Home > Culture, Film, Reviews > Film Review: Birdman, or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance

Film Review: Birdman, or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance

Birdman, or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (2014; Directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu)

It’s more difficult than it may initially seem to get one’s head around Birdman. It’s a satirical comedy that isn’t all that funny and misapprehends the processes of satire, an ambitious and technically accomplished film that strives for (and is consciously concerned with) stripped-down immediacy and authenticity. It’s awkwardly rhythmic, playfully meta and stubbornly square, its themes so numerous and intertwined that it feels like it’s simultaneously about everything and nothing. Like its protagonist, a washed-up superhero movie star named Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) who stages a Broadway stage version of a Raymond Carver short story in a last-ditch effort at artistic relevance and recognition, Birdman is trying to figure out who or what it is. But that quest for self-truth is fraught, so deeply implicated in the swirling, conflicting psycho-cultural discourses of contemporary America that no self-definition can be confidently disentangled from their consequences.

It’s important to know a few things about Birdman (awkwardly subtitled The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance for reasons that become clear in its closing scene but will not otherwise be drawn out herein). First, it is directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, the massively talented Mexican auteur of the prestige dramas Babel, 21 Grams, and Biutiful. It’s his first comedy, and should arguably be his last; Iñárritu launches himself at the quest for laughs with a confidence and vigour that belies his inexperience with the genre but does not overcome it.

Second, Birdman is presented as being shot in a single take (although it could not possibly have been and doesn’t appear to be). Iñárritu’s camera follows Riggan, his fellow actors, and his professional and family circle through the corridors and rooms of the backstage of the theatre hosting his play, as well as onto the roof, into the auditorium and onto the streets of New York City beyond. Scored by the jazz drumming of Antonio Sánchez (and a few key classical pieces), the single-take conceit drives Birdman ahead in ruthless syncopation. This animating momentum renders its social and psychological commentary in a dizzying form but quite possibly contributes to the stillborn comedy, which feeds off of speed but not of this technically rigourous sort. Beyond these aesthetic and technical peculiarities, the single-take conceit doesn’t add anything tangible to Birdman‘s erection of meaning.

Third, Birdman has a lot to say (maybe too much, ultimately) about American entertainment culture, about Hollywood’s current superhero blockbuster zeitgeist and New York’s privileged circle-jerk of high-art elitism and celebrity and social media and reality television and rehab and I could go on but the very thought of it is more exhausting that Birdman can (sometimes) be. To make his Carver play work, Riggan must rely on his assistant and alienated daughter (Emma Stone), his alternately panicked and threatening friend and lawyer (Zach Galifianakis), and especially his fellow actors, including his erratic girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough), approval-seeking female lead (Naomi Watts), and a hot-shot theatre-acting vet with an uncompromising streak (Edward Norton). He must also contend with his own unravelling psyche, represented initially by a niggling, mocking, resonant voice that later inhabits a costumed version of himself as Birdman, the superhero he is lingeringly famous for portraying decades before. “Birdman” convinces Riggan that he is worthy of greatness and capable of impausible, superhuman feats, including levitation, telekinesis, flight, and making theatre relevant again (*jazzy rimshot*).

It might be worth the effort of untangling Iñárritu’s cat’s cradle of ideas and comments about American culture. His core point that “low” popular culture is, at the same time, America’s fatal weakness and its redemptive salvation is a worthy one. All national cultures utilize grandiose myths to self-legitimize, but America has uniquely turned those mythic discourses into a pervasive carpet-bombing corporate monolith of global reach that is at once glorified and derided in public life. Riggan cannot separate his own search for fulfillment, meaning, and identity from the Hollywood-fed celebutainment machine because no American really can; they are the same mechanism, the gears turning each other.

If this is taken to be true, then the internecine skirmishes between high and low culture, between stage and screen, between mass and niche appeal, between artist and critic that burst out throughout Birdman are sideline battles, mere territorial disputes. Iñárritu is canny about how little is ever won in such subcultural stand-offs, and he gleefully subverts and upends even the most righteous position-takings, turning them on a dime from noble to petty and back again. The content of the film does this as well, holding the messy thespianic project in its focus as well as the spectacular heroic destruction of the superhero epic. Low and high tussle ineptly as well, with dick jokes and slapstick sharing space with high-minded cameo references to intellectual literature, not only Carver but also Jorge Luis Borges’ Labyrinths (Norton’s Mike Shiner reads it in his tanning bed) and Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation (reflected in a dressing room mirror). This inept tussle becomes literal, when Riggan and Mike come to a physical confrontation over their competing perspectives and missions.

There’s much that’s worth knowing about Birdman, a film that oddly and miraculously works, soars even, despite evidently not working in so many visible ways. Riggan rages against the “labels” relied upon by a withering New York Times theatre critic (Lindsay Duncan) to understand works of art and, by extension, the world itself. Whatever else a critic might label Birdman, with its dismissive defiance of labels, it cannot be called lifeless. Indeed, its life and verve, peculiar and convoluted though it may be, is what carries Iñárritu’s film through the thick fragmentary underbrush that it both produces itself and whose prevalence in entertainment culture it reflects. Birdman is so resonant and existentially profound that it knows enough to reject and even mock resonance and existential profundity. Or, more vitally, to understand them as the sideline skirmishes they are, as distractions from living. But both the living and the distractions, it’s important not to forget, can be beautiful, and are the stuff that make us what we are.

Categories: Culture, Film, Reviews
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  1. January 23, 2016 at 10:30 am

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