Walker Sayen ‘16 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
The new Alejandro González Iñárritu film Birdman is a truly original beast, unlike anything else in theaters this year. It hits on every level – acting, directing, cinematography, music, and more. Let’s start with the story: many have made comparisons between the film’s narrative and the real life narrative of the film’s star, Michael Keaton. There is an interesting meta-comparison of the character of Riggan Thomson, a man who used to play the titular superhero but is now washed up and looking for a comeback, and Keaton’s own progression from playing Batman in 1989 to starring in this film. But there is so much more to the film than that surface meta-narrative.
Thomson tries to stage a comeback by finally doing something that will be recognized as “true art.” He’s writing, directing and starring in an adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story called “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” The whole enterprise is a vanity project with the sole purpose of making Thomson seem like a valid artist with something to say. This reveals that Thomson is basically a spoiled and entitled star. However, we can’t help sympathizing with this man, wanting him to be able to fly without the aid of Birdman. This simple narrative provides the breeding ground for a complex exploration of the nature of art and beyond.
The story has so many layers to it; it’s about America’s obsession with fame, how what is viewed as prestigious can in fact be based on illusion, the relationship between “art” and commerce, the cost of being a celebrity, the nature of the ego, struggling with the inevitability of failure, the desire to be remembered, and the fear of being a fraud. The movie nails all of its themes without becoming overwhelming, and while managing to stay entertaining.
This is partially because of the immense craft on display. Iñárritu and wizard Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki construct a visual style that is breathtakingly complex while also serving the emotions of the story. The film, with a few exceptions near the beginning and end, appears as one long continuous shot. Iñárritu and Lubezki use a similar technique as Alfred Hitchcock did in Rope, which combined editing and camerawork to disguise the fact that the continuous long take is actually made up of several shots. The extended take has become extremely popular of late – sometimes, it might appear to be used just to be “cool,” but in Birdman, it is not a gimmick. The camera is constantly out of breath, creating real-life tension and a sense of immediacy as we follow Keaton’s character while he prepares to launch the play. The camera movements achieved are beyond belief; their complexity and beauty are unique among extended takes. The film is not just a technical marvel, it is also an extremely layered, smart, biting look at art and those who try to create it.
Birdman is not just “the Michael Keaton show,” and although he gives by far the best performance of the year, it is a film with one of the strongest ensembles in recent memory. Every actor gives an awards-worthy performance. Edward Norton goes head-to-head with Keaton and almost outshines him, providing an excellent performance. Emma Stone serves up a very different kind of character than her usual staple, to fine results, and Naomi Watts gives a tender presentation as an actress who has always longed to be on Broadway. And as for Keaton himself, it is hard to fully describe his achievement. The emotional spectrum that Keaton goes through is breathtaking. He is able to make the fireworks and emotions come from such an internal place that it seems as if he’s bearing his soul to the audience. He injects humanism into every movement, creating a deep representation of the “artist’s struggle.”
Riggen tells a critic at one point in the film that while artists risk everything in an attempt to create something, critics risks nothing – they just label things without any real understanding. It’s probably one of the best speeches on the nature of criticism (along with the speech that Peter O’Toole’s restaurant critic gives at the end of Ratatouille), and as a critic, it’s interesting to think about and to realize that he’s right. For the most part, all that this review does is apply labels and assign value to something that can’t really be pegged down as one thing. But labeling comes with the job, and in this critic’s humble opinion the film, the visuals, story, and acting all combine into a final product that is completely realized and fully satisfying. There are many films that have great components but are unable to make the parts form a complete whole. That is not the case with Birdman – it is as complete and thoroughly nursing a meal as you can find in modern cinema.
Overall Grade: A+