By TAYLOR KANG
I think they (characters) are trying. But trying and succeeding are two different matters. In some lives, people don’t succeed at what they are trying to do. These lives are, of course, valid to write about, the lives of the people who don’t succeed. Most of my own experience has to do with the latter situation. It’s their lives they’ve become uncomfortable with, lives they see breaking down. They’d like to set things right, but they can’t. And usually they do know it, I think, and after that they just do the best they can.
– Raymond Carver
When I was younger, I used to have a recurring dream of flight. And that’s what Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Birdman” is. Daze-like. Jarring. A Rated R, maddening, surreal, child’s fantasy, a sharp sparrow’s plummet that quietly rattles you to your very core. “Birdman” triumphantly treads the frigid waters of the delicate medium that is black comedy through moments of stark realism and fantastical imagery.
The film begins with a title sequence reminiscent of Godard’s “Pierrot le Fou” – neon blues and reds fade in and out against a backdrop of black as they spell out the opening credits to the typewriter-esque clacking of Antonio Sanchez’s score. “Birdman” follows man-child Riggan Thompson’s struggle to successfully adapt Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” into a Broadway play. Michael Keaton stars as the eponymous Thompson, the former face behind a slew of fictional “Birdman” movies (think of the late 80s/early 90s “Batman” franchise – the film uses Keaton’s history with the series in a self-referential gimmick reminiscent of the works of French New Wave, but Richard Brody of The New Yorker writes much more eloquently on the topic here than I ever could – just don’t be swayed by his dismissal of the film).
“Birdman” chronicles the ill-fated week of the play’s previews, during which Thompson finds himself assaulted by schizophrenic hallucinations, a series of disturbing lapses of sanity consisting of a gravelly-voiced Birdman assuring Thompson of the validity of his furtive hopes, the sly suspicions of every man, woman, child: that he is somehow special, important, brilliant. And, on a more grounded note, Thompson struggles with his overwhelming sense of failure as an actor, father, husband, and, ultimately, human being.
At first glance the characters seem tired tropes: the titular tortured artist (Keaton), the troubled daughter with peroxide-blond hair and a passport punched with rehab stamps (Emma Stone), the arrogant actor who finds success on stage but not in his personal life (Edward Norton), the highbrow theater critic (Lindsay Duncan), etc. But Iñárritu fleshes most of them out so well that the audience quickly forgives the circus of clichés.
“Birdman” explores a variety of themes: the relationship between art and its critics, the redemptive (and at other times all too destructive) quality of art, family, truth, ad infinitum.
The film also touches upon the accessibility of “highbrow” art to today’s Hollywood elite, a relevant theme in a world in which the likes of James Franco and the Jenner sisters are publishing novels to social media frenzy. During her confrontation with Thompson, Duncan, as “New York Times” theater critic Tabitha, makes a compelling case for the condemnation of celebrities like Franco, the Jenner sisters, and, ultimately, Thompson himself, dryly stating, “I hate you and everyone you represent. Entitled, selfish, spoiled children. Blissfully untrained, unversed, and unprepared to even attempt real art.” But her speech, while a tour-de-force of cultivated intellectualism, is merely another example of elitism and grad school-esque snobbery. “Birdman” may be interpreted as a reminder that no form of art, whether DC Comics derived or literary, is inherently superior – truth can come from even the most unexpected of people.
And that may resound with the last question lingering in your mind: “Why Carver?” A valid query, but when taking into consideration the scope of the writer’s work and the implications of “Birdman,” Carver is clearly the ideal choice: no American writer more accurately captured the desperation of the everyday man, desperation that even action stars like Thompson are susceptible to.
“Birdman” is a triumph of balance. It ponders human existence without pandering to its audience. Some hilarious one-liners (“I look like a turkey with leukemia”) and wonderfully bizarre scenes (Keaton power-jogging through Times Square clad only in his briefs) make for a film at once wildly riotous and quietly haunting. It melds “lowbrow” action – think robot birds, car fires, terrific explosion – and “highbrow” questions. Even Sanchez’s beautiful score, all hissing snare drums and soaring melodies, seems to epitomize the blending of the two. With its stunning artistic direction and resonant story, “Birdman” truly does take flight.
Don’t worry, Riggan. Carver would have been pleased.
“Birdman” is in theaters now.
Here is the trailer.