Theatre: The Movie

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorace)
(USA, 118 min.)
Dir. Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Writ. Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicholás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo
Starring : Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis , Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough,  Amy Ryan, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts
Michael Keaton as Riggan and Edward Norton as Mark in Birdman.
Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Michael Keaton, Batman himself, hit so rock bottom a few years ago that his biggest credit in the few years preceding Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), aside from a supporting role in RoboCop, is the 2013 thriller/inadvertent comedy Penthouse North. Penthouse North is so cheap and ridiculous that it substitutes both Manhattan and Afghanistan with a refurbished No Frills grocery in the middle of suburban Ottawa—yes, Ottawa. Filmmaking doesn’t get much lower for a Hollywood icon than shooting a Netflix-grade turkey in a bankrupt Canadian grocery store.

The silver lining of Penthouse North, however, is that virtually nobody saw it except for this here blogger,  a few passholders and some “yay, local content!” people who caught the film when it screened at the Ottawa Little Theatre at OIFF 2013. It’s funny to see the low of Keaton’s career on a movie screen in a dramatic theatre, since the high of his career—Birdman—takes live theatre, kicks it in the pants, and reinvents the art form. Birdman is a marvellous film experience and much of this credit is largely due to Keaton’s fearless reinvention of himself as an actor in the vein of Mickey Rourke’s comeback in The Wrestler. Keaton's career-best performance is a thrill and it's one of the most unique feats of screen acting in years.

Birdman heralds something new, insane, and brilliant when it opens with Keaton’s character Riggan Thomson levitating in his tighty whities while nattering to himself that the playhouse dressing room smells like balls. The weird thing is that the voice the audience first hears in Birdman isn’t Riggan’s. It’s that of Birdman, the superhero Riggan played years ago. Riggan speaks in a lower Birdman voice much similar to Christian Bale’s oft-lampooned “Batman voice.” Riggan, a character defined by delusions of grandeur, self-mythology, self-deprecation, and perhaps some mild form of schizophrenia, is a zany mass of contractions that few actors receive the pleasure of untangling.

Keaton gutsily leaps into the role and offers a case of art imitating life that’s almost too good to be true as Riggan consumes himself with his self-directed Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love” with hopes of reinventing himself as an actor. The play is a step away from the cloak and cape that define him as a Hollywood has-been. Keaton, rather, takes the part and grabs it by the throat, since Birdman is a sophisticated piece of cinema that largely rests on the strengths of its actors. Superhero stars are rarely perceived to be doing much heavy lifting in the movies, aside from showcasing some CGI strength, yet Birdman director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel) shoots the film in jaw-dropping long takes that demand the ensemble to play out massive chunks of dialogue without a break. Keaton unmasks himself completely and plays a range of emotions—crazy, funny, desperate, and grandiose—on a nimble scale and he shows a range of superpowers greater than anything the likes of Batman or Birdman keep hidden in their armour.

Alejandro González Iñárritu, who drops the ‘González’ this time for a cleaner ‘G.’ in the credits, injects the film with the intense emotional realism that defines his previous works, like 21 Grams, Babel, or Amorres Perros. He and DP Emanuel Lubezki manoeuver around the wings of Broadway’s St. James theatre (and a Hollywood set) and get up close in the actors’ faces while skirting around the space of the theatre in extended movements that melt the raw, intense emotion of the actors into the form of the film itself. The fluid long takes of Birdman mesh brilliantly with its backstage setting, since Riggan and Keaton’s comeback becomes an actor’s showpiece. The ensemble is terrific overall—there’s not a false note among the cast—with Keaton’s work really operating in a league of its own while Edward Norton is uproariously cocky and Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough are especially feisty.

The nature of the film also calls upon the actors to achieve the tricky feat of acting for the camera by performing on stage on film. The tangible theatricality of Birdman gives this biting satire weight and grandeur, since its evisceration of stardom, celebrity, and pseudo-artistic BS is spot-on. (The dark humour and sarcastic tone of Birdman is very precise and very, very funny.) Anything that’s the slightest bit overblown shows the absurdity of Riggan’s fanaticism, while the offstage scenes downplay the drama and pull the characters down to earth. Both the onstage and offstage moments feel equally authentic since Iñárritu lets them play out in one fluid take. There’s as much honesty in performance for an actor as there is in life itself, and Birdman sublimely allows the actors to feel more real and relatable the more it lets them show off.

The cinematically theatrical form of Birdman makes the film an experience a true original. The virtue of ignorance in Birdman is one’s obliviousness of the edits that merge the shots together, since the wonder to digital editing allows the shots to fuse more seamlessly than they have ever before. Birdman features some stealthy long take trickery in the vein of Alfred Hitchcock’s fake long take film Rope, in which the edits camouflage themselves amongst the movement of the camera, and editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrone faultlessly step between doorways and interior/exterior space without revealing the edits. Birdman, then, feels like live theatre on film or like theatre come to life. It has an energy unto itself, a form unto itself, as What We Talk about When We Talk about Love unfurls with more depth and substance than it could ever have on stage since Iñárritu reveals aspects of the production to which no member of the audience could have a vantage point. The intimate glimpses into the production reveal what inspires the actors as they forge and shape their characters, and it shows how life becomes art as they walk in one unbroken shot from the world of rehearsals to the world of the stage.

Then there’s the character of Birdman, who ensures that the film isn’t all about hoity-toity theatre. Riggan is, after all, a precursor to the superhero craze that’s sweeping Hollywood into an unending onslaught of Marvel movies. Riggan, like Keaton, is to blame for an excess of capes and paychecks that taint talented actors like Michael Fassbender, Woody Harrelson, and “that guy from The Hurt Locker.” (Birdman has a lot of fun naming names.) The base-ness of being an action star versus being an actor runs through Birdman like the hypnotic insecurities of Nina’s drive in Black Swan as Riggan battles his inner monologue with Birdman and sizes up his own inadequacies by padding himself with supernatural powers.

Several people call Riggan out on being a hack and a phony, especially his Broadway snob co-star Mike (Norton) and his jittery daughter/assistant Sam (Emma Stone, who enjoys a few remarkable scenes), but his biggest critic is the film’s central critic, the New York Times theatre reviewer named Tabitha (an effectively wry Lesley Duncan). Tabitha is a snobby old battle-ax, an esoteric intellectual who believes that film actors and theatre actors should never mingle and that Riggan’s work is inherently inferior, although she herself has yet to see it. Birdman, however, shows theatre as the less-sophisticated of the two art forms as it recreates the honesty and sense of ephemerality that exists in live theatre, and it one-ups the power of a stage by giving the actors conventional dramatic work, but then affording them extra dimensions, especially Keaton, as the camera thrusts them into close-ups and they shatter their character’ with an intimacy of emotion that simply cannot be registered onstage. The film also knows the audience’s inherent boredom with using any art form simply as a vehicle for storytelling as it evolves Riggan’s alter-ego interludes as Birdman into breathtaking jolts in which zany explosions, wild action, and the thrill of flying find the truth and comfort in Hollywood escapism.

Birdman might be a highly stylized flurry of form and mechanics—one can almost sense the amount of work that goes into coordinating each frame of the film—yet the whole affair feels like two hours of jazzy riffing. There’s a thrill of spontaneity and of improvisation even though the film is so obviously orchestrated. One aspect that helps is arguably the energetic drum score by Antonio Sanchez that ripples in and out of the diegesis as it plays a role in the noise of the city streets or as a maddening pulse for Riggan’s volatile psychology. Keaton himself becomes unhinged as the drums reach their crescendo, and Birdman, like Riggan’s play, beats with experimentation and reinvention. This jazzy film is a triumph of reinvention.

Rating: ★★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is now playing in theatres from Fox Searchligh Pictures. It screens in Ottawa at The ByTowne and  Landmark Kanata.

What did you think of Birdman?