Birdman, simply put, is a film about a man who rose to fame in the early 90s starring as a superhero called Birdman (played by Michael Keaton, who in real life played Batman), who wants to regain his credibility and relavance by directing and starring on Broadway in his adaptation of a Raymond Carver story. The film follows the two weeks of previews before opening night and references countless real life actors (Jeremy Renner, in a particulary great dis) while maintaining the fictional Broadway where Edward Norton and Naomi Watts play theater actors. All of this is compounded by the fact that Keaton’s Riggan thinks he can move things with his mind and hears Birdman speak to him. Simple, right?
After I saw the film, I was trying to explain it to my mom and I said it was “meta.” She said she didn’t know what that meant so I defined the term for her. Meta is most easily defined as self-referential. The term has gained popularity in the last couple of years and can refer to any work of fiction but is most widely used to describe movies and tv shows that reference other work by the actors.
Birdman is so meta that it is almost impossible to unpack. Generally, a film will have one reference or scene that is meta. The entire premise of Birdman and the fact that it was specifically written for Keaton makes it the most meta movie since Adaptation. It has enough winks and nods to Hollywood and show business to make your head spin. Hollywood film stars acting on Broadway has been a real point of contention for years, just look at a Tony awards nomination list. This film takes that critique to the next level with Edward Norton’s Mike; a movie starring a famous film actor playing a stage actor complaining about film actors who try acting on stage.
The other insider moment comes when both Riggan and Mike verbally assault New York Times theater critic Tabitha. They both fall back on the old adage, “Those who can’t, critique.” These two characters who don’t like each other share a common disdain for her. If she was even the tiniest bit talented she wouldn’t be a critic. She doesn’t risk anything but feels she has the right to judge actors who get on stage every night and risk it all. I’m sure every artistic person watching that movie wanted to stand up and applaud. They’d miss the greater point though. While Riggan and Mike are telling her she is nothing, they care so deeply about what she thinks. They are worked up precisely because they know her review is everything. If there was a negative review written about Birdman, now you know Iñárritu would dismiss it but secretly care.
For all the inventiveness and intricacies of the film, the only disappointment was the female characters. For all the attention that was paid to skewering other parts of Hollywood, it fell short on the portrayal of women. Or, maybe that is the commentary?
This film is a dizzying joyride. The camerawork takes some getting used to with its long takes and seemingly continuous movement. The scenes transition from one to the next with minimal (obvious) cuts making the days run together until it feels like one really crazy long day.
Director Alejandro González Iñárritu chooses to frame the actors in extreme close up with minimal to no reaction shots. Just long monologues where you begin to wonder if the other person in the scene is even still in the room. To me, it just emphasizes the self-centeredness of all the characters. They might as well be talking just to hear the sound of their own voice.
As a culture, we’ve gotten so used to films with splashy special effects that no one seems to ask how certain shots were accomplished because everyone thinks the answer is simply computers. Birdman brings technical prowess back to the conversation and will probably be studied for years to come in film schools. The inventiveness of the form is the reason Iñárritu should win the Best Directing Oscar this year.
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