Where does an actor turn when faced with his own mortality? Broadway, of course. Alejandro Iñárrito invites you into the tattered world of Riggan Thomson: the washed up, has-been star the Birdman franchise in the midst of a career revamp. Manipulated to look as though one take, Iñárrito develops a fresh lens through which to satirize Hollywood – one that not only pokes fun at celebrity culture, but anyone who would support a big-budget Hollywood film: us, the viewer.
Channeling his own post-blockbuster film star days, Michael Keaton envelopes this wash-up character, proving both his, and Riggan’s, place within our present day cinematic world (when looked at outside of the world of the picture, Keaton’s redemption holds true as he goes on to have a feature role in the Oscar winning movie Spotlight). Writers Iñárrito and Nicolás Giacobone establish the central conflict within the movie around the connotations of film versus theatre. Presented most clearly in the title, Iñárrito includes the classic blockbuster name Birdman as well as the pompous, self-righteous title of The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance. Self aware in their respective grandeur and pretention, these titles reflect Riggan’s transition from two opposing worlds. Though physically located in New York City, the concept of the Los Angeles and the LA movie star looms over the entirety of the plot. Trying to escape the tacky, Hollywood image, Riggan flees to New York in hopes of higher-brow artistic pursuits.
What differentiates film from theatre? Editing. Through employing this one take format, Iñárrito creates what feels more like a play caught on tape than a motion picture. Though strikingly similar to theatre is many ways, it is Emmanuel Lubezki’s stylish cinematography and shot composition (harkening back to his award winning performance in Gravity) that keeps the viewer within the world of cinema throughout the film.
The score, not to be forgotten, also works to contrast these two ideals. Antonio Sanchez composes a jazzy drum score for the majority of the film that serves as an elevated artistic presence. Yet, when in the mind of Riggan, the drums are drowned out by a full-body, classic Hollywood chorus. However different, both sounds could be produced by a theatre pit orchestra. Hmm…
Birdman is a movie about movies, movie stars, and movie audiences. Iñárrito exposes not only the daily crucifixion of celebrities, but the agents responsible for it: us. Have we created a world in which the only place for blockbuster celebrities is on YouTube? In many instances it feels as though Iñárrito is holding up a mirror to his audience and exposing us for what we are and what we’ve done to those we admire from afar. Although this message could be easily conveyed through a dark, harsh picture, Iñárrito rather takes his audience on an adventure of twisted laughs, jazzy ensembles, and gravity defying stunts. Iñárrito discusses his experience with theatre in an interview with Indie Wire found here. Now, on my fifth screening of the film, I pick up on more and more of Iñárrito’s intentional message.