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Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)


It's a frustrated director's fantasy come true:  a light conveniently falls on a cast member's head during a play's rehearsal, putting an end to some excruciating line readings.  Putting to a merciful end, if only temporarily, the bad actor.  Suddenly, a chance to cast someone good in the hack's stead.  But whom?  Woody Harrelson?  No, Woody has already committed to the next Hunger Games sequel.  Michael Fassbender?  Nope - X-Men.   Jeremy Renner, perhaps? Sorry - he's busy with his Avengers pals.  So many super heroes, so few brave actors to be found. This is the dilemma, in more ways than one, for Riggan Thomson, adaptor, director and star of the play within the film which is Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).

Thomson himself knows something about superhero movie franchises.  The middle-aged actor played the fictional character Birdman in three films during more the more youthful and prosperous years of his career.  But he did turn down Birdman 4, he's eager to point out during an interview session with reporters to publicize his attempt to gain credibility by staging an adaption of Raymond Carver's story, "This Is What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," at New York's St. James Theater.  This flimsy assertion of Hollywood integrity is but one example of Birdman's revelation of actorly vanity and self-delusion in the midst of a story that also exalts those brave enough to bare their souls to make art.

Birdman often pulses with a kind of desperate energy, propelled and punctuated  by the drumming of Antonio Sanchez.  This sort of intensity is hardly a new development in the films of director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (who co-wrote the script as well), but the film's relative nuance with regard to character and tone are a welcome, even necessary change to Inarritu's usual palatte of bleak, bleaker, bleakest.

The main character or characters in question - the actor, the man, perhaps even the Birdman - emerge from the taxed, uncertain being of Riggan Thomson as brought skitteringly to life by Michael Keaton.  Of course, Keaton too knows something about donning the superhero costume, the life-altering fame that comes with it.  But the presence of the former Batman is more than a Hollywood in-joke.  Keaton is not merely an underrated comic actor, he's an underrated actor, period.  Consider not only the competing identities of Batman, but the manic energy of Bettlejuice. Add to that the desperation of one of Keaton's lesser-known roles, that of playwright Nicky Rogan  in the otherwise forgettable Game 6 (2005), and the casting is as logical as it is welcome.


There are actually strong parallels between Game 6 and Birdman, much as the latter does truly soar compared to the former's story burdened with Don DeLillo's heavy-handed musings on fate and baseball.  Game 6's Nicky Rogan is playwright skipping the opening night of his latest work to roam New York by night, watch his Red Sox do what they historically do (or did) best and ultimately buy a gun with which to shoot a drama critic by whom he feels threatened.

Gun play figures prominent in Birdman, as does the ominous circling of a drama critic intent to eviscerate the film's flawed hero.  This New York times writer Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan), having none of the former star's attempt to gain some credibility on the hallowed boards of the St. James Theater.  The two have a barroom confrontation while the play is still in previews.  Typical of the sometimes ambiguous give and take of plot and character in Birdman, this is a brawl in which both combatants are bloodied, both are made to look strong and vulnerable by turn.  After Tabitha makes it clear that she intends to close Thomson's play, he unleashes a diatribe on her formulaic criticism as so many "labels."  Repeating a theme earlier voiced by Mike Shiner (the replacement for the recipient of that stage light to the head; an actor the critic actually respects), he tells her that she doesn't know what it is to be an actor, risk everything.  He concludes by cordially inviting her to shove one of her reviews "up her wrinkled ass."  But the critic is given the last punch in this fight, "You're a celebrity, not an actor," she tells him before walking away.


The drama critic's contempt is hardly the only voice stoking the fire of Riggan Thomson's insecurities.  Mike Shiner is able to take the place of the felled hack, much to the relief of Thomson and his producer, Jake (Zach Galifianakis).  "Ask me if he sells tickets?" the friend and producer delightedly prompts.  "He sells a shitload of tickets," the delighted answer he can't wait to supply. 

Shiner is present as an embodiment of artistic integrity, complete with a sidecar of insanity rolling right along with the roaring motorcycle of his talent.  When Thomson sets aside the bottle of real vodka Shiner is using in one of the play's preview performances, the temperamental actor confronts him and brings the show to a howling and premature close.  During a subsequent preview, he decides that he and his co-star/girlfriend, Lesley (Naomi Watts) should actually have sex on stage, like the illicit lovers they are playing.  After struggling with her talented but slightly crazy partner, Lesley notes with some irony that this is the first erection she's seen in six months.  

There's no people like show people!  Michael Keaton and Edward Norton
putting up their dukes in Birdman.  
But Mike Shiner is a critic's darling, Jake points out.  Or as the excited producer more eloquently says, "They want to smoodge on him."  This becomes yet another problem for Thomson, the figurative smoodging at least, when Shiner lands the New York Times feature for which he was hoping.  The respected actor even steals Riggan Thomson's inspiration in the form of Raymond Carver. Thomson had earlier shown him the cocktail napkin he has been carrying for years bearing a compliment from the writer.   Consistent with the backstage anarchy of Birdman, the confrontation between Thomson and Shiner ends in a fistfight that devolves into an absurd wrestling match.  Shiner is the best role Norton has had for some years, and he answers it with the full compliment of his charisma.

Thomson's chorus of disapproval also includes his daughter, Sam (Emma Stone).  Late of rehab, Sam is a reminder of Riggan Thompson's absentee parenting.  She's also on hand to remind him of his place in the universe when the two have a fight of their own, prompted by the father finding a joint in the room where his supposedly clean daughter is working.  After her father makes the mantra-like statement, "This is my chance to finally do some work that means something," his daughter puts him in his place.  "And, let's face it dad.  You are not doing this for the sake of art.  You are doing this because you wanna feel relevant again....Who the fuck are you?...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, okay?  You're not important.  Get used to it!"  Ah, out of the mouths of babes.  With her bulging blue eyes and waifish bearing, Ms. Stone looks like an avenging version of one of the doe-eyed figures from Margaret Keane.  

But really, Riggan Thomson has enough doubt murmuring from within to waylay a much more assured man.  Yes, there's vanity, there's egocentrism, but when the mirror ball of inflated self-regard stops spinning during quieter moments, the dance hall of Riggan Thomson's soul is a mighty dark place.  Not so unusual for a man pushing against the far side of middle age.  Nor for someone who has burned valuable years chasing the will-o'-the-wisp of Hollywood fame.  That fame, in the form of Thomson's Birdman character, is yet another party heard from as Riggan struggles to keep himself and his careening production together.  The Birdman's voice is the first we hear, Keaton's own baritone altered to a reboant growl. Thomson is thus exhorted by his alter-ego:  "We used to make billions!...We should have done that reality show they offered us...Let's make a comeback.  You're Birdman!  You are a god!"  With Michael Keaton's performance,  all of this teeming surface and soul are pretty well transfixing.  It may not be perfect work, but so messy is the life of Riggan Thomson that its hard to know where the character's excesses and imperfections might end and Keaton's begin. In its courage and nakedness, Michael Keaton's work is certainly the embodiment of what Birdman the film is trying to be.  


The films of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu tend to get to the bones of whatever beings and worlds they examine.  There's never a lack of penetration, a lack of energy.  In Birdman, the camera sweeps -with a fluidity that might have pleased Max Ophuls - around like doppelganger, a separate consciousness.  It's an all-access pass into the film's world that shows us all the angles, physical and psychological.  The largely percussive score of Antonio Sanchez manifests itself as characters twice walk by drummers pounding at kits in sync with the soundtrack.  Drumming also figures in the scene most emblematic of the film's exposing (quite literally, in this case) of its characters when Thomson is locked out of the St. James sporting only a pair of white briefs. It's sort of the ultimate version of the nightmare of being in a public place in one's underwear, complete with the lights and crowds of Broadway, and - yes - a drum team to add to the perverse festivity of the occasion.  If Mr. Inarritu were an architect, he would no doubt give us buildings that reveal structure, pipes, HVAC and all else, at no detriment to aesthetics.  In Birdman we get laughter, pain, vulnerability, vanity, delusion, courage...even blood.    

The intensity and penetration of Birdman are nothing new for Inarritu.  The encouraging departure with this latest film occurs in the oft-changing tone that Mr. Inarritu manages with finesse, both as writer and director.  Through his first four features, the "death trilogy" - Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel - and particularly with his previous Biutiful, Inarritu had overreached beyond the depiction of suffering to a kind of trafficking in it.  Birdman gets to blood and soul of its conflicted protagonist, but the storytelling moves as surely and lightly as those cameras weaving through the backstage passages of the St. James Theater.

Biutiful, like Birdman, takes one beyond the literal into the supernatural, perhaps the magical realist.  In the former, the woebegone character played by Javier Bardem must not only grapple with his impending death, but is burdened with visions of the recently-departed -  he sees dead people. Corpses float and sometimes crawl across ceilings.  In addition to those visions, the actual bodies of dozens of immigrant sweat shop workers dumped into the sea float back to shore, a tide of death.  In Biutiful, Inarritu used his departures from reality not to leaven his story, but to further sledge hammer its tragedy with all the subtlety of a late Thomas Hardy novel.    

In Birdman Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu lampoons those pervasive superhero films while indulging in a bit of the fun himself.  But instead of dwelling on the negative - and heaven knows the ceaseless tide of the big-budget escapism could make any reflective filmgoer despair; the trailers alone could provoke seizures - he focuses on an enduring way out the darkness, personal and cinematic.  Typical of Birdman's finesse, it's not entirely clear whether Riggan Thomson possesses the super powers he frequently demonstrates, much as clues along the way hint that his gravity defiance and feats of telepathy are probably flights of ego, if not of fancy.  But when Thomson finally tells his alter ego to get lost in no uncertain terms and exits out his hospital window, what really happens?  Has he jumped to his death, finishing the job he started by firing a real gun at his play's opening, blowing off his nose?  Has he really taken flight, as the raised eyes of his daughter would seem to suggest?  Courage is found, flight really takes place when the soul is bared, when the blood is shed.  For the actor, for any artist.  To which those luminous blue eyes stare in awe.                  


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