birdman, which he carries as an albatross around his neck. But that hated role has given him the ability to make the daring move into being a ‘real’ artist with his adaption of Carver. Yet this shot at trying to be genuine might lead him to being destitute and obscure… or worse yet… force him to ‘sell out’ by agreeing to do “Birdman IV”. Is it better to be Birdman than an unemployed actor screaming Shakespeare to annoyed pedestrians? These are thoughts to ponder when Riggan encounters his daughter in the green room. She is a attractive young woman who is recently out of rehab. She seeks redemption as her father’s Girl Friday during the opening. Suddenly Riggan must assume the role of parent. Is there a smell of marijuana? Has she been using? Again?! Her denials lead to his discovering the remnants of a small joint. He castigates his daughter with all the self-righteousness of an overwhelmed father. How could she betray him at his most desperate hour? Does she have any idea what this show means to him? This prompts the daughter to erupt in a rage rooted in decades of abandonment while the Birdman was flying high. She excoriates him with the most damning weapon - the honest truth. It is delivered with the sound and fury reserved for close family members during the holiday season. He doesn’t give a damn about his daughter. He is a vain fool who has squandered his riches and is presently embarking on a deluded quest to be “taken seriously”. His choice of Carver exhibits his arrogance born of ignorance. No one cares about him or his pathetic play. To echo Macbeth, he is NOTHING and NO ONE MATTERS. The camera has been patiently taking in the wrath with a steady close up of Emma Stone. A lesser director would have immediately cut to a reaction shot from Michael Keaton. Inarritu keeps the camera in place to absorb HER reaction. We see the brutal truth-teller melt into the concerned daughter. The shot holds in a silence born of a lifetime of pain. The camera follows her tender steps forward revealing a close-up of our crestfallen former super hero. She leaves after he re-assures her he is okay. He ends up smoking the remainder of the joint. The heaviness smoothly shifts to comedy without diluting the power of the scene. Then we return to the bustle of staging the play. The show MUST go on.
Riggan’s daughter is the least of his adversaries. The fully costumed alter-ego of Birdman harangues Keaton with reminders of the absurdity of his play both artistically and financially. His proposition is clear: participating in Birdman IV is the key to salvation. He may be a crazy make-believe cartoon character but his advice is sage. What sane person would walk away from millions to endure the endless slings and arrows? The critic from the “paper of record”, whom he encounters in a bar near the theater, vows to destroy his play. Ironically she agrees with his alter ego and thinks he deserves the bird suit. She is offended by a washed up movie star believing he can simply book a theater and produce ‘real’ art. She promises to make him an example in case the minions of West Coast self-entitled superstars get any more ideas. Inarritu builds tension as her bad review will sink the play.
If all this isn’t enough there is the ex-wife reminding him to look after his daughter and a co-star love interest who is and then isn’t pregnant with his child. Did I mention that his male co-star has been stricken by a falling light? Don’t worry the leading lady’s husband Mike, played by Ed Norton, to the rescue. He is a savior but, this is Inarritu’s world, he is also Shiva, the God of Destruction. His insightful criticism of the script and a dogged work ethic are wonderful. Then, during the first pre-view, he breaks character on stage in front of the audience and berates Riggan. Our hero’s crime was preventing Mike from drinking real gin on stage instead of water. Mike lets him have it with all the candor of a raging drunk. His philosophy is simple: nothing matters except what happens ON STAGE. How dare anyone mess with his prop! His stagecraft also include raping his co-star, who is also his wife, in order to give a scene more ‘reality’. Since there is no life outside of the play itself, he has absolutely no idea why she is upset. Inarritu has him burst in on her having a spontaneous lesbian dalliance with Riggan’s girlfriend. The human reaction would be to close the door and walk away. But Mike’s impenetrable narcissism leads him to give a “guess you’re not ready to talk” comment followed by a giddy shrug to acknowledge her straying. While most would be jealous he is incredulous, why would anyone desire anyone but him? Another of his victims is Riggan’s daughter whom he entraps with heartfelt speeches about “only being alive onstage”. She, despite the shell of toughness, is taken by his apparent legitimacy. Mike ends up getting into fisticuffs with Riggan, but not about his seducing his vulnerable daughter. Birdman is furious because Mike upstaged him and has landed the cover of the New York Times’ Arts and Leisure section. All the art-speak is revealed as a calculated off stage plot to establish himself as the ‘outsider’ actor. One suspects had he encountered the busker giving a good rendition of the Shakespeare soliloquy he would have punched him in the face to eliminate the competition…. but only if no one else was looking. After all, discretion is the better part of valor. Despite being a feckless cruel sociopath, Mike is absolutely charming and a captivating performer. His intimate friends and family might know the truth, but to the vast majority of people he fulfills Carver’s wish of being, “much beloved on this earth”.
There are never ending dualities in “Birdman”, the private vs public, truth vs portraying truth, celebrity vs infamy, having artistic integrity vs. selling out, onstage vs. offstage…. all endlessly reenacted but brilliantly rendered to inoculate the film audience from repetition. The actual closing of the Carver adaptation is a case in point. The scene, which entails our hero discovering his lover in bed with his co-star, is acted out numerous times with different colorings. Despite the cliche reaction to the romantic betrayal, our hero commits suicide on stage with a pistol to his head, the histrionic acting is fresh with every reading of the identical lines. In one instance one might reflect on the contrast between Riggan’s overwrought jealousy and Mike’s real life indifference. In another we might pity Naomi Watts as this is the scene in which her husband tries to rape her. In another we might reflect on the fun of witnessing melodrama or the thematic similarity between the busker’s Macbeth speech and Riggan’s pulp novel rant. The endless thematic stew is most memorable during the final preview. Our hero decides to calm his nerves with a cigarette in the alleyway next to the theater. The door closes on his robe trapping him and forcing an escape in his underwear. The only way back is through TIMES SQUARE. As our Odysseus makes his journey to the home theater he is thronged by crowds of onlookers clutching cell phones, gawking at his near-nudity and yelling “It’s Birdman!”. The levels of irony are dizzying. Real life Michael Keaton, of Batman fame, is walking through the crossroads of the world. This spot also happens to be the epicenter of fame-obsessed show biz desperadoes clad cheap super-heroes costumes. Keaton, as Riggan, wades through the primordial soup of the modern entertainment business. Our Birdman enters the theater from the front of the house and delivers his lines from the orchestra seats in his underwear while miming the shot to his head with his finger. The audience roars approval. Who really needs special effects after all. His daughter informs him he’s trending on the internet while assuring him this is a good thing. Our hero nervously feels the distance shrinking between himself and the Times Square wannabes.… or maybe even Birdman IV. But he has no time to worry… the show must go on. Sacrifices must be made. In the end the self-mutilated Riggan soars… or crashes. The critic is won over but more importantly so is his daughter. It begs the question about the cost of being beloved.
Cue the cymbals and bang the gongs. Everything that occurs in this film his accompanied by the jazz virtuoso percussionist Antonio Sanchez crashing away on his drum kit. In true magical realism style he even physically appears in the hallways of the theater. It’s the perfect soundtrack for the lives of peripatetic entertainers. These people bash through life in the hopes of being beloved. Once again it is wonderful to watch from the pit. Close ups are different. The tender embrace of the ex-wife and the daughter reveal all is forgiven in the end. It is hard to know if this is as it should be. Raymond Carver is a good example. There is more writing on his tombstone. His poem entitled “Gravy”. Here are a few lines:
ago he was told he had six months to live
at the rate he was going. And he was going
nowhere but down. So he changed his ways
somehow. He quit drinking! And the rest?
After that it was all gravy, every minute
Friends and family would eschew the term ‘gravy’ in describing the sum total of five decades. Carver died at the age of 50. Keaton’s character in “Birdman” speaks of his attempt to drown himself after his failed marriage. The moment was sparked by his wife catching him engaged in coitus with another woman. Obviously the Riggan’s inspiration for his Carver adaptation. Unlike the lead in the play, his attempt at suicide was stymied by jellyfish in the water. Life is bad, but man-o-war stings can make cowards of us all. Inarritu paints all the pain with encyclopedic inspiration from past masters. It might be of academic interest to ponder if “Riggan" is linked with the Jamaican outlaw folk hero “Rhyging” from “The Harder They Come”. Or to wonder about the similarity between Birdman’s guilty epiphany moment and Lawrence Oliver’s from “The Entertainer”. Knowing the references, however, is immaterial to enjoying the work. It does not matter that those jellyfish sprang from the grotesque sea creature from the close of “La Dolce Vita”. Inarritu is interested in the work itself and not simply being clever. This special film is not for specialists. It’s to be beloved by everyone who enjoys hearing a drum roll and and feeling a hardy laugh. The emotions can be tough, but we are safely in our seats.
Let’s now celebrate our famous bird-men and women who live under the proscenium arch or on the screen. They take the edge off real life by living out their fantasies. A round of applause, whether they are reciting Shakespeare on empty streets, hustling tips in Times Square, starring in multi-million dollar features, singing to packed stadiums, strumming guitars in empty coffee houses…. Apparently when Inarritu first met Keaton to discuss the script the actor’s first question was, “Are you making fun of me?”. The answer is, of course. We can all thank Batman for having the courage to make a fool of himself. That is the bedrock of all art. Good and bad. It’s not easy for anyone… not even the superstars. On a sour note a bronx cheer to the PR men who filled the trailer of this film with explosions and a flying Michael Keaton. They purposefully tried to fool movie-goers into thinking this was some sort of action film. Then again how else could you escape the art-house ghetto and sustain a wide theatrical release. Michael Keaton knows the drill, and so does Mike his co-star. Honesty and artistic integrity are important. But we always must remember there is a price for being beloved on the earth.