Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

Image result for birdman

Random factoid:  the first Batman actor who portrayed the Dark Knight using a distinct voice different from his Bruce Wayne counterpart was Kevin Conroy in Batman: The Animated Series (which, incidentally, was awesome).  I only mention this because of Michael Keaton.  I’m sure I saw his version of Batman back in the day, but I don’t remember anything of it to compare his portrayal.  Some have said that this is a movie about Michael Keaton seeking to transcend his Batman-ness.

When you get past the superhero costume, though, this is actually a film about art and the value of creation.  Keaton’s Riggan Thomson is trying to escape his reputation as the hero of a series of massively popular superhero films – he’s accused of being a celebrity, not a real actor – by adapting a Raymond Carver short story into a Broadway play.  Along the way, he invests everything, from money to emotional energy, into proving he’s not a hack, in defiance of that scary voice in his head that shares a striking resemblance to his alter ego, Birdman.

For some reason, I always mix up Raymond Carver with Robert Coover, who wrote “The Babysitter,” among other fractured postmoderny stories, and so I expected something a bit different from the play.  Oops.  So I’m not familiar enough with Carver’s work to see how it might shine more light on why that particular writer’s work meant something.  Riggan credits Carver with inspiring him to be an actor, in a bit of a stretched connection.  It seems like a sort of pretentious choice, designed for the sort of Broadway audience (the “rich old white people” as Riggan’s daughter describes).  It’s like he’s reaching so desperately for something literary, something that screams ART.  But is he being indulged in his vanity project, or is there some real worth to it?

I actually watched this twice in the past few months, because I’d intended to write about it earlier this year and then didn’t, and ended up forgetting the finer details.  And I think the second viewing helped me get a better grasp on it, though I still looked up online to see what the hell I was supposed to make of the ending.  I’m interested in the way this classic technique of magical realism is brought into a sort of modern, comic book context.  In a way, it’s almost the opposite of a typical superhero movie, where we take for granted that these certain people have special powers.  In Birdman, we’re left wondering whether there really is something special about this guy.  Is Birdman a part of Riggan’s unique reality, or is he just experiencing a psychotic delusion?  What are we to make of his mental state?

I love the long swooping shots, tracking characters from room to room.  It somehow expands the scope even as so much of the film takes place within the confines of this theater.  Because it’s so difficult to manage long shots, they’re rarely used in film (and I’m pretty sure there isn’t another such film that won Best Picture, because I looked for it!).  But it works well in a movie about rehearsals and acting and theater – on stage, you’ve only got the one shot to make things go the way you want them to.  As in life:  there is no dress rehearsal, so you’ve got to make the most of it.

 

Theme:  Mental Health

Diagnosis:  Hallucinations?

First Time Watching?  As long as you count it as first during 2016

Final Verdict:  Feeling relevant again

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