By Dan Rosen (Columbiana, Ohio)
“A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing.”
I couldn’t track down the original author of this statement, but these are the words inscribed on a stained napkin affixed to Riggan Thompson’s dressing room mirror. Within the first minutes of the movie the audience is revealed to this glorious message, the message that serves as pretty much the thesis of the movie Birdman. Now without going into an entire synopsis, the film is about a fading actor trying to reclaim not only his public image but also his life’s purpose. When I first saw a trailer for this movie I was intrigued for a few reasons. First and foremost, I was excited to see Michael Keaton and the rest of the all-star cast at the helm. But I was also extremely excited when I heard that the film was shot to look as if it was done in one continuous take. Now combined with an amazing, complex, and truly original premise, Birdman, in my eyes, is truly a landmark cinematic event.
When I saw that Michael Keaton would be taking the lead in this film, I was shocked and excited. Shocked because I couldn’t remember the last time I saw Keaton in anything, and excited because I knew that no other actor could better connect to the story than he. I read an interview where he said that the movie wasn’t actually written for him, the former Caped Crusader who faced a similar fate to Riggan, and it was more of a pleasant coincidence. Regardless of the reason for casting him, Keaton truly soars. Now despite the fact that he didn’t really have to ‘transform’ into a character, he most certainly reinvented himself and breathed new life into his career and the character; this truly felt like the story of Riggan Thompson, fading movie star fighting to reclaim his identity, not of Michael Keaton playing this same fading star.
I felt legitimate empathy and sympathy for Riggan as he battled demons, his colleagues, his masked moniker, and himself. I don’t mean to sound too ridiculous, but I honestly could feel the emotion behind Keaton’s eyes as he fought for Riggan, but more importantly, himself. This was and is truly a reinvention of one of Hollywood’s most unique and interesting actors – gone are the days of cowls and capes. Now next to Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Zach Galifianakis, and Naomi Watts added fantastic supporting roles; they felt as natural and convincing as if I were watching an ‘as themselves’ film. Each character has their own goals, desires, and obstacles to overcome, and the cast couldn’t have done a better job of engulfing these quirky and crazy individuals. The entire cast brought the film to life and held on with a powerful, unrelenting grip.
When the film was originally debuted I was excited and perplexed at director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s vision of producing the film to appear as if it was all one continuous take. From the opening frame of Keaton floating half-naked in his dressing room to the final shots of the film, it appears as if you are watching a story or memory being replayed in someone’s mind, Thompson’s mind. This is an incredible experience, because by producing it as one giant take it transforms the movie into something more, a story. After all, every movie is a story told with pictures. But Birdman truly took this concept to the next level. At so many times throughout the film did I feel as if I was being told a story, a modern-day fairy tale, a peek inside the mind of the fading star rather than a third person view of his fight. This is a precedent setting film.
Now when watching the film you can easily tell where the cuts are, that is, for example, when Riggan and Mike Shiner walk into a bar they enter through the dark, pitch-black doorway – you physically cannot see or detect a cut, but these are the incognito type of places in which the film obviously cuts out; but I actually think these moments benefit the film as a whole. The story is setup to feel as if it is stream of consciousness and these small, ‘black’ moments that insinuate a cut seem to represent a progression of time at different moments, further enveloping the audience in the story.
The final aspect that I see even as another living, breathing character in the film is the sound. The score takes a backseat to the on-screen images most of the time, but throughout the film Riggan experiences these moments that involve a jazzy, drum roll kind of sound. They are subtle and not overdone; and that’s what makes the sound so great. These moments of drum roll act as moments in Riggan’s development and personal growth; they come at times in which he must move forward and persevere to ultimately obtain his final goal and reach his desired destination. The sound helps to move not only Riggan and Keaton forward, but the story benefits as well, as each of the characters have their own battles to face, and by following the beat of their own drum, they too can arrive at their own final stage.
This film has been receiving non-stop praise since the moment it was released, collecting award nominations left and right, and earning the highest ratings from every critic out there. After seeing the film myself, all I can say is “wow.” I haven’t been this entranced by a film since The Dark Knight – and, if you know me, that’s saying something. As a side note, as an aspiring screenwriter and as someone who hopes to one day be able to bring his own stories to life on screen, Birdman really opened my eyes to how a story – how a legend – can and should be told; how a moment as intimate as that of a film and audience can be more than what was previously thought; how a tale other than your own can be delivered to life.
There isn’t a single negative thing I can say of the film. And I know that I’m no Rolling Stone critic, and I have yet to see every movie nominated for Best Picture, so I cannot say who will win the Oscar, but I can promise you a fantastical cinematic experience. I have never once been pulled into a story’s world and livelihood as I was with Birdman. To put it simply, there isn’t another movie out there that’s like it. Seriously, I can’t give this enough praise. This film set new standards for production value, innovative and visionary ideas and camera work, and should be seen as a pinnacle for great acting. Now I know that the movie won’t be for everyone, as it is quite ‘artsy’ and at times does feel like an ‘Oscar movie.’ But if you are interested in a new type of film reality, you will not be disappointed.
There are two messages to be learned from this film. As the full title of the film says “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance” this ignorance can be a, well, virtue. Now I do not mean to say that cultural or political ignorance is something to strive for. But what I do mean to say is this: Riggan doesn’t really know what he is getting himself into by opening, directing, writing, and starring in a Broadway adaptation of a literary classic, yet he fully commits himself to producing the best overall final product regardless of consequences or opposition. This is exactly the type of attitude I would love to develop to overcome the anxieties and worries of everyday life, just giving each and every situation my all and dedicating 100% of my energy towards accomplishing something – anything that I set my mind to; focusing on what could go right rather than what could go wrong. Why should we worry about a future that we cannot see? Why should we get ahead of ourselves and end up doing more harm than good? It is certainly no easy task, but it is definitely something to aim for.
Finally, when revisiting the quote brazened across that aging, dirty napkin, “A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing,” we ourselves become connected to Riggan. Just as he learns, we also must realize that in life it does not matter what anyone else thinks of you, or what they label you as; you yourself must see and fly beyond those judgmental limitations that others develop and accept who you are, but more importantly embrace who you are. There is no need to compare yourself to another or to fixate on what someone else has or can do; you must become who you are meant to become.
Birdman starring Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, and Naomi Watts – 5 / 5 stars. Flying colors. (That’s the last bird pun, I promise.)