Alejandro Iñárritu’s Birdman, Or: (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) dedicates itself to providing commentary on the state of the dramatic arts, especially in Hollywood, while also offering a haunting, too-familiar meditation on ego and inner conflict. These two foci are married through telling the story of an actor named Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) who is desperately trying to make his mark on the New York drama scene by directing and acting in his own adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story called, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Years ago, Riggan played a superhero named, “Birdman” in a trilogy of movies that, while successful, labeled him as an unserious, talentless Hollywood actor and he desperately wishes to shed this characterization of himself.
In fact, the tension between large Hollywood franchises (particularly of the Superhero genre) and the more artistically genuine is a recurring theme in Birdman, which plays out not only via the drama on screen, but also within Riggan’s soul as he resists the disembodied voice of Birdman (the character) encouraging him to return to that franchise and the fame and glory it promises. Birdman wants Riggan to stop pretending that he is an artist, that he has something important to say, and instead embrace that which he does well, regardless of its particular value. In that sense, Birdman is a very humanizing expression of self-doubt and fear, which makes Riggan’s plight immediately relatable, despite how alien and strange the particulars of staging a play may seem to us in the audience.
As such, Birdman has a great deal to say not only about the current state of movie culture, but also of the inner conflict within each of us. A brilliant example of the former occurs very early in the film when the second lead of Riggan’s play is injured on set and a replacement must be found. Riggan bounces names off of his producer (a scene-stealing Zach Galifianakis): Woody Harrelson? Sorry, he is finishing up The Hunger Games. Fassbender? Nope, he is shooting, “The prequel to the X-Men prequel”. Jeremy Renner, who has won awards? He’s an Avenger. “Shit, they got him, too?” Riggan laments, as if losing an ally to some unyielding enemy.
This environment challenges Riggan to resist his own mega-franchise, and he hopes of doing something of artistic value – something important: his play. Birdman is shot in a style which beautifully espouses this very idea: the film appears to be a single, continuous shot, with each scene leading directly to the next, with occasional jumps forward in time. This lack of any “movie magic” style editing gives the film a play-like feel, as though we could be watching this story on stage. It creates a visual style which exemplifies the aesthetic that it is championing, and so is a brilliant way for Iñárritu to show the audience what position this film takes on the question of “Big Hollywood”. And, it is in direct contrast to some special-effects infested, “eye-pleasing” epic Hollywood film – a contrast that is provided directly to the audience at one point in the story. However, I think it is important to realize that this question is not presented as solved by the film: the major antagonist provides a similar argument, yet ultimately provides the movie with its subtitle.
At its core, Birdman is a story about inner conflict and artistic expression, amid the backdrop of the culture surrounding the dramatic arts. In that context, it manages to present questions critical to our understanding of the current state of popular movie culture, of the risks taken by those driving that culture, and of the difficulty in judging or critiquing that culture in a knee-jerk way. But the true strength of Birdman lay in its exploration of self-doubt, inner conflict, and need for appreciation (artistic or otherwise). Either of these themes being explored by the ablest of storytellers and actors would be cause for great intrigue and celebration. That both are so expertly intertwined and cohesive makes Birdman a must-watch (and a worthy winner of Best Picture, by the way); do not avoid experiencing this astounding film.