Sunday, December 21, 2014


Riggan Thomson, the actor-protagonist of Alejandro Inarittu's Birdman is drowning in difficulties:  he has invested much of his personal wealth in a theatrical adaptation of several stories by Raymond Carver, a play that he has written, directs, and in which he stars with his girlfriend; New York's most prominent theater critic has vowed to ruin the play and Thomson's co-star, an actor named Michael Shiner, despises him -- from time to time, the two men brawl with one another backstage.  Thomson's ex-wife is worried about the actor's imprudent investment in the Broadway show; his daughter is a junkie and has been seduced by Shiner; his girlfriend has embarked on a Lesbian affair with the other actress in his play and a masked, caped super-hero, dubbed the Birdman is haunting him.  The Birdman is a character that made Thomson famous when he starred in that role in three films based on the comic book superhero -- the Birdman resents being shelved and demands that his alter-ego, the miserable and unstable Thomson, revive the cartoon superhero, angrily denouncing the pretentions of the actor's Broadway theatrical debut.  Thomson is cracking-up and Birdman is the record of his nervous breakdown -- as the actor becomes increasingly beset by worry and helpless in the face of his worries, he begins to develop super-human powers, specifically telekinesis and the ability to fly.  The Birdman eggs him on, urging that he become a superhero again.  But the viewer suspects that the telekinesis is merely a metaphor for Riggan Thomson's increasingly violent rages, episodes in which he breaks glass and trashes his dressing room, damage that the mentally ill hero blames on the specter of the sinister super-hero.   And the Birdman's insinuation that the actor should leap from the top of the old theater in which almost all of the action takes place seems to be an incitement to suicide.  Michael Keaton plays the part of Riggan Thomson and his performance is riveting and courageous -- of course, Keaton played Batman twenty years ago and the sinister superhero, the Birdman, seems modeled on that character.   Keaton is in almost every frame of the movie.  It would be a misnomer to say that he is in every shot -- Emmanuel Lubetzki's remarkable photography stages the entire movie as a continuous take; this has been done before:  the forties film noir, The Lady in the Lake used a continuous first-person take to dramatize the Chandler thriller and Hitchcock shot his Rope (about Leopold and Loeb)  in what appears to be a single, extended take.  (Of course, Sokurov's Russian Ark also consists of one continuous shot -- unlike Birdman and the other films mentioned, Sokurov didn't cheat and, in fact, made his 100 minute film in one continuous HD-video shot; Inarittu sutures his extended take together by tracking the camera into dark zones and, then, recommencing his shot on the other side of the blackness.  Sometimes, he rolls the camera skyward, records the Manhattan skyscraper, and, then, fastforwards from night to dawn or vice-versa).   In Antonioni's film, The Passenger, there is bravura sequence in which a camera moves across a sun-scorched courtyard and, then, through a barred window into a room in which someone has been murdered -- I vividly recall the sense of awe and shock that this extended camera movement induced in the audience.  Inarittu's Birdman involves a half dozen camera movements even more grandiose and spectacular -- in one sequence, the camera travels down a street between buildings and, then, enters a room through a window that is also covered with bars and grating; in another episode, completely unbroken by inserted shots, the hero observes monsters destroying the Manhattan skyscrapers, watches helicopters batted out of the sky by colossal beasts against a background of enormous explosions and, then, levitates a hundred feet to soar through the sky, flying through Time Square and over Grand Central Station in an effect that is completely plausible both emotionally and spatially.  The ancient theater in which almost all of the action takes place is a crumbling labyrinth of dark corridors, sepulchral dressing rooms, and a cavernous backstage, a maze through which the camera tracks, always, it seems, emerging on the stage where the play What we talk about when we talk about Love is either being rehearsed or performed in previews -- the scenes of the play double the action and emotional complications of the plot and are like a feverish recurrent nightmare.  Inarittu, who is from Mexico, echoes some of the themes of classic Spanish theater, particularly Calderon's Life is a Dream, and the vast, dismal theater seems to be a symbol for the protagonist's disordered and feverish imagination -- it is like the House of Usher in which it is impossible to distinguish between what is real, what is truthful, and what is merely playacting.  The distinction between truth and playacting is materialized in the figure of Michael Shiner (Edward Norton), Riggan Thomson's nemesis, a character who is the ultimate "method actor" -- in one sex scene, he embarrasses everyone by playing the part with an actual erection.  Shiner insists that Thomson deliver "the truth" in his play with catastrophic consequences.  In some respects, Inarittu's movie, which is completely extraordinary and fantastically literate (Shiner is reading Borges Labyrinths and the characters cite Roland Barthes and Flaubert), is almost too rich, too complex, and has too many ideas, some of which are not as effectively developed as others.  The film is Baroque in the Mexican style, Churrigueresque Baroque, symbol and metaphor heaped upon symbol and metaphor to create an incredibly densely textured film.  One example must suffice for many:  across from the James Theater where the Carver play directed by Thomson is being mounted, there are advertisements for The Phantom of the Opera; these huge ads, which show a mask with the words PHANTOM come to symbolize the plight of Inarittu's hero, a man shown on stage in the play with a gun to his head, committing suicide because he is "not real."  At the end of the movie, we see the hero wearing white mask, his eyes peering out through slits in the mask and his nose curved into a great white beak -- he has become the Birdman once more, but not in the way that anyone would have expected.  This is a great movie, one of the very best of the year -- if it has a defect, the film is almost too laden with ideas, almost too smart and clever for its own good.  (The film has an extraordinary soundtrack mostly improvised drum solos -- from time to time, in homage to Scorsese's Taxi Driver, we see a street musician playing a drum set in Times Square, and the drumming punctuates many of the crucial sequences in the movie.)

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