Famous for Another Day

photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight

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Midway through Birdman, a new, dark comedy directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Sam Thomson (played by Emma Stone) sits on the edge of a roof. As she watches another New York City night pass by, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) deadpans to her. “I don’t think it’s high enough,” he says. Later, as Sam stands on the roof again, Mike walks out and jokes, “For f—- sake, just jump already.”

For most of the characters throughout Birdman, a leap of faith is almost indistinguishable compared to jumping to an early death. The plot of Birdman, also titled The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, focuses on a washed-up actor, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), who became a star for his role as the fictional superhero Birdman two decades ago. Thomson is producing, starring and directing a Broadway production of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. However the play has gone off the rails and the injury of a main actor forces Thomson to bring in a seasoned Broadway star, Shiner, to save the day.

All of this exposition may sound grating, but visually Birdman moves with remarkable grace and ease. Shot by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Birdman appears as if it is one, long continuous take without any cuts. Lubezki, who won an Academy Award earlier this year for Gravity, helps shape the intimate characterization of the film; fame has never looked so close and private as it does in Birdman.

And fame, both finding it and losing it, is really what Birdman is aiming at. “You don’t even have a Facebook,” Sam, Riggan’s daughter, shouts as he struggles to pick up the pieces. “You’re not important. Get used to it.” Riggan has internalized his daughter’s words and each of his moves in Birdman seems finely calibrated around the fear of failure, and worse, the fear of irrelevance. His inner conscience, symbolized by the voice of Birdman, tells him his Carver adaptation is doomed to be laughed out of the theater. “You are lame. You are about to destroy what’s left of your career. It’s pathetic,” the voice says.

Riggan’s has another problem on his hands: the replacement cast member, Mike. Playing this egotistical, method actor, Edward Norton is at his scene-stealing best. Mike’s antics extend to shutting down a preview and stealing the front page of the New York Times Arts section. “Get him the f— out of my play,” Riggan’s bellows. But Mike isn’t leaving; although he hates the lack of artistic ambition in Riggan’s Hollywood career, which he labels “cultural genocide”. “Long after you’re gone, I’ll be on that stage…wrestling with complex human emotions,” Mike says.

Gonalez Inarritu isn’t about to turn Birdman into a battle between low-brow entertainment (Hollywood blockbusters) and high-brow art (most everything else). With the dominance of sequels and studio’s chasing the international box office, that ship has clearly sailed. Instead, the director is much more focused on his characters’ wrestling, sometimes almost literally, with complex human emotions.

The fight to stay popular and prestigious, Gonalez Inarritu seems to be saying, is just one identity crisis followed by another. While Riggan may have a sign in his dressing room that says “a thing is a thing, not what is said of a thing”, he is almost unbearably anxious about being judged—whether by his daughter, the critics, or himself. Riggan’s shares these anxieties with Mike, who eventually admits to Sam that he “pretends everywhere else but out there [on the stage].” Can we ever truly be free to discover and express ourselves? It’s a weighty question that Gonzalez Inarritu—and Birdman—seek to answer.

With fairly limited action, Birdman runs the risk of focusing almost too much on its high powered cast. Keaton and Norton are stars playing stars. How sorry should we feel for wealthy, successful characters who get to order other people around all day? But the uncanny brilliance of Birdman is the way in which the film handles and brushes off this dilemma. “There is an entire world out there where people fight to be relevant, and you act like it doesn’t exist,” Sam says to Riggan. It’s a valid criticism towards Riggan but not to Birdman the movie.

In one of film’s many monologues, Riggan tells a story of a flight he took with George Clooney, the real-life famous movie star. The plane ran into major turbulence and the people on board are crying. Yet, all Riggan can think about is that if the plane crashes, “it will be Clooney’s face on the front page, and not mine”. Most people never get the chance to even touch the fame or admiration that Riggan’s experiences. But an ebbing and flowing fear of irrelevance in one’s own work and relationships isn’t just for Riggan; whether you are a superhero or an average member of the audience, Sam reminds us, it is a feeling that the entire world can understand.

Birdman is rated R for language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence.