The film Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, recently met with great success at the Oscars. This sample film review, a product of the custom writing services provided by Ultius, will delve into the various aspects of the film in an effort to establish what made the film so effective as well as appealing to audiences
From Batman to Birdman: Michael Keaton and Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
The film Birdman more or less swept the Oscars recently. It was seen as a remarkably imaginative film and a powerful and welcome return of Michael Keaton to the status of acting royalty after spending numerous years in relative obscurity.
Background of the film
The title of the film refers to a fictional superhero that was played by the main character, Riggan Thomas (who is himself played by Michael Keaton). Riggan’s reputation as an actor was primarily based on his role portraying this superhero; but in the film, Riggan wants to move away from this role and produce a more aesthetically valuable play on Broadway. The play consists of an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. Throughout the film, Riggan is tormented by the persona of the birdman himself, who constantly mocks and belittles Riggan within his own mind. The film opens with Riggan:
“a formerly high-flying movie star, is sitting in the lotus position in his dressing room of a historic Broadway theatre, only he’s levitating above the ground. Bathed in sunlight streaming in from an open window, he looks peaceful. But a voice inside his head is growling, grumbling, gnawing at him grotesquely about matters both large and small” (paragraph 1).
One is not immediately aware that the voice belongs to the birdman; but this becomes clear later on as the plot of the film progresses.
A surrealistic fantasy
This description of the opening scene of the film also calls attention to one of the main thematic elements of the film, which can be called a kind of magical realism or surrealism (see Breton). Riggan is portrayed as levitating and creates a visual argument. Is he “really” levitating, or is this occurring only with his own imagination? One would naturally assume the latter; but then, the portrayal appears so natural that the viewer feels compelled to suspend his disbelief. In any event, Khoshaba has explained the role of the birdman in the following way:
“To bolster a failing self-esteem and ego, his psyche erects the birdman, an alter ego that like Faust’s Mephistopheles beckons Riggan to sell out on a meaningful life and come back to the past where he was loved and admired by the masses as a superhero. A mass mentality rather than true artistry is what’s real in life, the birdman says” (paragraph 5).
What Riggan himself wants, on the other hand, is to be considered a true artist, and not just a man who was once able to provide menial entertainment for the masses. This search for meaning on the part of Riggan is essential to the arc of the plot of the entire film.
Birdman‘s supporting cast
Other characters in the film include Riggan’s daughter Samantha Thomson (played by Emma Stone), a countercultural and somewhat eccentric girl who is recovering from drug addiction; and Mike Shiner (played by Edward Norton), who believes in a highly spontaneous and impulsive form of acting that often threatens to undermine Riggan’s ambition of producing a deep and profound work of art. Khoshaba suggests that the interrelationships between these characters (as well as the birdman) can be understood as a dramatization of the conflicts present within Riggan’s psyche. In any event, Riggan ultimately does manage to put on the play; and there are several further scenes in which the line between imagination and reality are blurred. Utilizing this technique has been used throughout the history of filmmaking, but has taken on new life since the release of The Matrix.
An autobiography of sorts?
Interestingly, the plot of Birdman actually parallels the situation of the main actor Keaton himself. Keaton originally became famous for portraying Batman earlier in his career, a portrayal that laid the groundwork for the cultural phenomenon that would be Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. As Dargis has put it:
“a series of walls—between character and actor, onstage and off, representation and reality—begin to collapse. The most obvious divide is between Mr. Keaton, who, starting in 1989, played Batman in two movies directed by Tim Burton, and Riggan, who made a killing playing [the character of the birdman], a feathered franchise jackpot” (paragraph 6).
Similarly, just as Keaton made a transition from playing a superhero to working on a more genuinely aesthetic project (i.e. the film Birdman itself), Riggan (that is, the character portrayed by Keaton) is working toward making a similar transition in his own career.
Payoffs for paying attention
Enhanced appreciation of the film bolsters some of the main themes of the movie with additional nuances. For one thing, as has already been indicated, the non-separation between imagination and reality is one of the main themes of the movie itself; therefore, the fact that Keaton’s own career parallels that of the character he is portraying, as well as the frequent imagery used in the film, adds an additional level to the fluid relationship between imagination and reality. This theme can also be found within the movie itself in multiple ways:
- The main character Riggan himself is an actor who used to portray a superhero
- Riggan wants to put on a play that was in fact written by a real writer in the real world (that is, Raymond Carver)
- The play returns a once great actor to the spotlight, much like the film did for Keaton
If one follows these interconnections with care, the effect is really quite dizzying: one can no longer keep track of the distinctions between what is real and what is imaginary; and this also adds to the viewer’s willingness to believe that perhaps Riggan can (for example) levitate after all.
The “one shot” aspect of Birdman
One key technical aspect of Birdman pertains to its cinematography: almost all of the film looks as if it was filmed in one shot. As Renée has written:
“So much goes into selling the illusion of continuity. For Birdman, Lubezki’s cinematography had to be nothing short of miraculous—moving the camera so seamlessly that it never became disjointed and the work of the various team members on the film to ensure continuity within the flow of images has made the film what it is now—a single-shot feature film made up of hundreds of shots” (paragraph 2).
The effect is that the viewer is essentially drawn into the flow of the film, without ever having his attention jarred by a non-linear transition between one scene or image and another scene or image.
The immersive quality of the film’s internal point of view
Another effect of this technical innovation is that the viewer almost sees the movie from the perspective of the characters themselves. This is because the camera’s point of view is immersed among the characters, which makes the viewer himself feel like he is walking around among them. Again, this is facilitated by the single-shot illusion conveyed by the film’s cinematography, which helps maintain the plausibility of adopting such a perspective. Moreover, it must also be stated that this also reinforces one of the key themes of the film, which is the blurry line between imagination and reality. By providing an immersive experience, the cinematography actually helps the viewer accept the phenomenology of any given character for what it is. For example, there is one scene in which Riggan is flying across the city. Thanks to the cinematography, it almost does not even occur to the viewer to question the plausibility of such a thing; rather, one merely feels that one is flying along with Riggan, and that this is exactly how things should be.
The overall cinematic effect of the film
Manhola Dargis has described the general effect beautifully in his article “Former Screen Star, Molting on Broadway: Birdman Stars Michael Keaton and Emma Stone.”:
“Iñárritu has staged and shot the movie so that it looks like everything that happens, from airborne beginning to end, occurs during one transporting continuous take. The camera doesn’t just move with the story and characters, it also ebbs and flows like water, soars and sweeps like a bird, its movements as fluid as a natural element, as animated as a living organism” (paragraph 5).
The viewer thus does not feel that he merely an abstracted observer of scenes that are taking place before him; he feels himself to be immersed in a kind of living stream of consciousness. Again, it is impossible to over-emphasize the importance of this effect not only for the aesthetic experience provided by the film but also for its capacity to effectively communicate its main themes to the viewer. In short, the form is perfectly congruent with the content, and the medium is likewise perfectly congruent with the message.
Critical and public reception–The good
The headline of Truitt’s article summarizes the situation: “Birdman Wins Four Oscars, including Best Picture”. This is quite impressive and indicates that the film has in general been received extremely well by viewers and critics. One of the awards won by the movie was for best cinematography, which is wholly unsurprising on the basis of what has been written thus far in the present review. The film Birdman is an incredibly ambitious aesthetic project, with a very high level of imagination and creativity evident in both the conceptualization of the film and its technical implementation. This is particularly noteworthy in a society where television is gradually pushing film making into obsolescence. It thus makes sense that the film should have met with the kind of acclaim that it has. Broadly speaking, it can be suggested that this acclaim is well-deserved and not merely the result of some kind of unwarranted hype.
And the not so good
Of course, critics have expressed contrary opinions as well; this may be almost inevitable when a movie meets with such a level of success. For example, Brody writes: :
“what Keaton has done in the film is what the movie has Riggan Thomson does: he has re-ëstablished himself, has shown off his acting chops in a production that calls for his professionalism, not his imagination. What he hasn’t done here is to get outside the story and become a subject himself, one that is opaque, adamantine, mysterious, explosive, and irreducible” (paragraph 13).
It must be said, however, that not only does such a comment verge on the inscrutable, it also is also peripheral to the core themes and achievements actually present within the film itself.
Interested in films adapted from novels? Check out our comparative essay on The Sun Rises by Ernest Hemingway.
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is an immersive and profound aesthetic experience, owing both to the multi-leveled theme of the relationship between imagination and reality and to the technical achievements of the movie’s cinematography. In general, negative responses to Birdman seem to give the impression that the critics are really “reaching” for something bad to say about the movie. This is likely for the simple reason that it is difficult to criticize a project that contains such a high level of aesthetic ambition and that really does do so much right. The awards won by Birdman are thus well-deserved, and all people interested in just seeing a good movie would be well-advised to watch the film.
Breton, Andre. Mad Love. New York: Bison Books. Print.
Brody, Richard. “‘Birdman’ Never Achieves Flight.” New Yorker. 23 Oct. 2014. Web. 23 Mar. 2015. .
Dargis, Manohla. “Former Screen Star, Molting on Broadway: ‘Birdman’ Stars Michael Keaton and Emma Stone.” New York Times. 16 Oct. 2014. Web. 23 Mar. 2015. .
Khoshaba, Deborah. “Film Analysis of Birdman: The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance.” Psychology Today. 8 Feb. 2015. Web. 23 Mar. 2015. .
Lemire, Christy. “Birdman.” Roger Ebert. 17 Oct. 2014. Web. 23 Mar. 2015. .
Renée, V. “How ‘Birdman’ Was Made to Look Like It Was Shot in One Take.” No Film School. 5 Nov. 2014. Web. 23 Mar. 2015. made-to-look-like-film-shot-in-one-take>.
Truitt, Brian. “‘Birdman’ Wins Four Oscars, Including Best Picture.” USA Today. 23 Feb. 2015. Web. 23 Mar. 2015. .