Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, US, 2014
“What do you mean, Phib?” asked Miss Squeers, looking in her own little glass, where, like most of us, she saw – not herself, but the reflection of some pleasant image in her own brain.”
– Charles Dickens, from “Nicholas Nickleby”
When an actor looks into the mirror, what pleasant image does he see staring back? Is the image larger than life? Capable of success in all artforms? Or do they not see the pleasant reflection? What if they only see that which they hate the most?
We spend most of Birdman inside the crowded backstage of a small theater, but we spend the most time inside the mind of Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a washed up superhero actor. Keaton is fantastic in the role, and contrary to the most logical hypothesis, this is not because Keaton=Thomson. The only thing he and Thomson have in common is that their best known role is playing an iconic superhero (Thomson played the titular, fictitious Birdman). Keaton, after all, has a filmography so long that it places him in the top percentile of working actors since Batman Returns (1992) and Thomson has nothing beyond his superhero role.
The film is isolating – mostly shot in small spaces and using a generous helping of tracking shots to limit perspective. Iñárritu shows us that fame is isolating, but also addictive (a lesser director would merely tell us). Thomson hates Birdman, but Thomson needs Birdman too.
When the film leaves Thomson’s perspective, it casts an examining eye on theater and its dysfunctional relationship with film. Theater people hate movie people, but then they become movie people. Then they try to become theater people again. Then the theater people hate them even more, until they don’t.
Neither artform comes off well in Birdman. Theater is shown as pompous and arrogant, film is shown as obsessed with violence and mayhem. Yet somehow by criticizing the art, we reach an understanding of the people who make the art.
You might like Birdman if: You want to explore the mind of the artist and the conflict between “art” and “popular culture.”
You might not like Birdman if: Trippy movies disagree with you.
(c) 2015 D.G. McCabe