“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.”
This quote from Raymond Carver’s “Late Fragment” opens the film Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), and serves as a unifying theme throughout. This film has been hyped for several months, primarily as a comeback vehicle for Michael Keaton (ya know, Mr. Mom, Beetlejuice, pre-Christian-Bale Batman). After weeks of anticipation, I can say without a doubt this is a film that will stick with me. I loved it.
Riggan Thomson (Keaton) plays a formerly-popular movie star, once the very famous action hero Birdman, now trying to revive his career with a self-produced, written, and directed Broadway play. The entire film takes place in and around the theater, in the days before opening. Overall, the film focuses on ideas of ego and power, and explores how one copes when one’s entire sense of self-worth is dependent on the approval and adoration of others. We see the consequences of this play out in Thomson’s relationships with his just-out-of-rehab daughter (an amazing Emma Stone), ex-wife (Amy Ryan), girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough), co-workers and friends (Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis), and those with the most power of all, audience members, especially theater critics (Lindsay Duncan).
Throughout the film, Keaton’s character suffers from auditory and visual hallucinations–or does he? The film has an element of magical realism to it, so I often found myself unsure of what was real and what wasn’t. What pieces were from Thomson’s imagination or fantasy, and what was pathological? Without spoiling anything, the ending doesn’t provide any easy answers, but I thought it added to the beauty of Thomson’s yearning for his sense of self.
To be sure, this is not your typical mainstream-type film. It pushes boundaries, and if you go in looking for a traditional storyline, you may leave disappointed. Birdman is about people and relationships—with oneself, with others, and with society.
Birdman is also a technical wonder, as it looks like it was filmed in almost a single shot (i.e. no camera cuts). As an audience member, you travel with the camera from room to room, down hallways, onto the stage, back outdoors, etc. From a psychological perspective, this can heighten our engagement with the action, since we are forced to be with a character for an extended period of time, and are never let “off the hook” for even a second, by way of a camera cut. From a neurological perspective, watching these long tracking shots goes against the grain for our contemporary brains, as many believe the digital age is gradually decreasing our ability to focus for long periods of time on any one stimulus or input. Watch most any kids show these days, and you’ll likely notice a series of lightning-fast cuts and short bursts of auditory and visual input that scientists believe trains our brains to input only small nuggets of information, and ultimately decreases our attention span. If you have any interest in this side of film making and/or if you want to take your brain on a fun field trip, the film is worth the price of admission for this element alone. In addition to Michael Keaton and Emma Stone, I have high Oscar-nomination hopes for the cinematographer, Emmanual Lubezki, who won for his work on Gravity last year.
Although Birdman is unlike most Hollywood mainstream films you’ll see, it grapples with the universal need we all have to “feel myself beloved on the earth,” and it does so in a unique way. MOOD: See this film with your creative/artistic friends, and talk about it over drinks after.
MPAA Rating: R (for language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence)