Riggan Thompson is a middle-aged white male actor famous for, as a young man, having played the superhero Birdman in a trio of globally-successful films. We join him as he rehearses for his starring role in the Broadway play that he has also scripted, produced and directed. He will, during the course of the movie, be excoriated by his daughter, his wife and New York’s leading theatre critic for this monstrous piece of crisis-fuelled self-indulgence; but, for the moment, the mirror in his dressing room sports a postcard bearing a message:
“A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing.”
This is an interesting philosophical and artistic point about authenticity. It invites us to consider what is ‘real’ and what is not; what can and cannot be said; and, perhaps most interestingly, what kind of thing counts as ‘a thing’ and what counts as something ‘said’. A piece of art, for example: is that a thing, or something being said about a thing? (Or even something not being said about a thing – after all, not only is it seen that ‘ceci n’est pas une pipe’, but it could be said that ‘ceci n’est pas une declaration a propos une pipe’.) Is the film ‘Birdman’ a thing, or something that is said about a thing?
It all depends on the level at which you choose to consider the matter. ‘Birdman’ is the name of a movie directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. It stars a middle-aged white male actor (Michael Keaton, whose real name Michael Douglas is the name of another middle-aged white male actor) playing a middle-aged white male actor (Riggan Thompson) who used to play a character called Birdman in a series of films called Birdman. By the time we meet Thompson, the character Birdman has been comprehensively adopted as Thompson’s alter-ego, an entity with whom he has a rolling and increasingly vituperative internal dialogue throughout the film. We the audience know, of course, that the middle-aged white male actor 'Michael Keaton' played the character 'Batman', and Iñárritu knows that we know this, so we're all in on the joke that a bat and a bird are both things that fly but, just in case we don't, the Birdman alter-ego speaks with the same deep distinctive growl as did Keaton's Batman.
Which bit of this is the most ‘authentic’? It is a question with which Iñárritu, Keaton and Thompson are all engaged. And not just them – the play that Thompson is presenting to Broadway is an adaptation of “What we talk about when we talk about love”, an introspection into the authenticity (or otherwise) of communicating about love (which may or may not be ‘real’) based on a short story by Raymond Carver (a not-at-all-coincidentally middle-aged white man).
To make sure these multiple and interwoven levels cooperate fully in the game of chasing their own authenticity, everything else in the film is doing the same thing. The camerawork is extraordinary, remaining almost unbearably close to its subjects at times, revealing every crease and wart and bead of sweat on every face, male or female; the entire movie is shot as if in a single take, moving along corridors, in and out of doors, out onto the New York street, into the adjacent bar, back into the theatre, down into the basement, back along the corridor, straight onto the stage; the amazing soundtrack consists of an almost unbroken drum solo, a piece of apparently improvised jazz (and how authentic is that?) that includes the actual appearance of the drummer on a couple of occasions, once out on the street and once in a broom cupboard.
(The meta-movie ‘Birdman’ throws in quite a few of these surreal touches as it hurtles along, including the actual flying and telekinesis that Thompson performs at various points during the film, to raise further fractal questions on what is and what is not real, for whom and at what level.)
Perhaps the most astonishing contribution to Birdman’s intoxicating breadth and complexity comes from the actor we call ‘Ed Norton’ who appears as the actor ‘Mike Shiner’ to play the character ‘Nick’ in Thompson’s play. The scene in which Norton/Shiner/Nick interacts with Keaton/Thompson is simply breath-taking as the younger man demonstrates that he is the superior actor through the multi-layered process of – of being the superior actor. As the meta-movie continues, it becomes ever-clearer (to the point where the Norton/Shiner character admits the fact) that he is unable to be ‘himself’ in the (ahem) real world and can only be himself (whoever that is) whilst on stage. (The moment where this becomes physically evident, in front of an audience of several thousand, is very funny indeed.)
And, of course, if we are invited to ponder authenticity, then we can hardly escape the question as to who, or what, is observing or considering the authenticity, which propels us in turn into the question of consciousness itself, for which the meta-movie Birdman suddenly offers a metaphor: all the actors and characters and support staff and agents and managers, scurrying around in the subterranean rabbit-warren of the theatre are no more than the innumerable thoughts and wants and drives of our sub-conscious, collectively and miraculously resolved from time to time into a supply of conscious thought and a sense of self upon the single brightly lit stage of awareness…
Hollywood – and this is not meant to be disparaging or dismissive - loves this kind of stuff. Birdman won the Oscar for best movie: but think of Shakespeare in Love (best movie) or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (best screenplay) or even Tropic Thunder (in which the multi-layering reached the genius-intensity whereby Robert Downey Jr – who gets a reference in Birdman for his Iron Man franchise - was nominated for an actual Oscar for playing an actor called Kirk Lazarus, an Oscar-winning actor who has undergone ‘pigmentation alteration’ in order to play Staff Sergeant Lincoln Osiris in a film within a film and who remains ‘in character’ even when it becomes clear (to whom?) that he and his fellow actors are no longer making a film…)
Mention of Eternal Sunshine reminds us of Charlie Kaufman, and it is perhaps to Kaufman’s work that Birdman ought most to be compared. In both cases, every element of the art – the scripting, the acting, the camerawork, the music, the message – is brought into the service of the whole, and no part is left unaddressed. Every thing connects to every other thing, whether it’s said or not. This review comprises things said about a thing, and is a thing too, but it is not the thing of which it speaks, and in that sense it is insufficient. Birdman is a truly remarkable thing, and experiencing it is the only appropriate thing to do.