“Birdman” is a visually stunning and thought-provoking film that blurs the line between reality and illusion, exploring the turbulent journey of a faded actor seeking redemption and relevance.
A Masterpiece of Critique: Iñárritu’s Bold Vision
Renowned filmmaker Alejandro G. Iñárritu, known for his works such as “21 Grams,” “The Revenant,” “Babel,” and “Biutiful,” has firmly established himself within the Hollywood ecosystem, receiving acclaim from wide audiences. Particularly notable are his films exploring the realm of hyperlink cinema, showcasing Iñárritu’s ability to maintain clarity amidst complex timelines. With his 2014 masterpiece, “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” Iñárritu greets the audience in his distinctive style, crafting what could be considered his most critical production to date.
With a star-studded cast featuring the likes of Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, and Naomi Watts, “Birdman” manages to captivate viewers’ attention, while also earning accolades at the Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Cinematography. The film’s premise revolves around Riggan (Michael Keaton), an actor attempting to find his place in the art world after his stint as a superhero in a blockbuster trilogy. Even this brief description reveals the film’s underlying criticism. From the art community to superhero films and from restrictive roles to audience behavior, “Birdman” relentlessly takes aim at the theater and cinema industry, delving into the personal reflections of these issues.
The Complex Layers of Birdman: From Superheroes to Sticky Roles
The eponymous Birdman is a fictional superhero character from a film franchise. Riggan, in the past, portrayed Birdman, which brought him fame and generated billions of dollars at the box office, but also led to the superhero roles haunting actors throughout their careers, as we often witness in today’s Hollywood. Iñárritu showcases Birdman’s sticky persona through the voices Riggan hears in his head. Whenever Riggan finds himself alone, he hears Birdman’s voice, subjected to the irritating and rude accusations of this character. The initial conflict between Birdman and Riggan depicted in the film criticizes the stickiness that accompanies superhero roles, emphasizing the simple fact that the characters we, as viewers, casually address by their names, have complex inner worlds and struggles.
However, besides these dialogues between Riggan and Birdman, Riggan exhibits the ability to move objects and even levitate when he is alone. This illustrates that Birdman, while a nuisance for Riggan, also empowers him. Finding a Broadway stage for a play adaptation of Raymond Carver’s works, having a mortgaged house to fund the production, and even the genuine desire of actors to work with Riggan are all primarily driven by his past portrayal of Birdman and the fame that came with it. While Iñárritu successfully portrays the impact of sticky roles, he also astutely demonstrates the opportunities that these actors gain through such choices, effectively conveying these circumstances to us, the audience. Furthermore, the presence of actors such as Jeremy Renner, Michael Fassbender, and Robert Downey Jr., who are known for their superhero roles, serves as a reminder that the film critiques not only the characters but also the vast cinema industry.
“Birdman” is a thought-provoking film that masterfully dissects the intricate workings of the film industry. Iñárritu’s unique style, coupled with a stellar cast and an engaging storyline, challenges viewers to reflect on the complexities and consequences of fame, the nature of artistic expression, and the entanglements within the theater and cinema worlds. With meticulous attention to detail and a skillful interplay of characters and themes, Iñárritu delivers a powerful critique that demands attention and sparks conversation among film enthusiasts and critics alike.
Those involved in the film industry are not limited to actors, directors, or producers. Birdman includes and criticizes not only the audience, press team, but also the critics themselves within this community. The overly personal questions posed during interviews, the obsession with sequels, and the constant manipulation of viewers are among the factors that Iñárritu critiques. The cinema press, who have no interest in hearing about Riggan’s transition from blockbuster Hollywood films to philosophical theater adaptations, suddenly become excited at the mention of Birdman 4, finding yet another way to manipulate the audience. While the producers are driven by money and the cinema press by a thirst for readership, true art is masked and the unseen face of the silver screen is revealed. However, Iñárritu doesn’t stop there. Riggan repeatedly questions what art truly is. Are philosophical approaches, method acting, and Carver adaptations truly “art”? Iñárritu does not hesitate to ask these thought-provoking questions.
As previously mentioned, Riggan is a middle-aged man who leaves behind a successful career to pursue art. However, the so-called art community that Riggan seeks refuge in cannot escape Iñárritu’s satirical crosshairs. Mike Shinner (Edward Norton), whose inclusion in the cast brings joy to everyone, appears before us wearing a fedora hat, coat, and scarf that would fit the stereotype of an art enthusiast. His first action is to name-drop famous and accomplished actors such as Geraldine Page, Helen Hays, Jason Robards, and Marlon Brando. He wants to play some of these characters alongside Riggan and suggests altering their lines. Mike’s encounter with the audience happens in a way that likely matches our preconceived notion of an “artist.” In this segment, Iñárritu introduces us to a character that fits our perception of what an artist should be.
However, Mike is, in fact, quite rude and brash. His sexual jokes, the fabricated interview he gives for the newspaper, and the nervous breakdown he experiences while drunk during a preview reveal Mike’s true character. This serves as Iñárritu’s critique of those who present themselves as artists, highlighting their problematic nature. The lines that Mike wants to change are actually direct excerpts from Raymond Carver’s story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” on which the play is based. Thus, the dialogue Mike believes Riggan wrote is, in fact, written by Carver. This small detail hints at the possibility that Mike never bothered to read the story he is adapting.
Unmasking the Art Community: Critiques and Contradictions
The film Birdman artfully dissects the film industry, encompassing not only the players on screen but also those behind the scenes. Iñárritu’s sharp critique challenges the audience, press, and even the critics themselves. Through its scathing portrayal of the art community, the film prompts reflection on the true nature of art and the questionable practices that surround it. With seamless transitions and a thought-provoking narrative, Birdman unveils the complexities and contradictions of the film industry, leaving viewers contemplating the blurred lines between reality and illusion, fame and artistry.
The art community that Iñárritu criticizes in Birdman is not limited to just the character of Mike. Despite their personal issues with each other, the actors’ cheerful greetings to the audience remind us how little we actually know about the events happening behind the scenes. The response given to Lesley’s (Naomi Watts) question of “Why don’t I have self-respect?” with “Because you’re an actor” sheds light on what those behind the scenes expect from aspiring artists. Sacrificing self-respect to maintain precarious careers is a sign of how corrupt the figures holding the art community’s reins can be. Tabitha Dickinson’s desire to ruin a play she hasn’t even seen, and her power to do so, adds salt to Riggan’s inner wounds, becoming one of the reasons why Iñárritu criticizes the art community in the film. In this critique, Iñárritu skillfully uses not only the screenplay but also instruments like cinematography and editing.
Throughout Birdman, a sense of chaos permeates the narrative. However, this chaos doesn’t overwhelm the audience; instead, it evokes a familiar feeling of everyday chaos, offering a sense of typical disorder. The primary reason for this chaotic storytelling is the externalization of Riggan’s internal journey. Riggan experiences the same criticisms mentioned above, and Iñárritu chooses to depict the character’s psychological state directly. The presence of the Birdman character is itself an expression, while Riggan’s conversations with him symbolize his confrontation with himself. The internal struggle that persists from the beginning to the end of the film also profoundly impacts the camera work and editing. Birdman eschews conventional editing techniques used to depict the passage of time. Time transitions are often subtly hinted, sometimes solely through costume changes, or even presented in a single continuous shot. These abrupt time shifts speed up both Riggan’s experience of time and that of the audience, allowing us to feel the chaotic and rushed emotions the character experiences. In certain instances, the passage of time is conveyed using time-lapse techniques.
Moreover, in two instances where this technique is employed, Riggan is seen passed out on the street due to alcohol and later faces Birdman, making a definitive decision. In both cases, Riggan experiences some of the calmest moments he encounters throughout the film. The scene where Riggan runs naked in Times Square represents the pinnacle of this chaotic storytelling. In this scene, Riggan’s psychological state becomes so complex that the chaos extends beyond affecting only him, encompassing everyone around him. The most tranquil element throughout the film is arguably the cinematography. The camera, which showcases all the critical perspectives, chaos, and psychological weight, follows a calm and steady tracking, devoid of sudden movements. Just like a person walking, turning, and occasionally waiting, the camera reminds us that we are accustomed to this chaos. Iñárritu’s expression of chaos takes a serene and understandable path, rather than a noisy and jumbled one, as expected by the audience.
Riggan’s story is intriguing, familiar, and deeply affecting. The film’s ending remains shrouded in mystery, open to various interpretations, including whether it falls into the category of a “good ending.” In the play Riggan adapts, in addition to playing the main character, he also portrays a character named “Ed” who commits suicide at the end of the play. However, it is mentioned at one point in the play that Ed couldn’t even succeed in ending his own life. Another person who fails to commit suicide, of course, is Riggan himself. Riggan’s hyper-realistic acting reaches such a level that, like Ed, he wants to end his life but fails to do so. While this elevates him to higher levels in the “art” community, whether his transformation aligns him with one of the “artists” Iñárritu criticizes remains a mystery. Regardless of the film’s outcome, Iñárritu leaves the decision-making power to the audience. By granting viewers the right to make the correct decision that the actors themselves couldn’t, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) stands as one of the most accomplished works in Iñárritu’s filmography, leaving us, the curious spectators, a touch more disheartened in our search for true art.
Last modified: July 7, 2023