“Wow. You know… What has to happen in a person’s life to become a critic anyway? What are you writing? Another review? Is that any good? Is it? Did you even see it?”
Michael Keaton is Riggan Thompson, a washed-up former Hollywood superhero attempting to adapt, star in and direct the Raymond Carver story ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’. Since turning down Birdman 4, Riggan’s career has stagnated. Following a messy divorce and several stints in rehab, his efforts to make real art have brought him to a dingy theatre in New York and the edge of his own sanity. Michael Keaton is Riggan Thompson, Riggan Thompson is Michael Keaton. Consequently Birdman has a great voyeuristic authenticity, and it belongs on this list for being a fantastic investigation into acting, art and how we perceive our importance in the world.
There will always be a problem with sweeping authoritative statements about the nature of life or art or love; statements that the characters of Birdman are more than happy to dole out to each other. Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu is more than aware that to try and impart wide, sweeping wisdom with his film will always become hypocritical and misplaced. So why the subtitle ‘The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance’? Well, Iñárritu knows that often the most interesting characters don’t have much to teach.
Riggan is frustratingly aware of how little his life has meant in the grand scheme of things. Even as a former successful actor via the Birdman role, he dubs that success as without real depth or meaning. But is he right? Is anything anyone in this film spouts about truth or meaning right? The genius of Birdman is in its subtly delightful moments of hypocrisy. Most of them come from the talented but volatile theatre darling Mike (Ed Norton). Take the moment when he finishes ranting at Riggan about his place in “my town,” but is noticeably irritated when giddily asked to hold the camera for a fan’s photo with the Birdman.
“People, they love blood. They love action. Not this talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit.”
The value of this play, or any high-art piece, or any superhero blockbuster series, will forever be discussed and challenged repeatedly. Take the adorable joy Riggan brings to a journalist who mishears him discussing Birdman 4, compared to the scathing theatre critic Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan) who promises to ‘destroy his play’ with her influential review whether it is good or not. Value and meaning and truth are all a matter of perspective – as Riggan’s daughter (the scene-stealing Emma Stone) reminds Riggan when he mocks the idea of an internet presence but places huge importance on the paper reviews and interviews that barely anyone will read. As Birdman, he’s pathetic. As a committed stage actor, he’s arrogant. As a suicidal maniac, he’s brilliant. Go figure.
Throughout the film, Riggan exhibits the Birdman powers and hears the persona in his head; it’s subtly unclear whether this could at all be real. As an audience we know it’s not possible, but Iñárritu knows how to keep us unsure, by playing on our hope and imagination. Birdman is about a bunch of broken people trying to create solid quantifiable ‘truths’, but the idea that a bunch of actors can create ‘truth’ is as ridiculous as the idea that Riggan can fly. Riggan’s problem is that he thinks if he plays by the rules then he’ll achieve what he sees as valuable critical success and will finally feel validated and fulfilled. Ironically, he wants what Mike Shiner has – but when Mike is as broken as him he can’t put two and two together.
“Things are happening in a place that you wilfully ignore, a place that has already forgotten you. I mean, who the fuck are you? You hate bloggers. You make fun of Twitter. You don’t even have a Facebook page! You’re the one who doesn’t exist.”
And all the time it’s daring, daring you to dislike it, to not get it, to give it a bad review. Riggan’s fury at hacks, misunderstanding costars, and a world that no longer cares is powerful. It’s the same frustration most people feel every time they try to create anything and put it into the world, down to crafting a tweet. Birdman itself makes a strong point about how important it is just to try, and sometimes to damn the critics. Life isn’t a story with a neat beginning, middle and end. It’s a series of weird interactions and when you run it together you might learn some lessons, or you might just have had a good time. Sometimes your best isn’t enough. There will always be critics waiting to gleefully and flippantly destroy heartfelt work, and in a ever-evolving world saturated with weird and wonderful things it’s easy to be dismissed amongst the crowd. Like all interesting work, Birdman is not built to be accessible. Iñárritu purposefully rides the line between the challenging and the enjoyable, the fun and the thoughtful. But that’s about as close to real valuable art as you can get; that’s Birdman.