BIRDMAN (2014) directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Oh, the tragic emptiness of modern lives! Self obsessed, insecure, needy for attention, recognition. What has modern society become? It all seems so hollow, so meaningless.
That’s the picture painted by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu in his new film,’Birdman’, starring Michael Keaton, and I think he’s right.
Almost the entire film takes place in the underworld corridors and dressing rooms of a Broadway theatre, or on its stage, rooftop, or façade to the street, so it is rather claustrophobic, which adds to the atmosphere Inarritu wants to create. Occasionally, the action takes to the air, as the protagonist’s fevered imagination takes off.
The problem is that Riggan Thompson, who was once a Hollywood legend for playing a comic book character, Birdman, in three films – wearing an impressive black bird suit with wings, and mask, is now trying to validate himself by directing and starring in a serious Broadway play. But he’s riddled with confusion, insecurity and is a bit schizophrenic, because there’s a voice inside his head – the voice of the Birdman – talking tough to him, trying to reassure him but actually undermining him. Attempting to persuade him to forget about all this intellectual nonsense, and give the shallow audiences more of what they want….. The Birdman!
The backstage areas of the theatre are like a kind of Hell, where insecure actors scurry about like rats. We learn how inadequate they all feel, and how un-rewarding it all is, even though they have seemingly achieved their dreams of performing on Broadway. Now they are facing the fact that nothing can fill the void inside them. Is everything meaningless?
All the main characters acting in Riggan’s play (an adaptation of a famous Raymond Carver story) express their deep insecurities. The people who seem most “together” are his daughter who has just come out of re-hab, and his ex wife, whom he still loves, and she still cares about him too. But both of them have suffered from Riggan’s obsession with himself, and so they are now wary of him. Riggan can’t relate in a meaningful way to anyone, because his ego is in crisis, and the voice of the Birdman character taunts him.
His nemesis is personified in a powerful theatre critic who detests everything he represents – washed up Hollywood stars using Broadway as an after-thought, in an attempt to gain public respect before they retire.
The soundtrack features some well-known classical music, but is mostly a powerful drum solo, which gives the film the dark and anxious edge, to complement the black comedy and accumulating human tragedy. It gives a feeling of a “kill or be killed” jungle right there in the centre of New York and in the claustrophobic tunnels of the theatre’s hell. That theatre even seems to have a mind of its own, when a stage door slams and leaves Riggan out in the alley, in nothing but his underpants and his dressing gown. The gown is caught in the door, so he has to suffer the ultimate humilation, walking on Broadway and into the theatre’s lobby in his undies. Earlier in the film, a younger and brilliant actor, Mike, played by Edward Norton, arrives to rehearse at the very last minute – taking the place of an inadequate performer. This man goes to the wardrobe department, and is revealed to be wearing no underpants beneath his trousers. There’s a message here, in these two “underpants scenes”. These famous people have no protection.
Mike is the up and coming young genius, something Riggan knows he can never be.
There’s a scene in which Riggan’s daughter tells her dad the agonizing truth about who and what and where he is. He was telling her off, for having smoked a joint after re-hab, so she lets him have it! AND, he doesn’t even have a Twitter account or a Facebook Page! He’s the ultimate failure.
But, don’t lose hope. There is sometimes a dash of magic, where the visualizations and fantasies seem to conquer boring reality.
Inarritu, who co-wrote this savage script, has given us a lot to contemplate in his latest film. He can observe the American way of life, and particularly the Hollywood/Broadway world, more acutely than most, as he is a relative newcomer from another culture, – Mexico. His observations will be most appreciated and understood, by his colleagues in Hollywood and on Broadway, who live this story every day, in one way or another. And the fact that Michael Keaton himself, once played the comic book character Batman, should not be ignored. Expect nominations for major awards.
(copyright – Cynthia Webb, January 2015)
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