That rather odd proposition is the subtitle of the new Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu movie Birdman. This was a movie I wasn’t particularly eager to see. I’d seen the previews several times. They featured a scene with 61-year-old Michael Keaton prancing down Broadway in jockey shorts—that and other preview shots seemed bizarre and gratuitously artsy. But several hours after T-day dinner, and with the tryptophan dulls fading, and with nothing better on locally, something kept prompting me to see this flick before it was pulled. It was not showing on many screens, and though it had gotten good reviews, it struck me as the sort of movie that would be gone in a week or two.
I did not realize prior to the credits that Innaritu was the director. He had done two other of my favorite movies: 21 Grams and Babel. Those movies are about the interconnectedness of our lives, and I found both compelling cinema. The gifted Mexican director produced, co-wrote and directed Birdman.
Keaton’s character in this dark dramedy is Riggan Thomson, a blockbuster movie superhero decades earlier, who’s trying to reimage himself and his career by acting in, producing and directing a Broadway theater production of a Raymond Carver short story: “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”—and part of the irony is that Keaton starred in several of the Batman incarnations. His antagonist is Mike Shiner, a “serious” Broadway actor played by Edward Norton. Mike is inserted into the production shortly before its premiere by the play’s female costar, Lesley, (Naomi Watts) who is in a relationship with him. To say the least Riggan is ambivalent about his play being usurped by this talented and highly acclaimed actor. The other major players are Zach Galifianakis as Riggan’s attorney and best friend Brandon and Emma Stone as his daughter and personal assistant Sam.
This film impressed me as having some of the best camera-work, cinematography and use of music ever. It was shot pretty much entirely in and around the St. James Theater in the Broadway theater district. The film’s movement has been described as a “dance” and it is. The camera follows Keaton’s character thru the theater and from one scene to another in an almost unbroken chain. The movie’s score is a strange amalgam of Mahler, Tchaikovsky and an unaccompanied drum track. It is quirky, humorous and full of “aha” moments. There is a whole sub-theme as to whether Riggan has real psychokinesis superpowers of his own–or is perhaps just psychotic. In the tradition of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Birdman it is magical realism at its best.
Keaton’s character gives is a powerful soliloquy at the play’s end. This is counterpointed by the somber opening chords of Mahler’s 9th Symphony. For my money this is some of the most profound and moving music ever composed—and I thought I was going to lose it. I likely could count on one hand the number of films that I’ve both laughed hysterically and wept at. This is the only one of recent memory. But then, like Keaton’s Riggan Thomson, I’m a little bipolar and perhaps that explains my reaction and why there is so much to like about this movie.
All the main characters are terribly flawed. Well, they’re theater people—their world is one of narcissism, art for art’s sake and make-believe. In this movie they all are a bit bipolar and like Shakespeare’s character they “strut and fret their hour upon the stage” and like the old tale told by an idiot, it’s one “signifying nothing.”
But then again, maybe Innaritu does have a message: Birdman soars. Maybe, it is that real art transcends life, it lifts us out of the dull reality where we normally reside, and like life itself, true art is a gift from God.