We often write through frames – such as national cinema, authorship or institutional context. With Birdman, Mexican auteur, Alejandro González Iñárritu, has made that beautifully awkward. Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) has been successful in a superhero franchise several years before but is now looking to relaunch and reinvent himself in the theatre. He has adapted Raymond Carver’s short story, What do we talk about, when we talk about love into a play in which he will direct and star. Mike (Edward Norton), a last minute replacement but a seasoned theatre actor states the obvious when he says: “that’s ambitious.” The clash between theatre and film as different art mediums is centre stage and it’s given a voice through Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan exuding her own verbal dry ice), the highbrow, New York critic who can destroy someone’s play and who announces to Riggan that’s exactly what she is going to do to this work of the theatrical ingénue. What follows is Riggan’s slow unravelling in the face of opening night. Whether there is an ultimate triumph will not be written here – not only for ‘no spoiler’ purposes but because it may also depend on how you read it.
That the film has several layers and is self-reflexive in being all about the film industry and film as a medium is visible early on. Riggan’s dressing room mirror has the gnomic statement ‘A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing’ (apparently Susan Sontag’s) stuck to it in the motivational corner and it could be a statement about so many parts of the film itself. This includes Riggan’s relationships, the play and his performance in it as well as the film itself. Theatre and film critics are harshly treated in this story of artistic revival and courage; as in many films before this, they are unpleasant algae feeding of real matter. Many reviews have certainly referred back to such creatures as Addison de Witt (George Sanders in All About Eve (1950)) and J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster in Sweet Smell of Success (1957)).
So, take ‘things’ for what they are, including this film, it suggests, frames and criticisms of all kinds are simply distractions. Not least, it tells you to stop thinking about Iñárritu’s authorship. This film has simply baffled all attempts to place it in his oeuvre. Taken for what it is, it’s a very uncharacteristic and entertaining story of a rollercoaster ride towards opening night on Broadway for a once big Hollywood star, his cast and his family. It’s a rollercoaster ride you are made part of because of the technical brilliance of the device of an apparent uninterrupted take for its entire length and the digital effects which take us flying with Riggan, sharing his moments of fantasy (perhaps?), over the New York cityscape. Just like Riggan’s airborne escapes, critics such as Paul Julian Smith in Sight and Sound have embraced Iñárritu’s liberation from his previous body of work. Smith refers to the “po-faced” Biutiful (2010). If The Big Lebowski was the so-called ‘fart in the face’ of the Academy after the Oscar-winning Fargo (by the Coen brothers) then there feels a far greater release of artistic tension – and seriousness – by Iñárritu, this time in the face of his own work.
However, it is not just focused on this one ‘thing’, but is a film deliberately functioning on several levels and on all the information we bring into the cinema with some witty, satirical points to make about the media context these artists function in. If Iñárritu is expressing liberation he is also identifying the constraints of the media actors, directors and producers (Riggan is, after all, embodying all three) face in the modern digital film world and its context of social media.
Actually, the film feels satisfyingly old school in other ways. This is absolutely the messy, shambling backstage world where Bette Davis’ Margot Channing drags off her wig and moans at Thelma Ritter’s Birdie. Lindsay Duncan’s tense performance as the critic, Tabitha, recalls deWitt’s compulsive need for power (and actual power) as the key theatre critic of the day. In a newspaper article, writer Anthony Quinn traces the problems of the critic in general in film fiction. Although in order to focus ultimately on his own book on English theatre, it covers some interesting territory. He refers to the fact that ‘Tabitha’ is a witch’s name (very different to the suggestion of ‘Addison deWitt’ with all its English, eighteenth-century, Alexander Pope ambience) as if a woman who would destroy the work of men can only be ‘witch-like.’ In fact, Duncan delivers – eloquently and more strongly than that suggests – exactly a DeWittian high culture disgust for all that popular culture represents and a cold, intellectual anger that ‘Birdman’ would intrude on their territory.
For a film that is about the theatre, the form of it is crucial. And in a film that is about the clash of film and theatre so directly, there is a brilliant simplicity in deciding to use a stylistic device – most famously rendered in Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) – to portray the developing tension between Riggan and his situation, his struggling daughter, his fellow actors, their relationships to each other, the problems of the producer, the interaction between ‘Birdman’ and his fans and, not forgetting, the increasing breakdown between the reality of Riggan and Birdman inside one or other of their heads. It is this device, alongside the tense drum score by Antonio Sanchez, which ensures we are inside the thing itself (a score not eligible for awards due to the presence of other, non-original music).
The film is founded on digital effects – just as much as any superhero film – but they are done in order to bring forward a very actor-centred and talkative script. High tech is employed for low tech purposes for much of the time. Riggan is searching for authenticity in returning to the stage – everything about this film suggests a real delight in artifice.
Iñárritu paints a clash of old and new – Riggan dismisses new media but finds himself ‘trending’ when caught outside in his underpants. Returning to theatre does not mean escape from the modern world, but something essential that’s present in the best of that old-style Hollywood filmmaking whilst utilising very modern techniques of digital cinematography to accomplish it. The use of the close-up on Keaton, the praise he has earned for exposing his (ageing) face, is one of the ways we experience his collapsing inner world. It’s the most powerful device still in cinema. Roland Barthes wrote about Greta Garbo, that her face on the screen “belongs to that moment in cinema when capturing the human face still plunged audiences into the deepest ecstasy, when one literally lost oneself in a human image as one would in a philtre.” (‘The Face of Garbo’, Roland Barthes, Mythologies). Keaton’s face in this is certainly the antidote to the old-style Hollywood close-up, but it still allowed for getting lost – this time in a face written over with its life and experience. I’ll mention I went back to Sunset Boulevard (1950) after seeing Birdman, and I think there’s something of the Norma Desmond as well as the Margot Channing about Riggan. And just as with the surprising effect (on an audience) of Norma’s or Margot’s warped egotism, it’s Riggan’s flaws and failures and insecurity that, for all its cleverness and artifice, means this film could be intensely moving and, not least, because we see him close-up as he abandons ego and faces up to himself. Emma Stone’s brilliantly delivered speech as his daughter is crucial here – that nothing and no-one finally matters. Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche New York (2008) does resonate at several points (not least in the break down of fiction and reality) but that film takes the dark, novelistic rather than the lighter, comic and cinematic path that Birdman chooses. Iñárritu and Emmanuel Lubezki (cinematographer)’s ‘seamless’ take allows cinema to provide another kind of literal ‘losing of oneself’ in this film. For all the digital effects and flights of the superhero film (neatly satirised here) it’s still human story at the centre – and a crucial part of why it’s laugh out loud funny. This old lady sat amongst the students at Tyneside Cinema and we both laughed, often together. Not always, of course, since they lack the comic advantage of a midlife crisis.
And finally about framing the discussion. Gravity (2013) showed the triumph of cinematography and individual performance (Sandra Bullock) over a weak plot and script and its ability author a story mainly through the visceral experience of the inky-black 3D. Perhaps it’s time to shift authorship further (something Kaufman managed as a writer) and refuse the cinematographers cry that their art should always only be in the service of the film. Perhaps I’m going to start making an appointment with Emmanuel Lubezki’s immersive cinematographic authorship.