Editor’s Note: Please be aware that this article contains some swearing.
In course of tonight’s Oscars, the Gulbenkian has been showing the all-important Best Picture nominees. And one of them, of course was Birdman. Writing a review about this film is like writing a review about another review – it’s threatened to become redundant from the very beginning. But I’ll always give it a try.
Birdman tells the story of a former Hollywood star, Riggan Thomson, played by Michael Keaton. He used to have great success for playing the edgy superhero, Birdman, in a trilogy of blockbuster action movies. But now that he has become too old for his role, Riggan tries to restore his credibility as an artist by writing, directing and starring in his Broadway adaption of ‘What we talk about when we talk about Love.’ But as one would guess, he is struggling with terrible actors, a quickly shrinking budget, and his own growing self-doubts. Soon Riggan is surrounded by a maelstrom of press interviews, personal problems and simply mad theatre previews. The thought of him pulling out only makes it worse.
More important than Birdman’s story is the concept it deals with. In fact, it’s a film all about concepts. But they are not used a self-purpose. Every concept transmits an important theme or an important idea. First of all, Birdman is filmed to look like one long-sequence shot. The camera follows different characters around the Broadway theatre, then leaves them, stays in another room for a while, follows another character outside and then back again. I found myself paying more and more attention as the film went on to where they might have set the cut. But the illusion of experiencing a performance in real time held up perfectly. The result is an intensified feeling of rush which resembles Riggan’s state of mind. At the same time, it brought the movie closer to a live performance. Birdman is a movie simulating a realistic stage play about creating a stage play. You couldn’t add more meta-layers without it getting ridiculous.
Another concept by itself is the film music. Most scenes are backed by nothing but slightly out-of-tune drums. They give every casual scene a jazzy, artsy feel – which might be ironic. It’s hard to tell. But they prove to be the most effective when they intensify in an emotional scene. Somehow, a certain rhythm can manage to encapsulate rage, confusion and frustration better than any orchestra. And there is a lot of those three emotions in Birdman. In addition, the music already shows how self-aware the film is. The convoluted drum sounds coming from different corners of the cinema break with conventional music scores, which are supposed to merge with the image instead of sticking out from it. On top of that, we even get to see the drummer himself playing in a corner of the street. Impossible background music existing within the movie world – all to remind you that this is a film you are watching. Not reality, and not even fantasy. Just an artificial product.
Nevertheless, Birdman still contains a coherent story about an unharnessed actor struggling with his pride. But this is where the third and most important concept kicks in. The inner world of Riggan Thomson is explored by special-effect-heavy scenes involving telekinesis and the voice of his former role as Birdman. As mentioned before, the whole one-take-aesthetic provides the movie with a sense of authenticity which you would only get during a stage performance. But then the cinema magic of floating objects and weird camera movements is mixed in seamlessly. It reminds the audience again that we are watching a movie – nothing that is a mere construct. This is because Birdman wants to link itself to the real world. Criticising the film industry, Broadway productions, audiences that are satisfied with all the crap they are served, critics who only value pretentious ‘art’ or sensational scandals, and last but not least, self-indulged actors and directors. In this sense, Birdman is quite preachy, but what makes it likeable is that it ridicules every aspect of the film industry, including itself.
Another connection to the real world is the actors themselves. They all do a phenomenal job of portraying stereotypes of their own persona. Michael Keaton once wore plastic and leather to portray Batman in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992). Edward Norton also does a fantastic job at portraying a successful and smug actor who seems to live out his potential insanity on stage. And finally, Emma Stone, who is mostly known for supporting roles or smaller comedy movies, plays a frustrated actor’s daughter, looking for more attention and taking drugs out of sheer boredom. All the characters resemble the problems that frequently occur in Hollywood, or any other entertainment business for that matter.
Most importantly, Birdman is about how fame and stardom affects different people. Admiration is something every artist craves, to a certain degree, and it’s something you can get addicted to. Riggan Thomson wants nothing more than critical acclaim and celebrity status. It’s his egotistic greed for stardom. But at the same time, he becomes a slave to people’s expectations. The most mesmerising moments of Birdman are the blends between movie effects and theatre realism. And what they show is the painful process of gradually freeing oneself from people’s expectations.
Why do people even become artists? Why would someone become a critic? Are critics just frustrated because they lack the talent to become artists themselves? What am I doing here?
You are doing nothing but over-analysing artsy movies that you wished you could make yourself.
I think I made some valid points.
You even talked yourself down in the first paragraph. Why should anyone be reading your crudely structured thoughts? What kind of person would even bother to read far enough to see this sentence?
I just didn’t want to appear overbearing.
That’s exactly why you’ll never be famous.