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Geek by profession, thinker/writer/artist by passion. Part-time blogger,social media enthusiast and a tramp by nature :) A Man Of Mud


Saturday, January 24, 2015

Birdman : Smashing The Fourth Wall

I have long been votary of the idea that movies are new books and include finest literature, politics, philosophy and science of our time. Two recent movies I have seen, reinforce my belief further. Ironically, these are the only new movies I have seen in a long time -  Interstellar and Birdman. While a single post on Interstellar would be grossly inadequate, a review of Birdman has to be brief.  Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) by director Alejandro González Iñárritu and starring Michael Keaton, Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis  and Andrea Riseborough is a dark comedy about a washed up actor whose career has been in a downward spiral after his role as the iconic superhero "Birdman" and who is now trying to resurrect his career by directing and acting in a Broadway play.

This also is my first movie review, I have written on movies before but they can be considered post-reviews, attempts to understand the underlying meanings (my bunch of posts on Interstellar are pending in the drafts folder). So why do I attempt to review Birdman?  Because it's a new kind of movie, the most innovative part of it for me is, while some movies have tried breaking the fourth wall (technique of addressing the audience directly)  Iñárritu and the crew smash the fourth wall in Birdman. It involves the audience completely by not providing any explanations, events unfold on the screen as a single 119 minutes shot of the delusional protagonist trying to make sense of his life through art.  It is not just a black comedy, in truth it's a multi-layered narrative, the screenwriters and the director leave it to the viewer to understand it as they wish to. So my interpretation cannot be right or wrong, it can only be subjective.

Spoilers Ahead !!!

The plot follows a washed up and forgotten actor Riggan Thomson struggling to reclaim his place by directing and acting in a Broadway play adapted from a Raymond Carver short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Michael Keaton has already won a thoroughly deserved golden globe for his performance, I need not say more. It is Edward Norton as the eccentric method actor, Emma Stone as the harsh, drug-addict daughter and assistant of Riggan Thomson and Naomi Watts, the insecure debutant Broadway actress who add to the  intensity to the narrative. But it ultimately boils down to Keaton's psychotic Riggan Thompson haunted by his ego manifesting in the form of the Birdman, the comic hero that made Riggan popular two decades back and his delusions that stand out.  But in the end one is still left wondering what the movie is about. It is not about one thing.

On one level , it can be seen as a satire on comic blockbusters and celebrity culture and decline of art from film-making.  Michael Keaton himself played the role of the Batman in Ted Burton's first two Batman movies before walking out of the third. The first movie started a trend of superhero movies that have now become the diet of the average cinegoer. Riggan Thomson similarly has starred in three Birdman movies before opting out of fourth to pursue better roles but remains trapped in the fame of his comic book character. The movie laments at lack of human emotions and drama that superhero blockbusters of our time substitute with action and visual effects.  It actually has scene of   Robert Downey Jr and Ironman in a  news item Riggan sees on TV. Although I do like them a lot, the Ironman and Avengers are movies that use human emotions the least and rely entirely on action sequences and visual effects.

Birdman: Look at these people. Look at their eyes. They’re all sparkly. They love this shit. They love action. Not this talky depressing, philosophical bullshit. Give the people what they want. Some good old-fashioned apocalyptic porn.

As the subject as well as the backdrop involve the theatre, the jab at superhero blockbusters applies equally to Hollywood's celebrity culture and the alleged hollowness which is implied from the very premise that Riggan Thomson puts his money, name and even his remaining sanity at stake to create something that would reflect his talent and gain redemption in his own eyes. However, while the successful thespian Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) constantly tries to ride him down reminding Riggan that the world of theatre belongs to him, the critic, Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan) hates him, threatening to kill his play even before she has seen it, simply because she considers Hollywood actors as

Tabitha: Entitled, selfish, spoiled children. Blissfully untrained, unversed and unprepared to even attempt real art. Handing each other awards for cartoons and pornography. Measuring your worth in weekends?   [Source: IMDb ]
However, they turn out as pretentious and fake as they accuse  Riggan of being. Mike Shiner claims to be such a meticulous method actor that he insists on being provided real gin on stage, claims that he can no longer get hard unless on stage and delivers a powerful dialog urging audience to "Stop looking at the world through your cell phone screen. Have a real experience."   Yet, he is far more vulnerable , rather, crazy about, hollow sensationalism, instant fame and social media which is apparent from his bragging about his massive hard-on getting fifty thousand views. Further, most of Mike's tantrums, seem to occur right when Riggan's performance is getting attention.  Even the theatre critic comes across as a biased, insecure and hateful character who is threatened by Riggan's talent but pretends that the latter has no talent.

But Birdman really is about inward journey of a deeply troubled individual seeking meaning and validation of his life. Riggan Thomson is introduced as a washed up actor making a brave attempt to gain relevance by directing and acting in a Broadway play but on scratching the surface a far more intense struggle of complex emotions appears to be taking place. He faces an existential crisis, rising above mediocrity is a goal he has set for himself but nearly everyone except his best friend/producer Jake, insist,often cruelly, that he cannot succeed. After every setback, the voice of Birdman, his alter ego becomes stronger and finally is visible to Riggan who no longer dismisses it as mental formation. The movie is a black comedy because it treats a tragic narrative unsympathetically, trivializing the falling apart of the protagonist's life by including comic anecdotes at each juncture. However, it is not just humour, the narrative shows how despite the pain, the protagonist must face the reality, exorcise his inner demons, bring closure to suppressed memories, fear, guilt, aspirations  and subdue his ego to achieve catharsis.

After all, the objective of a Tragedy or a Comedy is to bring about catharsis in the audience through purgation, purification, intellectual clarification.

My next post investigates Riggan's catharsis from a philosophical perspective with mythological analogy.