SPOILER ALERT: This review is best read after you’ve seen the film.
The key to understanding Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s modern masterpiece Birdman lies in figuring out who you really are.
Are you the kind who believes nothing really matters and nothing is important? Or do you take yourself and everything around you way too seriously.
Are you the kind who is expecting to watch a superhero film given the title of this film – Birdman? Or someone who is looking for a deeper meaning (like The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).
It is kind of redundant and futile to review Birdman because it mocks at the very idea of criticism, especially the tendency of critics to deconstruct art with a series of adjectives… Lazy labels, as Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton better get the Oscar this year for Best Actor) the frustrated artist screams at the critic in one of the many outstanding scenes in the film.
A thing is a thing and not what is said of it, says a prominent sign in the green room that reminds you throughout the film that your opinion simply doesn’t matter.
Before we get deeper into what Inarritu has done with Birdman, it’s important to understand the context and the filmmaker’s body of work. Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel and Biutiful are all explorations of life and death… experiments with linearity and chronology of events as they try to examine cause and effect, the interconnectedness of the universe, deeply profound, depressing and DARK. This time, the knight of all things dark springs a surprise, like he’s finally figured it out – the Birdman is a epiphanic statement about the point of life, meaning and art, of course. A statement he makes with lots of laughs and shows us he’s so good at comedy (who would’ve thought given his dark filmography) and so effortlessly at that.
It feels like a finale because Birdman feels like the point of enlightenment and awakening of a filmmaker who after making four award-winning critically acclaimed arthouse films has finally realised that it’s not really about making something a few will appreciate before figuring out where to go for their cake and coffee when it’s over. Nobody cares these ponderings on art and meaning of life. They don’t sell popcorn. You know what sells? Pornography and comic books.
So, Innaritu’s lays it down for them simple this time, saying: All right, you lazy dumb popcorn-munching idiots, here’s a linear superhero film with a lot of laughs, told with pace, urgency and histrionics because subtlety doesn’t seem to get through your thick empty skulls. You won’t appreciate Biutiful, here’s a movie about a superhero featuring the guy who was Batman.
Not that he’s kind to the critics and the patrons of high art. To them, he says: All right, you pretentious movie snobs who are going to kill me for making a funny film because comedy is low art, here’s a pretentious little title and a few clues that will help you see the meaning you seem to be searching for, so that you can use a few more adjectives.
Which is why Birdman returns to the very basics of art – the sacred stage where it was born. Where there were no second takes. And to adapt to the form of theatre, he borrows a few techniques – like seamless start to finish cinematography (executed with a few cheat cuts, of course), a very basic drums score and the basic outline of Raymond Carver’s short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, the Broadway production that forms the backbone of the film, one that turns meta as the film progresses.
The cast of characters he picks for Birdman are all battling their hubris. And alter egos.
Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a jaded fading star best known to be the face of the Birdman movies (Incidentally Keaton was Burton’s Batman and turned down the third film because it wasn’t dark enough) wants validation, acceptance and relevance again after turning down a profitable franchise because he just wanted to be a real actor. But he has to pay the price for his decisions. A broken family, brink of bankruptcy (caused possibly because of his health issues as hinted), a daughter he couldn’t spend time with and the fast fading aura. In his head, he’s still haunted by his jilted alter ego – the man with the Hollywood mask and superpowers, one who looks down at the ordinary people below him and one egging him to return back to the confines of the comfort suit and Hollywood mediocrity. The man in the bird suit doesn’t want this ordinary life of struggle and pursuit of meaning or art as long as he can gross billions but the man with the wig feels the need to prove himself because he wants to be remembered (Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett died the same day but nobody remembers Farrah, he says)
Mike Shiner (Edward Norton who plays this so flawlessly without a single false note or a wrong beat) is a popular Broadway actor – the audience loves him, so do the critics. And he doesn’t really care about what they think. He’s seems like the anti-thesis to Riggan because he doesn’t need validation. He already has, he wants to mine deeper for realism on stage because that’s the only place he finds himself at home – at pretense. When he is pretending to be someone else. In real life, he has no identity or drive. He likes to life in a world of pretense. When a journalist asks him why he chose to be an actor, he doesn’t even have a real reason and decides to steal Riggan’s backstory. The scenes where they spar make for some of the best moments in the films – this could be a conversation between two alter-egos (one man’s life is the other man’s alter-ego) and this is best illustrated a moment after Shiner is done telling Riggan that nobody gave a shit about Riggan anymore… When a lady interrupts their conversation and asks Shiner to take a picture of her with “the guy who used to be Birdman”. It’s a moment that proves to be a great reality check for them both and they have nothing more to fight about.
Sam (Emma Stone is going to lose her Oscar despite the nomination only because Patricia Arquette spent 12 years on Boyhood) is the voice of epiphany in the film. She’s the one who has figured it out, after time spent at rehab, that none of this matters, no one is significant because in the larger picture, how long all of humanity has been on this planet would fit on one slip of toilet paper in an entire roll (if you were to draw one dash on it for every 1000 years). In the film she’s trying to be realistic and the voice of reason, she does not believe in greatness or even the idea of her father trying to be a hero, let alone a superhero.
If you put their roles together, you get to understand how id (Riggan), ego (Sam) and superego (Mike) work or Freud’s theory that the human psyche has three parts that shapes who we are.
Birdman then is an exploration of who we really are behind the masks we were. To explore this, it embraces the meta-narrative by becoming the duality of two worlds – the real and the make-believe. At any point, Birdman leaves it open to interpretation whichever way you want to interpret it.
There will be multiple theories doing the round soon, so I am going to take a crack at it myself. But if you read one piece about – It was all a dream or He’s dead all the while – close the window and find a better site to read – they are the dead and tired clichés of the genre and please show Inarritu some respect here, this film is not about the obvious clichés – you have to see beyond the mask the film is wearing.
Extra Spoiler Alert: There will be a whole bunch of people who will believe the character killed himself at the end. That’s pointless, his “suicide” already happened on stage.
It’s that conviction he has that makes him above the ordinary, the one that makes him a superhero in his pragmatic daughter’s eyes. Having almost killed himself for art, he flushes his Hubris goodbye (the last we see the man with the suit is in the Bathroom) and realises he cannot even smell the flowers his daughter brought him. So he opens the window and looks at the beauty of the birds and watches life not through the lens of art but through the real window of life. He has found happiness finally. He takes yet another leap but this time, even his realistic daughter realises that it is possible for a man to soar you know, as long as he’s got rid of his hubris.
Another clue to unlocking Birdman is the constant reference to Icarus, who if you remember school, was the dude who “flew” too close to the sun despite warnings from his father and fell into see because the sun melted the wax. That was a fable about hubris leading to your fall and certain death. This is a film about learning to fly right towards the sun minus the hubris of the bird suit.
The beauty of Birdman is that all the above is just the kind of details critics would look for in a film. Which is why I think the makers have thrown in some abstract asteroid footage and shots of dead jellyfish and the birds eating them on the beach. After a third viewing, I would interpret those visuals bookending the beginning and the climax of the film as his vision of a near death experience. The film unfolds as he’s fighting for his life (Because it’s a continuous fluid narrative from the start till the obvious CUT to the air vent at the hospital after he shoots himself on stage) The last time he tried to kill himself, jellyfish stung him all over and he rolled over the sand at the beach to get them off him. Now, the birds (his kind) were eating those dead jellyfish (these oldest multi-organ animals have survived for over 500 million years – another reminder of the film’s point about how long human’s have been around given the life span of the universe). He’s a falling star literally burning himself up to shine. (A celebrity friend theorises that this perhaps marks the arrival of a Superhero from a different planet…the Superman myth) And he resurrects himself as an immortal infallible superhero – the man he always wanted to be in the eyes of his daughter.
One of the clues to solve the last scene lies in understanding the score of Birdman and what it represents. The drums score represents his reality. The movie score represents his larger than life alter ego (there are multiple occasions in the film when he asks characters to stop the movie score signifying the end of the scene that happened in his head). The hero’s journey, according to Joseph Campbell, is complete only when he emerges as the master of both worlds.
Perhaps that’s why the score of the last scene has some answers. When Riggan with his new face opens the window to watch birds, it’s a real slice of life moment and he’s found movie magic in it (as the movie score punctuates the moment) and as he jumps off the window and flies, when his daughter rushes towards the window and looks down, then looks up and smiles, the score is a mix of the drums and the movie score because he has become the man he always wanted to be – the man his daughter loved and looked up to. And these are the lines the film begins with: “Did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?” “I did.” “And what did you want?” “To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on earth.” (These are the words from Raymond Carver’s tombstone but here they stand for his resurrection and rebirth through Birdman) Rebirth is a theme constantly referred to in the film. All the characters in the film are born again/get a second shot at life, including Riggan’s best friend, lawyer and manager Jake who specifically mentions he’s born again.
But if you want to read Birdman as just a superhero movie, it would still work as a story of an actor with superpowers but all he wanted to be known for was as the actor, not for superpowers. Then all the bits of magic realism in the film work literally. He does fly indeed and the taxi driver asking for the fare could be chasing someone else. He neither confirms nor denies this because Inarritu wants this to be what you want it to be.
It’s not just a commentary on the artists, actors, critics and studios but about the audience too. Birdman throws the spotlight on the changing paradigm of what constitutes entertainment today – reality TV, clips that go viral, celebrity porn (oh yes, literal celeb pornography too) and the tendency of the audience to be filmmakers themselves as they feel the need to shoot anything larger than life they see. Which is why the scene where Riggan finds himself locked out of the Green Room in only his underwear is funny and disturbing at the same time.
Riggan maybe flawed, balding, might look like a bloated “turkey with leukemia” but he’s indestructible, nothing can stop his indomitable spirit and relentless pursuit of trying to be relevant again as a true artist despite all the angst and frustration (Is this because Biutiful that took Inarritu almost four years to make didn’t quite work at the box office?). He liquidates till the last of his assets, puts everything he has at stake and is dealing with a completely dysfunctional world… but the good news is: He’s literally death proof.
He’s tried to kill himself before when his wife left him. He tried to drown himself only to be attacked by jellyfish. He tried to shoot himself on stage only to lose a nose and get a fresh one. His face has changed, he doesn’t even look like himself anymore. The world knew him even when he was behind a Bird mask. But Riggan finally finds himself only after he takes off the bandage “mask” from his face at the end of the film.
The film is about masks at the end of the day. Who we pretend to be and who we really are.