This might probably be the one time I dole out a suggestion that goes against the grain of ethic that I stand for, with respect to the cinema-going experience on the big screen. But exceptions can be made, so here it is anyway. Try to make it out of the theatre while the closing credits of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) are still rolling, and you just might have your own Meta moment inspired by the Mexican auteur’s fifth and arguably, most accessible of films. You can find yourselves walking through the corridors of the multiplex, with that infectious, treble-heavy, jazz drum loop playing in the background, and feel what the protagonist of the film, Riggan Thomson (played by Michael Keaton), might have felt all along, rushing through the doorways of a Broadway theatre, the Ground Zero of this film.
It might be a tall order for you to carry out this exercise on your first viewing of Birdman, and it’s understandable, for there’s so much to take in, it almost leaves you breathless. But it’s definitely doable, the second time around, or the third, like in my case. Birdman finds Keaton cast as an end-of-the-line actor, adored back in the day for immortalizing the titular superhero, now grappling with one last shot at redemption with an honest Broadway performance that might earn him, for once, a sense of validation from those who really matter –critics. The arrhythmic percussion heard throughout the film might as well be the sound of Riggan’s heartbeat as he careens dangerously close to a breakdown, faced with the arduous challenge of directing and acting in his stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What we Talk about When we Talk about Love.
Like many films before it, the central conceit of Birdman is the suffering that entails the creative process. It reminded one of the iconoclastic works of Darren Aronofsky, who helmed The Wrestler (2008) and Black Swan (2010), both films representing the perils of an obsessive engagement with one’s line of vocation. Birdman’s elliptical points of reference encompass every aspect of the film and its actors. For instance, Keaton’s character in this film could be a straight up doppelganger of his real-life avatar, an actor who practically disappeared from public eye after what might have been his most popular role to date, playing the Dark Knight in Tim Burton’s rendition of Batman (1989).
Inarritu, a filmmaker blessed with unfettered imagination, who has often been criticized for his indulgent narratives, is in top form here, extracting career-best performances from the actors who were crazy enough to sign on the dotted lines. For those who look closer, Inarritu even tips his hat, albeit in a cheeky manner, to his idiosyncratic cohorts in crime, with whom he forms the holy triumvirate of Mexican New Wave Cinema – Alfonso Cuaron and Guillermo del Toro.
Tearing into the idea of art and the notion of selling out, Inarritu trains his gaze on himself and his co-auteurs, and actors that started out making small independent films watched by niche audiences, who would needlessly be branded as intellectual highbrows. A few intelligent films down, the very same auteurs, namely del Toro (Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone, and Pan’s Labyrinth) and Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien, Great Expectations and Children of Men) would go on to helm high-octane, no-brainer, big-budget blockbusters, abandoning their indie-sensibilities in favour of some good ol’ fashioned ‘apocalyptic porn’ that could be palatable to general audiences – aka Hellboy 1 & 2, Pacific Rim (del Toro) and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Gravity (Cuaron).
Of course, Inarritu doesn’t absolve himself of the aforementioned transgressions. His previous ventures, Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel and Biutiful were, by all standards, independently or relatively independently produced films. And barring Amores Perros, tonally and texturally, they were all complete downers, or films that would have struggled to find its audiences owing to the heavy-handed treatment of subjects that were nevertheless imbued with a universal appeal. Birdman, a tragicomedy, might be Inarritu’s commentary on how, even he himself might have given in, to the illusion of the American Dream, laying out a sprawling canvas and an ensemble cast that boasts some of the biggest names in Hollywood today. He intends to makes us laugh knowing well that the joke’s on him.
But that’s a minor grievance, for there’s so much more that we have Inarritu to thank for. For starters, thank you Inarritu, for biting the bait of comedy; for continuing your obsession with parental-children dynamics, so prevalent and in full force here in Birdman, as in your previous films; for looking inward as you always have and we hope you continue to do so in the future; thank you for Emmanuel Lubezki’s dizzying cinematography, his vivid David Lynchian and Terence Malick-inspired color palettes, his dreamlike imagery, his impeccable finesse with the Steadicam/handheld operators and the miraculous single take; thank you for the crackling quality of writing and Zach Galifianakis; thank you for stripping Edward Norton aka Mike Shiner of his seriousness and almost getting him into his birthday suit; thank you for that astonishing two-minute vitriolic monologue from Emma Stone that has reinforced our faith in her cult; thank you for getting Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough to remind us of Betty and Rita from Lynch’s Mulholland Drive; and last but not least, Muchas Gracias Alejandro – for having achieved the near impossible feat of giving us both an intensely theatrical and cinematic experience, all in a day’s work.
PS: At the intermission of Birdman, look out for the trailer of the new sci-fi spectacle from Neil Blomkamp (District 9) called Chappie. It’s a tearjerker and an absolute blast and a must watch on our radar.