Ignorance and virtue in Birdman

Michael Keaton

Michael Keaton

Birdman arrives on Australian screens in the middle of a popular rush of support in the run up to the Oscars. Debate over its merits continue, with critics in the US celebrating director Alejandro G Inarritu’s film as a latterday tribute to the likes of Godard and Fellini, while those who dislike the film decry it as a pretentious attempt to emulate same.

A lot of ink has been used up on a story about a superhero actor who risks his flagging career on a Broadway production of Raymond Carver’s What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Love.

Clearly there is something going on here.

The film, oddly subtitled The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance for reasons that only become clear in the final moments, concerns Riggan Thomson, an actor who became a celebrity after a series of blockbuster superhero movies – the Birdman franchise. That Riggan is played by Michael Keaton, who himself was catapulted to major celebrity status by 1989’s Batman only to retreat from the limelight shortly afterwards, feels like a knowing wink to the audience.

Regardless, Riggan’s last toss of the dice is to write, direct and star in a stage production of the Carver story. “That’s ambitious”, snarks Edward Norton’s Mike Shiner, a scene-stealing method actor who takes advantage of Riggan’s insecurity in order to make the play his own vehicle.

Riggan desperately wants the play to be a success. Not only is it a chance to rescue his career but, as he explains to Shiner, he only became an actor because of a chance encounter with Carver after a school production he appeared in. Adapting What Do We Talk About… is not just a shallow exercise in vanity, as Shiner or the local theatre critics suspect.

Ultimately it is Riggan’s own desperate search for something meaningful.

He can also hear the voice of his winged alter-ego Birdman in his head, hectoring him about abandoning Hollywood and blockbuster excess for the humble authenticity of the stage. Riggan Thomson is clearly losing his mind.

So the question becomes, how much of what we are seeing is real at all?

Any attempt to describe the ins and outs of Inarritu’s film would no doubt receive a Shiner-esque snarky reply. It is silly, but at times very profound. The film mimics the excitement of live theatre with a well-edited conceit of ‘no cuts’. Scenes are run together breathlessly accompanied by Antonio Sanchez’s jazz score.

On the other hand, while criticising Hollywood, the mocking parody of action movies introduced is genuinely quite thrilling. Birdman appears on camera to lecture the audience about how much they enjoy violence and destruction while the street behind him is torn apart by giant robots. There is even a fine joke about how all the A-list actors Riggan wants to join the play’s cast are locked into superhero movie contracts.

Despite Riggan’s hallucinations and the backstage drama, arguably the film’s key scene is a confrontation between the Hollywood writer/director/star with the New York Times theatre critic Tabitha Dickinson (an icily superior Lindsay Duncan). It is a furiously angry exchange.

Dickinson sizes up the man before her as a superficial celebrity looking to capitalise on his fame at the expense of real stage performers. Riggan accuses her of relying solely on critical ‘labels’ in her printed arguments in order to appear insightful.

Keaton’s controlled rage is masterful here, a reminder of his dynamic comedic performances going back to 1982’s Night Shift, while Duncan’s poise and withering glances indicate a sense of diamond-hard certainty. She is not merely arrogant in her dismissal of contemporary fame, she is righteously indignant.

What impresses most about Birdman is how much fun is had with being clever. It is, like Tabitha, almost erudite in its artistic poise (e.g. the credits appearing in the style of Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou), while being wildly experimental like Riggan. This is exciting cinema, and how often do you hear that said?

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