According to legendary filmmaker Jean Luc Godard, quoted by Toby Mussman: “There are two kinds of cinema; there is Flaherty and there is Eisenstein. That is to say, there is documentary realism and there is theatre, but ultimately, at the highest level, they are one and the same. What I mean is that through documentary one arrives at the structure of the theatre, and through theatrical imagination and fiction one arrives at the reality of life.”
Watching Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) reminds viewers that there are still great movies being made, mixing the reality of life and the imagination of theatre, set in the world of theatre and film itself. Its titular character is an action hero once portrayed by an aging actor Riggans (Michael Keaton), who is trying to shed that old persona, regain his artistic voice, and renew his career by writing and producing a Broadway play. He is still struggling emotionally, and it is a struggle to direct his actors and cohorts (and himself) on and off stage. Mike (Edward Norton), the narcissistic theater brat, attempts to steal the spotlight. Lesley (Naomi Watts), the leading lady, has not quite reached her potential as an actress and sees this play as her chance. Sam (Emma Stone) is Riggan’s daughter and assistant who just returned from drug rehab but has unresolved resentments that boil over. Jake (Zach Galifianakis) is the play’s producer, who is trying his best to keep it all together.
Birdman uses layered, technically challenging filmmaking to explore the thin line between reality and fiction in film—and also the way we construct a view of ourselves. Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu beautifully crafts a series of long-take shots that pressures the actors to nail their parts, and the raw energy is apparent. The scenes are strung together seamlessly, as if the whole movie was one long shot, without a single lull, bridging the backstage and the street, moving between the worlds.
The casting of Keaton in the role blurs reality and fiction in its own way; Riggans’ career has direct parallels to Keaton’s. It is mesmerizing and occasionally squeamish based on the assumptions one might make about Keaton’s experience, which draws viewers into the film as participants in a way. But Keaton in an CBS Sunday Morning interview with Lee Cowan stated, “I probably relate less to this character than anybody I have ever done. That’s the irony.”
Though Keaton does not relate to Riggans and the way the character has dealt with his lot, it has been a hot topic among moviegoers, and based on the voyeuristic gossip of celebrity culture, audiences will not be able to help placing the events of Birdman within reality. The mention of real A-listers in the dialog—such as in a rant by Mike, namedropping George Clooney and Ryan Gosling—further poses the film as documentary. It’s a trick, but the film is open about its trickery, showing you how the medium works and how it can manipulate perception.
Great questions have been posed about how a film “should” be made. Should the director follow the standard propagated in the 1930s through the 1950s and tell a story with a beginning, middle and end? Or should a director take a less linear approach, as Godard challenged in the 1960s, and let the audience be surprised and confused? The basic question is one of challenge—to the director and the audience. Inarritu’s skillful and brave direction puts you in the mix with Birdman, remaining chronologically linear but swerving instead between worlds and intense emotional states. With humor, drama, pathos, sarcasm and absurdity, Birdman indeed makes a case for the “virtue of ignorance”—or rather the permanence of ignorance in our convoluted lives—all given wings by the virtuosity of the director and the actors. It is truly great cinema.