Perhaps Alejandro González Iñárritu thinks that artistic truth is a fantasy. Perhaps he thinks that if it were possible, it’s so finite that the artists of past generations had already taken all of it before Iñárritu even got to the table. Does he mock those who seek it or sympathize with them? Is he seeking it himself? These thoughts (and many more) were coursing through my head as I sat transfixed by Iñárritu’s Birdman (2014) that is about a lot of things and perhaps very few.
How do I describe a movie that is at once mysteriously complex and simplistically focused, a movie that is both wholly familiar and staggeringly original? It is a shamelessly obvious remake of Fellin’s 8½ (1963) and yet belongs firmly to Iñárritu (who must loan it out periodically to cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki). Like 8½, we live in the fractured reality of a creative mind, in this case Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), an aging movie star, decades ago the lead in a series of insipid but popular comic book movies, who is hoping to reinvent himself on the Broadway stage. He has chosen to adapt, direct and star in a theatrical version of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. His process is besieged by self-doubt and inadequacy, flames stoked by the Great White Way’s seeming rejection of him as a hack in a costume, an opinion of himself that Riggan isn’t quite sure he doesn’t share.
He is pulled in every direction by the women in his life, his sympathetic but guarded ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan), his demanding and volatile girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough) and his spiteful wild-child daughter Sam (Emma Stone), who is all too happy to leverage her own future to get back at the things her father did (or didn’t do) in her past. His producer and “best friend” Jake (Zach Galifianakis) can’t help but remind Riggan of the significant financial risk the play represents and is more helpful to the bottom line than to his friend’s well-being. The play seems to be saved with the last minute casting of Mike (Edward Norton), a legendary staple of the New York scene, but his self-destructive neurosis and vainglorious need for attention and esteem clash with Riggan’s own and is more problematic because Mike is better at it. Riggan lives very uneasily with Mike because he knows that Mike makes the play better but also threatens to steal it from him (a threat that is real as we watch a towering performance from Norton threaten to steal the movie from Keaton). Add to the mix that Riggan’s old superhero character begins talking to him and Riggan begins to notice that he can bend reality, not in the ways he wants but in standard superhero ways: flying, moving things with his mind, that kind of thing.
Almost the entire movie is made to appear as if it’s all done in one very long shot with cuts ingeniously hidden from time to time. Much of it is located on a block of Times Square; the camera follows the characters around the theater and some of the adjacent bars and stores but not much else. We are along for this fascinating but terrifying ride, watching the house of cards Riggan has constructed change shape and threaten to fall over. Because all of Riggan’s problems are of his own making, we never see him as fully sympathetic but we want him to succeed because what he seems to be after—creating something worthwhile—is admirable and we certainly want to watch something worthwhile. The movie is wisely ambiguous about whether he attains it (it brilliantly obscures the scenes of the play so that it’s hard to tell if it’s good or not) and is brilliantly ambiguous about whether Riggan’s actual goal really is to create something worthwhile or if the project is just an extension of his own vanity and need to regain relevancy. He professes passionately that this play represents his lone shot at a lasting meaningful legacy, but he never recognizes that by choosing to neglect his opportunity to be a good husband and father (two significant worthwhile somethings), he has watched many shots pass him by.
The movie also gives the impression of ambiguity about the “realness” of Riggan’s superpowers. They never struck me as anything but a product of Riggan’s imagination, but while you could make a case the other way, that hardly matters. Not to go all Birdman on you, but those abilities are part of Riggan’s truth, so what is happening in the so-called real world is beside the point only in so much that Riggan is a citizen of that world. The superpowers, real or not, are an extension of Riggan’s psyche and are only used to further the movie’s dramatic aims (there’s a scene when Riggan destroys his dressing room telepathically that would be right out of Welles if Charles Foster Kane had been an X-Man). Wondering if what’s happening to him is really happening to him is a meaningless puzzle; how Riggan perceives what is happening to him is the lingering mystery that Birdman constructs.
The movie has a lot to say about terminal case of culture in the modern age, the Sisyphean waste of toiling on a project that will be misunderstood or unappreciated by a public that experiences reality through the screen of a device and has more than a few well-taken words about the artistic stakes of critics (spoiler: we have none) but, like 8½, the movie is really about the creative process and all its messy, strange and uncontrollable ramifications without ever forgetting that that process can be pretty funny. Will success on the stage make Riggan happy? There is plenty of doubt in that area but perhaps only because he finds that success after compromises of integrity. Can any collaborative endeavor be achieved without compromise? If it could, would it make Riggan happy? Could he have pursued it while earning the admiration and love from his family they so desperately would like to give him? Is it always “or” is it never “and?” Is entertainment worthwhile? Must all art be painful? The reason Iñárritu tantalizes us by having us ask “What is real?” about his special effects is because that is the very question Riggan is trying to answer about artistic creation. What, if anything, can be real when people are pretending on the stage and people are pretending in the audience? What difference does it make if the mask the actor wears is invisible or attached to a superhero costume—it’s all artifice, right?
Birdman comes with automatic force and authenticity by having Keaton as the leading man, not only because he’s so good here, but also because we in the audience know that we are looking at Batman. The cast is populated with people who find themselves somewhere on the superhero spectrum. Keaton was Batman three Batmans ago, Norton was the second of three movie Hulks in 10 years, Stone plays the new Spiderman’s girlfriend. When Riggan bitterly tells of his envy of George Clooney and his respectability as a performer, he conveniently forgets that Clooney was also the caped crusader. The cynic looks at this and says with such temporary and superficial repeated schlock being produced by the only uniquely American art form, what is the point in attempting to create anything lasting? The optimist sees the same and thinks that every piece of art has its merits and place, and redemption is right around the corner if the work is there. The lucky filmgoer gets to see Birdman again and make up his mind anew.