Alejandro G. Inarritu’s new film, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Innocence) is unrestricted, taking aim at the rash of superhero films that have been progenated by whoresome producers in the past 10 years. As the former on-screen superhero Birdman, Riggan (Michael Keaton) hears a series of names that have joined the superhero cadre and wonders, “they put him in a suit too?” The choice to cast Keaton for this lead role is a great tongue and cheek nod to the success that a superhero film can bring, but a lesson in the typecasting that can follow. Keaton was Burton’s Batman, and it’s rather hard to separate the two, despite many of the other films that Keaton has done.
In an attempt to revitalize his career and break free of the superhero pigeonholing, Riggan writes, stars in and directs his adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” For Riggan, the transition from film to stage is, on the one hand, meant to show his versatility as an artist. On the other, the struggles within the play’s production constantly tempt Riggan to ink his name for another Birdman sequel. A latex suit and wings feels tempting when he’s surrounded the dysfunctional Lesley (Naomi Watts) and Mike (Edward Norton), a dysfunctional couple who play a dysfunctional couple on stage; Sam (Emma Stone), his recently-out-of-rehab daughter; and Laura (Andrea Riseborough), his new girlfriend who is also in the play.
Here, the juxtaposition of a play within a film forces Riggan to consider fame or craft. This is not meant to say that stage actors and actresses can’t find fame or that film actors and actresses have not finely honed their craft. However, wealth comes from the cinema. Celebrity is more endemic to cinema than to stage. This, I assume, is the purpose for Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan), the film’s New York Times theater critic. Sipping martinis in a bar next to the theater, she waits to tear the play apart on opening night. Her hatred for Riggan is no secret. She sees him as another film start pretending to be an actor. In her criticism of these transitions from screen to stage, she portends the theater’s death, believing that it has become an artless house of spectacle once actors “measuring [their] worth in weekends” begin taking up residence. Tabitha’s primary point of contention is whether or not film stars are actually thespians.
Do they study and hone their craft? What are they putting into the show each and every night? While there are previews and rehearsals, there are no cuts and second or third takes once the play begins.
The super repetitive process of getting the play to opening night – you often don’t realize that the entire film you’ve been watching has just been previews and the lead up to the opening – posits that a necessary trait required in acting for the stage is insanity. Throughout Birdman, Inarittu brilliants employs a nearly two-hour tracking shot. In a sense, he shoots it as if it were a running play. Transitions between days are not broken by a curtain, but by a fixed point – say the railing of a fire escape – and time lapse photography shows the transition from day to night. The camera then pulls back and resumes the scene.
This effect gums up our understanding of time. As the camera circulates from character to character within the theater, there is no clear break in time, but the characters might change wardrobe, or we might be distracted by a random conversation before being brought back to another conversation that is apparently taking place sometime later. In a sense, this constant stream of time and the circuits within the stream make it impossible for the actors and actresses to leave the theater or the stage. It could be argued here that Inarritu is suggesting that actors and actresses don’t just leave their craft when they go home – if they go home. This is made both apparent and complicated throughout the film when Riggan believes that he truly is Birdman. In the film, it seems he was the first actor to play a big budget superhero and find success on screen. Thus, he is Birdman, the original.
However, we often see that he believes he truly IS Birdman – a man who can sprout wings and fly; a man who, apparently, has telekinetic powers. There are moments in which he thinks things (like, say a theater light falling on the head of one of his least-talented cast members) and they happen. Or, he’s able to levitate and object and move – or hurl it – across the room. We see the visual effect, but we’re never quite certain whether it’s his imagination or a reality. In effect, we are caught within the veritas of a play but the spectacle of the screen, making it difficult for us, too, to distinguish what is real and what is fiction.