Tuesday 20 January 2015

Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance

The film opens with a shot of Michael Keaton sitting cross legged in a pair of white underpants, hovering about a metre off the floor. And thus begins an awkward relationship between filmmaker and audience, as difficult as each relationship between the characters of the play. For the film is a play, as the full title of the film (Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) requires us to note, and the theatre within the film represents reality.

The opening moment of supernatural magic sets the scene for a film about a superhero. A quiet moment of solitude where our protagonist reflects on his condition. It's a standard scene in the genre. Here is one superhero who wonders how he got to this place. A place that smells of balls. What is this place? The Earth or this brick walled room? Or a state of mind? And are we talking about the balls barely concealed by his present attire? Or, metaphorically, the condition of mediocrity?

But that opening moment of wonder that the filmmaker has given us is fake. He isn't asking us, after all, to suspend our disbelief, as is required in viewing action adventures. We don't, at first, have any way of knowing this, since the play of the film is focalised on Thomas Riggan. Did the stage light fall because of his superpowers? Why doubt it, they haven't been called into question. Not yet.

It isn't until after Mike Shiner tells us "popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige" that the filmmaker reveals that those powers are the illusion of a fragile mind. A fading mind whose life work has been dedicated to creating popular entertainment for the audiences which, in turn, prefer to escape reality through fantasy than confront the painful truths of life. Admit it, Iñárritu demands, you were childishly drawn in by the magical fiction. And now we are to feel both wonderment and embarrassment at each delightful instance of fantasy.

Iñárritu isn't done mocking us yet. The relationship between daughter, underplayed with poise by Emma Stone, and her father stems from his failings, namely, as she tells us, he wasn't around and then tried to make up for it by trying to make her feel special. A line delivered without melodrama that confronts each member of the audience to reassess the true extent of one's parents' shortcomings.

On the other hand, Iñárritu helps us a little, signposting the role of the theatre within the film as the description of some sort of reality. As an aside, who doesn't come away wanting to explore the works of Raymond Carver? The description of a man trying and failing to take his life is echoed in Riggan's story delivered to his ex-wife about his own failed suicide attempt. A story that is both bathetic and ridiculous. Iñárritu chooses black comedy over slapstick, having his protagonist tell the story, rather than film it. Instead he shows a beautiful shot of the beach with the seagulls pecking at the helpless corpses of the washed up jellyfish. This is a modern film noir.

I wanted to see something positive in this story, an allegory of how unbearable pain helped ironically to avoid total destruction and led to a new beginning. But no. Riggan heads out to take his life again failing spectacularly and ridiculously. And yet to the immediate onlookers, and those connected through the fantastical nature of a world of social media, his failure is misinterpreted as an act of heroism. In today's currency, heroism is measured in the number of views on YouTube or followers on Twitter.

Affixed on Riggan's mirror is a small card which says: "a thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing". Riggan lambasts the Times critic for the lazy application of commonplace labels. Iñárritu urges us to work harder, to think harder.