Birdman and the intoxicating alchemy of cinema

Michael Keaton in Birdman. 20th Century Fox

Birdman is awash with in-jokes, but laugh and then forget about them. And forget about the fact that Birdman is a backstage comedy set in a crappy 800-seat theatre in New York. Because this is really a film about cinema – and a searingly insightful one.

Plaudits will – from within the crucible of self-congratulation that is Hollywood – rightly go to Michael Keaton, although they could equally go to any of the other players in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s piece: Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone, Amy Ryan, Lindsay Duncan – maybe even Zach Galifianakis. But the star of this film, alongside New York and the witty script, is director Iñárritu and most of all, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera.

Birdman is comprised, Enter The Void-style, of multiple shots that are made to seem as though we have before us a single, unbroken, 119-minute take. Iñárritu might well invite us to contemplate the relationship between theatre and cinema – and the lingering belief that treading the boards will legitimise an actor known otherwise for schlockbusters. But as we wander in and out of the St James theatre on West 44th Street, what really comes through is how cinema can trump theatre through its central device: movement. Not movement of the players on to and off of the screen, but movement of the camera itself.

Birdman or Batman?

Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, an actor best known for his roles in the Birdman superhero films (nice casting of Keaton here, who didn’t see much success after Batman Returns in 1992). Now he is risking his whole career to produce a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. He has an actress partner (Riseborough), a rehab daughter (Stone) and a best-friend producer (Galifianakis) all involved in the production, together with Broadway wannabe Lesley (Watts) and established stage star Mike Shiner (Norton).

We see rehearsals and previews, all leading up to an opening night that can be made or broken by critic Tabitha Dickinson (Duncan). Riggan also has around him two ghosts from his past: ex-wife Sylvia (Ryan), who haunts him like Marjorie haunts Mel in Carver’s title story; and, more particularly, the voice and sometimes body of Birdman himself (Benjamin Kanes).

The doubling would do Borges proud. 20th Century Fox

The film is somewhat ostentatiously called BiRDMAN. Highlighting “Bi” in this way tells us a lot. We are all plural (“bi”). We all have voices in our heads asking us questions, telling us what to do. The fact that Michael Keaton is actually Michael Douglas’s stage name in itself is weirdly appropriate then, too – the kind of doubling that would suit Jorge Luis Borges, whose Labyrinths Mike Shiner reads on his sunbed.

And so this voice, this alter-ego Birdman, tells Riggan how being a superhero movie star validates him above all these theatre fucks, while chastising him for his vanity. The inner voice also visually breaks out on to the screen as Riggan flips into fantasy sequences, meteors crashing to earth, battles breaking out and he flies around NYC, Spidey-style.

The screen is all

Birdman speaks of cinema’s capacity not just to move, but to move between fantasy and reality as if they were the same thing. Cinema’s power over society also comes through: theatre might well add gravitas and credibility to a performer, but these days no one at all is anything unless mediated by the screen, whether that be at the movies or on Twitter. The fear of being irrelevant has now become the fear of fading from our screens.

Daughter/personal assistant Emma Stone, fresh out of rehab. 20th Century Fox

Riggan asks his daughter to buy him some flowers, demanding alchemillas. A self-conscious nod to the alchemy that is cinema – which, at its best, makes something that is clearly not live seem so. You don’t script these references or get your camera to move the way that Iñárritu and Lubezki’s does without meticulous preparation. And yet the film plays out as if live – a single, unbroken sequence that moves through time in a way that defies the capabilities of the human body. Only when intoxicated can we miss a day and resurface as if no time had passed – but Birdman does precisely that on several occasions. And perhaps cinema is indeed a form of intoxication: joyful, mind-altering and pregnant with the risk of dependency.

In presenting us a continuous shot, the film performs the cinematic alchemical trick of showing that our fantasies are continuous with our reality, even if, like Riggan, we are but shadows full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.