In his run-down backstage dressing room, a reflective Michael Keaton, stripped to his tighty-whities, mutters, “How did we get here?” The former superhero and Hollywood star best known for Tim Burton’s “Batman” (1989) and “Batman Returns” (1992), is now starring in Alejandro González Inarritu’s “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).” Iñárritu is the Academy Award-nominated director of past works such as “Amores perros” (2000), “21 Grams” (2003), “Babel” (2006), and “Biutiful” (2010).
His newest film, “Birdman,” is anything but a senseless spectacle and an empty-headed action-fest claptrap of a superhero film, and yet it’s not quite a deconstruction either. “Birdman” is a film about Broadway, the theater and an a once celebrity, now fallen star, who’s becoming more and more irrelevant after refusing to play his superhero typecast for the fourth time in a row, propelling him to helm his own stage play to come back on top. One has to ask, was casting Michael Keaton in this role a deliberate choice, given his career has been somewhat overshadowed by his defining performance as Batman? Was this parallel intentional? Iñárritu explains, “Keaton obviously adds a lot of reality to the film, and that was great. He is one of the few persons that has worn that cape and is a pioneer of that superhero thing, but at the same time he has the craft and the range to play drama and comedy. Very few actors in the world can do that. I think he was very bold and trusting in me to accept this role, and obviously the fact that he has been that in the past made him the perfect choice for it.”
But Iñárritu is not that fond of the superhero genre market, a product of entertainment he deems as cultural genocide. He explains, “There’s a bunch of films that don’t mean nothing. They are not about nothing, but they’re just full of explosions and special effects. They are really tied to that, and corporations and hedge funds wants to squeeze money by those things that are, in a way, poisoning the cinema as a possibility to human expression.” He adds, “The superhero in a way is an illusion that doesn’t exist, but to approach it with humor and laugh about it can be real fun.”
Out of the five films Iñárritu has made, all but “Birdman” have been known for how relentlessly depressing they are. “Birdman” is a change of pace for the director given that the film has been regarded, in most circles, as a black comedy. Iñárritu revealed, “I wanted to approach it in a lighter way because to survive that, it would be unbearable for a film about show business. Without a sense of humor it can be painful for the audience. It’s not an important issue for anybody or for humanity, but I think with a sense of humor it becomes a much more attractive thing to be explored and observed.” In regards to his cast, Iñárritu admitted, “We laughed a lot too, because really we were laughing at ourselves since we’re doing a film about the industry that we are in.” He humorously added, “And after having made so many dramas, I needed a vacation.”
Having the chance to see “Birdman,” I personally think it’s a tremendous achievement that can be commended on its ambition alone, and yet it manages to fulfill those ambitions and then some. At the center of the film there’s an ensemble cast of A-list actors including Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, and of course, Michael Keaton who plays the dual role of Riggan aka Birdman. Whenever someone is on screen, the level of zest they put into the words and the manner of speech is at 110%, and the film has a pace that’s exhilarating. Iñárritu elaborated on this by explaining how he communicates to his cast the complex pace, tone, and feel that he’s envisioned in his head while writing the screenplay. “I think every scene has an objective and every character has something that they want to achieve in each scene. For me, another thing was the faster the better in regards to comedy, and really playing honest and full, as if that was a life or death decision. I always try to be very specific and to help them clarify and simplify things. I think that’s the most important.” He went on, “It sounds easy, but really, to define the action verse of the characters can sometimes be difficult because it can be confusing. I think once you have cleared that, then you really advance and help them a lot.”
“Birdman” is bold filmmaking for moviegoers who crave originality and are always actively attempting to seek out something offbeat, experimental and dissimilar to what they’ve seen before. The critic in me wants draw comparisons to other major film works, but I’m fearful Michael Keaton’s character might knock me for being incompetent and lazy as a writer. As of matter of fact, Keaton lays into a New York Times critic for being guilty of the exact same accusation towards the midpoint of the film. Just for the sake of having an idea of what viewers are getting themselves into, I’ll say “Birdman” mildly resembles a much more comedic “Synecdoche, New York” (2008), but by no means is it not its own artistically challenging beast. Ultimately, “Birdman” is a wondrous technical marvel that rivals “Gravity” in its long shots and one takes. Iñárritu explained, “I think it’s important for every director and film to choose the point of view, and in this case I wanted a radical one. I thought that was the most effective way to do it.” It was Mr. Iñárritu, and it will have me in awe for some time to come.
Rob Gabe is a fourth-year student majoring in communication studies. He can be reached at RG770214@wcupa.edu.