What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Birdman?

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, November 17, 2014

Birdman is an intense multiplex examination of acting, and you need to remember there are two unseen actors – the reality you watching from the theater seat, and the fantasy you that watches from inside your head. Birdman depends the participation of both your personalities to tell its story.  We’re all at least two people, and a good actor will play a character as one person, but a great actor will play the character as normal human with its dual natures.

Michael Keaton has gotten a great deal of attention for Birdman, which comes with a subtitle, “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance.” Whether or not that subtitle is useful in explaining some of the mysteries of this movie is still a mystery to me. Keaton plays Riggan, a clichéd down-on-his-luck movie star, with estranged wife and daughter, trying to resurrect his ego to fame and family by directing himself in a Broadway play of Raymond Carver’s famous literary short story, “What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Riggan had previous acclaim and wealth in Hollywood playing the superhero Birdman three times, but refused to come back to the role a fourth time. Of course, Keaton played Batman, and Batman Returns, and since we haven’t seen much of him lately, Birdman feels autobiographical in the sense that we know Keaton doesn’t need much rehearsing to get into character. Keaton is absolutely perfect for Riggan.

birdman

Birdman is all about acting. It’s also about Broadway, and reminds me of All About Eve, The Sweet Smell of Success, and most especially All That Jazz, which when you think about it, gives the impression that doing a Broadway play requires actors to live at the event horizon of insanity. Keaton’s Riggan is certainly unstable, a man psychological crushed by a character he can’t escape playing, that now haunts him as his alter-ego.  Riggan is desperate to find success, fame and love again, all the while tortured by his current failure as an actor, father and husband.

Like I said, Birdman is all about acting. Michael Keaton plays roles, within roles, within roles, until until we forget all about Michael Keaton, and feel like the man on the screen is truly insane. Throughout the film we see Riggan perform what appears to be superpowers of Birdman as if they were real, only later to discover we were watching Riggan’s fantasy POV. The movie is filmed in what appears to be one long continuous take, which increases the manic intensity of the characters. Keaton is joined by Edward Norton who plays Mike, an over-the-top method actor who antagonizes all the actors to go completely into character, and pushes Riggan into constantly upping his performance. Throughout the story, the two reverb off of each other until their characters are insane frenzies of feedback.

The women of the story anchor the two men to reality. Amy Ryan plays Riggan’s ex-wife Sylvia who’s unflinching compassion gives us hope she can bring Birdman down to Earth. Even his resentful daughter Sam, played by Emma Stone, the cause of much of Riggan’s emotional distress comes to connect closely with him in the end. Yet, the ending of this movie is baffling unless you see that we’re all two people – a real person and a fantasy person.

The whole play within a film is rather baffling too. Why Raymond Carver? I went and read “What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Love” after seeing Birdman, but it has provided no insight.  Michael Keaton’s performance is a tour de force. Birdman is an intense roller-coaster ride of acting and emotion. Yet, does it say anything about love? There are all kinds of relationships in Birdman, but I never felt they were the focus of the story, and I think Raymond Carver is just as peripheral.  Ultimately, I think Birdman is really about acting, and what acting does to people. The trouble is, and I hope it isn’t true – Birdman tells us that great acting requires an all-consuming psychic toll.

In the end we forget Michael Keaton, because he’s become Riggan, who has forgotten himself and become Birdman. But who are we, the audience in the end? The realistic you will see a different ending than the fantasy you, but think about what the fantasy you wants to believe in the end, and why. In the end, we’re all actors and actresses.

JWH

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