“A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing.”
Riggan Thomson was once a movie star, someone who donned a Birdman costume and raked in millions as fans scrambled over each other to buy their tickets. Now, he’s been replaced by the likes of Robert Downey Jr. and Michael Fassbender–both name dropped in the film–and is in the theater business, putting together Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. He’s struggling to stay relevant, to still “exist”, in a world driven by social media and blockbusters and viral videos, and Iñárritu’s film becomes an examination of a man both driven and brought down by his ego, of a man whose earlier fame follows him around like a shadow.
What’s important to note about this film is that the camera is not an objective viewer. Rather, it is essential to the narrative because it reflects the realities of whatever characters–even those we see for a few seconds–it may be following at the time; for example, many backstage scenes are written as if they are part of a play, and their showy natures highlight the ways that Riggan might write about his life if he wrote the script. This is all fitting when we consider the idea of art being subjective, and the film constantly brings up the idea of subjective reality: if, say, a guy in a bird costume follows you around, then it is still 100% true for you. It may not be objectively true, but that doesn’t mean it’s not reality.
Thus, it becomes even more relevant when we see that characters like Riggan and Mike Shiner–played by a hilarious and wonderful Edward Norton–are shaped by their realities, by art. They’re both all about the art of acting, the former attempting to dig it up out of its cultural grave and the latter only truly living while he’s “performing” (e.g. he gets angry that a certain prop used is fake). As a result, people like Andrea Riseborough’s Laura, Riggan’s girlfriend, seem to flit in and out of the picture as the play takes precedence, and the title of the play takes on a bit of irony because while Riggan’s talking about love on stage, he’s not following up on it behind the scenes.
Ultimately, that brings us back to the quote I used to open the review. Love is love, not what is said of love. Art is art, not what is said of art. A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing. Branching off of this idea, Iñárritu takes shots at critics and bloggers and the like, posing questions about what it means to be an actor vs. a celebrity, a performer vs. a critic. This seems to be a very personal film for the director, and real life begins to seep into the proceedings in all areas; after all, it’s probably also not a coincidence that Michael Keaton played Batman, Edward Norton played Hulk, and Emma Stone played Gwen Stacy.
I’d be remiss not to also mention the work of Emmanuel Lubezki, whose work throughout this film is absolutely stellar. You can probably tell where the edits are in the supposed one continuous take, but that’s no fun. This is a cinematic approach to a theatrical production–we rarely see the stage from the perspective of the audience–and it’s done to perfection, with the camera consistently moving, yet lingering when it must. This lingering is perhaps done best during a monologue given by Sam, Emma Stone’s character, as rather than showing us Riggan’s reaction to it, it instead shows us Sam’s reaction; it’s a fantastic moment for both the camerawork and the actors.
Of course, in terms of acting, it’s Michael Keaton who brings it all together. He can be darkly funny, bombastic, pained, determined, broken, Oscar-worthy. The movie in general can be surreal, brutally realistic, flawed, deeply human. Those are all, however, just “labels”, as Riggan spits at a movie critic who says she will kill his play. A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing, but I will say that this is a thing you should watch.
-Some of my favorite visuals in the film: an overhead of the stage as the camera moves away from Shiner and Sam, a shot of Christmas lights in a liquor store, and the entire “flying around the city” sequence (we see this in the trailers, but it’s better to go in depth about this in the spoiler section). Anyway, once again, lots of praise for Lubezki.
-So the whole ‘real life blending into the movie’ element can definitely be applied to the one take camerawork. Much of this film is a balancing act between theater and reality, and what it comes down to is that perhaps they can be one and the same, that art/subjectivity=reality. There are two moments I have in mind that contribute to this idea, but that would require me spoiling an important sequence and the (very poignant) ending.
-Keaton, Norton, and Stone will get all the attention, and rightfully so, but Naomi Watts, Amy Ryan, and Zach Galifianakis are all great in their roles as well.
-The score is fantastic here. It mainly consists of a set of drums, and it never seems to go away. That’s not a bad thing, though.
-You could do much worse than Robert Downey Jr. and Michael Fassbender. They’re both great.
-The idea of death, specifically suicide, is key in this film. There are several instances in which it seems as if Riggan commits suicide–on stage, when he flies for the first time–but this also plays into the idea of independence, of release from the shackles of society. It is not until the end when he is truly free, and Sam relates to that yearning to be free when she’s looking out the window; she smiles because she realizes that her father has accomplished something he couldn’t do for so long.
-Of course, that’s with one interpretation of the ending in mind. There are a few possible interpretations here, and the one I believe to be the weakest is that Riggan can actually fly, that he actually has superpowers; we see evidence to the contrary with the cab driver, for example. However, the idea that Riggan died earlier is a valid one, and that theory would then mean that the final hospital scene is simply a fantasy (explaining the good review, the ex wife, the connection with Sam, the relevance on social media, the different face, the flying).
-My interpretation leans more toward “I have no idea when he physically dies, because it doesn’t necessarily matter”. When Sam looks out that window and laughs–an action we’ve seen in many superhero movies from the love interest–Riggan could very well be a pile of nothing on the sidewalk. Or, he could be flying. That doesn’t really matter. What matters is that she understands him there, that someone finally does, and that is what we talk about when we talk about love. The moment they share beforehand is essential to Riggan’s journey.
-On art and reality blurring together: we see it with the scene in which Birdman shows up, when the film becomes a blockbuster for thirty seconds. For a short period of time, we see what many people want to see: explosions and guns and a superhero. However, we also see Riggan walking away from it all, a key point in his development, and art and reality later blur at the end as well. He says goodbye to the Birdman on his toilet, and he jumps out of the window into freedom.
-On the camera not being objective: showing Riggan flying around the city, then showing the cab driver. Two different realities.
-The drunk guy on the street is shouting the famous “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy from Macbeth.
Photo credit: Regency Enterprises, Fox Searchlight Pictures, Birdman