Questioning the very form of artistic medium being used to pose the questions is what lies at the heart of the exhilarating ride that is the film Birdman. Furthermore, the film poses the conundrum of why we ask the questions to begin with. And we tumble through this existential crisis via a near flawless performance by Michael Keaton as Riggan Thompson, an actor that twenty years prior stood tall atop the cityscape of culture when he portrayed the superhero in a billion dollar movie franchise, and now rests at the city street of culture trying to stay what he considers relevant while performing a Broadway play. Relevance is a funny thing, and indeed the film is quite funny as it ponders and plays with the concept.
From the start of the film as Riggan sits in front of his dressing room mirror we see a quote taped to the mirror that reads “A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing.” This note clearly isn’t representative of how Riggan is living his life at the start of the film, him being so preoccupied with what is said of the thing. It seems no accident that this idea he least considers is stuck to the mirror he least looks into, for throughout his journey Riggan worries little about himself as a person and almost wholly on himself as an icon. As Riggan’s ex-wife pointedly tells him at one point, Riggan has “mistaken love for admiration.” We get more similar flip-floppy, one-liner wisdoms throughout the film that continue to shed light on the mindset of Riggan. In one early scene, Riggan’s fellow actor Mike Shuler, brilliantly portrayed by Edward Norton, gives him a lecture on how “popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige.” At another point, a feared New York Times critic tells Riggan he’s not an actor, but a celebrity. Distinctions are very much in the eye of the beholder in this film. And as we the audience inherently experience this story with our own preconceptions of celebrity, the look “backstage,” literally and figuratively, is all the more encapsulating.
We do love our celebrities don’t we? We revere the faces that entertain us. But of course, it is all perception. We might feel like we know George Clooney (another former Batman actor mentioned in the film) but we don’t know George Clooney. We know of him.
Riggan really wants to be known, but what he is actually working so hard to be is perceived. To be known of. We all want to be known, it is a desire at the very core of our soul. But how quickly would most of us settle for being a celebrity and being known of for the time being? Or at least be tempted to? And how much easier would it be to accept if we had already tasted that high profile life?
In the end, Riggan’s path through this crisis is highly entertaining and thrilling. The masterful direction of Alejandro González Iñárritu gives us a film that is essentially one long shot, and the lack of edits is almost unnerving but totally engaging and realistic. Add to this that every single actor on the screen gives about the best performance you will see from each of them. Michael Keaton deserves the praise he receives for this film, and someone should give Edward Norton an award too for his mad genius work.
But there you have it. Awards, acclimation, praise- we’re back to the essential question from the first lines of this review, the question that Birdman examines in great detail. I suppose the answer lies somewhere in between perception and reality- lines that are blurred continuously throughout the film. But a thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing. And Birdman is a film. I think it is by far one of the best of the year. How will you perceive it?