By Preston Wilder
Someone in the street is reciting Macbeth’s “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech. The man sounds drunk, or deranged. Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) – who’s in the process of getting drunk himself – gets a glimpse of the urban Macbeth as he wends his way down the street; he looks like a homeless person, or perhaps an out-of-work actor. “Was that too much? I was just trying to give you a range!” he tells Riggan earnestly. Even in extremis, the actor’s insecurity comes through. And Shakespeare in the street – while superhero films are making millions – how sad is that?
That, in a nutshell, is Birdman – a film about actors and acting, powered by naked desperation and a big splash of snobbery about our degraded cultural climate. The film is exhilarating, yet it’s easy to describe in a few words because it hits the same few notes over and over: a middle-aged man’s struggle to stay relevant – more than that, to “exist” – tied with an actor’s struggle to express himself, to risk everything night after night as he goes onstage. Acting in a theatre is like sitting on a high ledge and jumping (there’s a lot of sitting on ledges in this movie, and a fair bit of jumping): you might fall, and get squashed on the pavement – or you might soar like a bird, or a Birdman.
Well, no; if you jump you can only go down, surely? But Birdman traffics in a kind of magical realism – the opening shot shows Riggan levitating in his dressing-room – with theatre as the burning bubbling cauldron where magic happens. The film is pitched a couple of notches higher, more intensely than most movies; almost everyone is neurotic, from Riggan’s fellow actors to his ex-junkie daughter (Emma Stone) and even his lawyer (Zach Galifianakis). It’s claustrophobic, and ferociously acted. It lives on its nerves, and in the moment; it could almost be taking place in a single breath – and in fact it takes place in a single take (done with special effects), the film never pausing to cut, as if a cut might wake Riggan up from his private nightmare.
“This is the theatre, don’t be so self-conscious,” says Edward Norton to Stone at one point – a risky line, since Birdman itself is so self-conscious. Quoting that Macbeth speech is risky too, come to think of it, its famous description of Life – “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” – potentially applying to this virtuoso comedy-drama. Is it just a film of sound and fury, signifying nothing? Admittedly, its drama isn’t quite equal to its style: Riggan is a has-been movie star, once the hero of a superhero franchise called Birdman (Keaton himself was once Batman, of course, just as Norton was once the Incredible Hulk), now trying to remake himself as a serious stage actor in a self-penned Raymond Carver adaptation. It does sometimes feel like his plight is little more than celebrity narcissism; doesn’t he know there are people dying in Syria, etc etc?
Yet the film does touch on something universal – it’s just more apparent with actors – namely the need to be loved, or at least “to feel myself beloved” as the opening quote puts it. That’s a subtle difference, because of course you can feel beloved without actually being beloved: the people in Birdman often lie to make each other feel better (Riggan: “Was I a shitty father?”; Daughter: “You were fine”) – and of course acting itself is a lie, by definition, despite Method actors (like Norton’s character) trying to make it ‘real’. Actors end up living the lie, says Birdman. Vanity is part of their craft, ditto a kind of wilful ignorance of their true situation (the film’s subtitle is ‘The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance’). Without the fame and applause – without the love – “I don’t exist,” says Riggan, “I’m disappearing”.
What does existence even mean? For the daughter’s generation (whose “only ambition is to go viral,” as the film scathingly puts it), you don’t exist unless you’re on Facebook. For an actor, existence comes in many forms, the trick is to juggle them successfully. Riggan does remake himself in the end – in a way so literal that it’s almost comical – but only after having attempted suicide, slept on the street and, at one point, willed himself into a Hollywood action movie with a snap of his fingers. Spurred on by the voice in his head – the voice of his old alter ego – he briefly gives the people what they want, i.e. mindless explosions, then soars into the air, a middle-aged man in a raincoat floating among the New York skyscrapers in a scene that’s surprisingly magical. In Birdman, you really will believe a man can fly.
DIRECTED BY Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
STARRING Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis
US 2014 119 mins