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November 6, 2014

BEGINNERS AT LOVE: Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

All great amusements are dangerous to the Christian life; but among all those which the world has invented there is none more to be feared than the theater.” ~~Blaise Pascal

Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Birdman is spectacular! A cast of marvelous actors deliver energetic, committed performances – Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts – and unite as a near perfect ensemble with a kinetic Michael Keaton at the center. Keaton is Riggan Thomson, a washed up actor who came to fame and fortune as superhero Birdman. Riggan risks humiliation and ruin in his Broadway debut, directing and starring in a dramatic adaptation he has written of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”

Michael Keaton in Birdman
After a serene opening scene – Riggan meditating, and levitating, in his dressing room – a frantic sense of urgency overtakes the action. Yet despite its frenetic pace, the sense of meditation never recedes. At an eleventh hour rehearsal before the play’s preview performance, an arc light falls, knocking the actor below out of consciousness and out of the cast. Big names are tossed about, not simply as replacements but as audience draws: Woody Harrelson? Tied up with The Hunger Games. Michael Fassbender? Contracted to X-Men. Robert Downey, Jr.? Out on the Iron Man set. But wait… What about Mike Shiner? Yeah! Of course! Genius!
Edward Norton in The Incredible Hulk
From the Icarus-referencing title onward, Birdman takes up one mythical or metaphysical motif and one genre after another. Just as all superheroes are doppelgängers of their alter egos, a sort of doubling squared takes place in Iñárritu’s casting. Edward Norton, who plays the difficult Shiner, was the Incredible Hulk while Michael Keaton was the original screen Batman five Batmans back. In yet another layering, Birdman’s voice schizophrenically dogs Riggan’s consciousness, the same voice of reckless hubris that drove Icarus to ignore the warnings of his father, Daedalus.
Michael Keaton in Birdman
The theater, with its narrow, subterranean hallways and dressing rooms, its catwalk, its banks of stairs up and down, down and up, is itself a character. Daedalus built the Labyrinth for King Minos to imprison the Minotaur, and here, Riggan is trapped within the labyrinthian coils of his twin dramatis personae – Birdman and Carver’s Mel McGinnis juxtaposed against his real life roles as father, ex-husband, lover, and friend.
Michael Keaton and Amy Ryan in Birdman
That any number of the greatest male actors of our generation have starred in comic book-inspired superhero action flicks is the hand line that raises the house curtain on Iñárritu’s manic meditation on the long lived cultural debate over “high” vs. “low” culture. High/low conceits are planted everywhere. Sunsan Sontag, Jorge Luis Borges, Roland Barthes (and probably others I missed) are invoked along the way. Riggan, famous only for his superhero incarnation, carries an aspirational talisman, a cocktail napkin on which the writer, upon dropping by the young actor’s dressing room, penned, "Thank you for an honest performance. Ray Carver." Iñárritu seems to insist that this dichotomy – between high and low, serious and comic, important and frivolous – is a false one. Humor and absurdity inform our existential dread just as the pathos and tragedy inherent in comedy make us laugh. It’s a mash up.
Birdman is also a meditation on desire – the universal desire to leave a legacy generally and the desire for celebrity specifically, and on aging, a double edged sword of impotence – artistic (Riggan)/literal (Mike) – and the wisdom of maturity to accept with grace the futility of such desire.

As self-reflexive drama, Birdman recalls Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s classic 1950 All About Eve and might put one in mind of El Pachuco’s prologue in Luis Valdez’s 1981 film adaptation of his play Zoot Suit:
“Ladies and Gentlemen, The movie you are about to see is a construct of fact and fantasy. But relax, weigh the facts, and enjoy the pretense. Our pachuco realities will only make sense if you grasp their stylization. It was the secret fantasy for pachuco to put on the zoot suit and play the myth.”
In the extremism of its idiosyncratic approach to questions of transcendence and salvation, Birdman has much in common with another seriocomic film, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s 1973 The Holy Mountain, which even more than Birdman, treads the boards on a dangerously fine line between chewing the scenery and the revelation of narrative truth. Birdman tackles deep metaphysical questions about the role of art in our understanding of being in the world, time and space, of cause and effect, and possibility, with an overarching self-awareness that existence is the Scottish play’s tale “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” as a street busker toward the end of Birdman loudly declaims.
Alejandro Jodorowsky's The Holy Mountain
I think of Iñárritu as an auteur director, but the creation that is Birdman showcases the twin dramatic crafts of theater/cinema as the epitome of the collaborative arts. Indeed, the interior stand-in for the St. James Theater is populated with the many craftspeople who make the show go on. Iñárritu’s screenplay was co-written with Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr., and Armando Bo. The play within the play is itself an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” and the whole is such a dizzying, dazzling metanarrative, metafictive kaleidoscope of cinematic, dramatic, and literary self-reflexivity that it leaves us gasping and grasping at allusions as we swirl into the vortex of its climax.
Michael Keaton and Edward Norton in Birdman
Emmanuel Lubezki’s breathtaking cinematography – with plunging, soaring, volant traveling shots that whoosh, sweep, swoop – gives the illusion that the two hours unfold in one continuous take. Edited by Stephen Mirrione (21 Grams, Babel, and Biutiful, and winner of the 2000 Academy Award for Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic) and Douglas Crise (21 Grams), the compositing is so seamless as to be reminiscent of cinematographer Tillman Büttner’s single 96-minute Steadicam sequence for Alexander Sokurov’s 2002 Russian Ark. Interweaving the whole is a soundtrack of Rachmaninoff’s Second, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth, and Mahler’s Ninth, punctuated with Antonio Sanchez’s percussive, pulsating original score that accentuates the actors’ intensity and the story’s eddied acceleration.

There is a passage in Carver’s story that does not appear in Riggan’s play within the play, but it informs the whole of Birdman – the superhero-backstory on the one hand and the interdependence of its troupe on the other:
[Mel said,] “If I could come back again in a different life, a different time and all, you know what? I’d like to come back as a knight. You were pretty safe wearing all that armor. …. [W]hat I liked about knights … was that they had that suit of armor, you know, and they couldn’t get hurt very easy.”
“But sometimes they suffocated in all that armor, Mel. … I read somewhere that they’d fall off their horses and not be able to get up because they were too tired to stand with all that armor on them. They got trampled by their own horses sometimes.”

“That’s terrible,” Mel said. “That’s a terrible thing, Nicky. I guess they’d just lay there and wait until somebody came along and made a shish kebob out of them. …. Some vassal would come along and spear the bastard in the name of love. Or whatever the fuck it was they fought over in those days.”
Love is vulnerability. Love is collaboration and reciprocity, a dance between lovers and confidantes, among family, friends, congregants, theater company, and fellow travelers. Love is hurt, rejection, resentment, and loss. Love is complicated. Within their alienation, arrogance, egotism, and rage, Iñárritu’s constellation of characters remain frightened and kind and genuinely loving souls.
Michael Keaton and Emma Stone in Birdman
Just as the classic myths of the Greek pantheon give narrative structure to the chaos of human existence, so the lowly superhero operates in a mythopoeic realm. Myth is the vehicle by which we try to come to terms with the human condition – not necessarily come to understand it, but come to terms with it. Movies vs. theater, comics vs. literature, pop vs. classic culture. The heart’s truth can be situated high or low. Iñárritu’s Birdman lovingly limns both.
“I could hear my heart beating,” Carver’s story ends. “I could hear everyone’s heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.”

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