Birdman (2014) Flipping Normality the Bird

First and foremost, Birdman is a strange film. Watching it for the first time is a surreal experience, and one which not everyone will enjoy. Most will come away with the distinct impression of what the hell was that?! But your preference of film will determine whether that question is said in a tone of baffled outcry or bemused enjoyment.

For those who prefer more conventional film (and there’s nothing wrong with that), the way Birdman is filmed is likely to be one of the factors that will have had some ill at ease.

In homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, Birdman is feigned to appear as if shot in a single take. Mainly set in the New York St James’s theatre, the camera glides effortlessly up and down the backstage area, with barely a blink of an eye. Due to the confined space, Alejandro González Iñárritu uses lots of close-up shots, and the lack of visual depth, along with the pounding Jazz percussion, never allows you to truly settle. This is not just cinematic indulgence, and the film is remarkable in its deliverance.

Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, former superhero star Birdman, who has since drifted into obscurity and is now looking for redemption. Sound familiar? That’s because the film mirrors Keaton’s own career which declined after his role in Tim Burton’s Batman franchise, and makes both the approach to Keaton and his acceptance of the role, audacious and inspired. You really cannot imagine someone else leading this film.

Thomson, unlike Keaton (hopefully), has Birdman hovering outside his psyche: at first it sounds like he is being haunted by Christian Bale’s Dark Knight, such is the voice that echoes around the room, before later in the film, Birdman in all his beaked and winged glory appears on-screen. And Birdman is doing exactly that, haunting Thomson, forever reminding him of what he used to be: that he doesn’t need the supposed credibility which his play will bring, because he used to be a star.

The film directly challenges the conflicts between celebrity and credibility, as Thomson’s daughter Sam (the brilliant Emma Stone) keeps her father rooted to the ground with her frequent cynicism, and in one scene brutal verbal assault. Edward Norton is superb as Mike Shiner, the self-indulgent Broadway star, whose only desire is to ruffle as many feathers as possible. He is a crass extrovert, and though at times ridiculous, brings an important conflict into the proceedings which is too bizarre to be labelled as a caricature.

Finishing off this notable ensemble cast, which delivers more than just their glossy names to the billboard, is a somewhat muted Zach Galifianakis, as Thomson’s producer; as well as the play’s two female leads, played by Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough.

But this is not a satirical commentary of film vs theatre: action hero’s vs dramatists. Theatre life is taken down a peg, not only by Shiner, but also an embittered and petty critic; while Thomson’s attitude is made to gripe at the vanities of Hollywood stars. It is a film which is amusing and seductively entertaining, from the sophistication of the direction to the ridiculousness of an almost completely naked Edward Norton, doing his best 19th century boxing impression, whilst sparring off in the dressing room with Michael Keaton.

Birdman is a highly entertaining and truly original film, and though it could have gone either way, I’m not surprised it snapped Best Picture and Best Director away from Boyhood. But after its recent Oscar success Birdman has to deal with a whole new problem: staying amongst the elite.

As the old saying goes, getting to the top is easy: staying there is difficult. I wonder then whether in time to come, if people will still be truly attached to Birdman. Will it live on and become a classic, or be a case of the brightest star burns twice as fast?

I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle. It’s got too much going for it to burn out; but at the same time I’m not entirely convinced it will remain as popular with the majority of film watchers. Because like any other film, Birdman has its flaws: I can’t quite put my finger on what they are, but at times Birdman is just a bit too Birdman.

But you know what, I don’t care. Even if it does dip in years to come and it’s not a film that is revisited, I like what Birdman represents. For me, though I fully appreciate their appeal, importance, and popularity, there are too many superhero films: too many ill-advised reboots (other than Star Wars which I am still giddy about); and too many shallow 3D cash copouts.

So regardless of whether Birdman soars or plummets, I will always be fond of it simply for flying in the face of cinematic trends and daring to be that rare and wonderful commodity: original.

5 thoughts on “Birdman (2014) Flipping Normality the Bird

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