Birdman: A Masterpiece of Cinema

Updated: May 15, 2020

Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance is nothing short of a masterpiece. Assembled with elements of dark comedy, a wholly satirical outlook at theatrical endeavours and a little scattering of superhero goodness (or should I say psychological realism), this film really ups the ante on a thematic level. An amalgamation of technical precocity, hypnotizing visuals and pragmatically perceptive dialogue, Alejandro G. Iñárritu delivers a thought-provoking, energetic perspective of a fading actor looking to revitalize his career.

Birdman delivers a unique experience in its 2-hour runtime. Technically this film excels perfectly, being the first film of its fashion (in this case a one-take film) to be over 100 minutes. Gushing with fluidity and intimacy throughout, the bare ideals and themes scattered within the film are only accentuated by the omnipresent camera’s lingering movements through the theatre. Here, the excellent cinematography adds such depth and intensity to the film, without feeling overly excessive or forced, that boredom is never an option. Emmanuel Lubezki never fails to amaze me with his riveting, tension-building cinematography. The 2 hour-long one-shot in this film, albeit with beautifully executed edits in between, is certainly an upgrade from his 17-minute-long tracking shot opening his preceding film, Gravity (released the year before).

Taking a look at a more recent one-shot film, 1917, is an interesting way to discuss how Birdman uses this in different ways. Both were remarkable in their own ways. 1917 provided such great intimacy as it navigated through the trenches, following the 2 young soldiers. Conversely, Birdman feels more energetic – the camera is always moving and roaming down the narrow corridors with a more stylistic approach to hide the edits. The swift pans add another layer of excitement to the film put also serve as a means to make the film possible, cutting between shots but maintaining the energy and momentum already established. This cinematography is beyond excellent and punctuates and adds to the other exceptional elements of the film.

Michael Keaton embodies Riggan Thompson; a man struggling to get back into the limelight after his performance of the superhero “Birdman” years before. There is a raw intensity to the character coupled together with an obsessive arrogance about being the “best”.

An interesting review I read got me thinking more deeply about the themes within the film. DirkH on Letterboxd reflected on associations to the poem “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley, fundamentally on the line:

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

He alludes to the image of the broken statue described in the poem, noting that:

“The image of the broken statue, the irony of the words of a king long gone with his civilization vanished are juxtaposed by the fact that words, language will outlive them all.”

The poem contains imagery of fleeting joy, excessive pride and a desire to be the “best”. Riggan Thompson is a man yearning to be this. He has already achieved success as “Birdman” in his early career but now that success is fading, and people are forgetting he exists. He wants to get rid of his past and revitalise himself as a new person, eliminate the identity of “Birdman” as an extension of his being. He has the ego-driven and pretentious qualities needed to get away from his old life but, his inner turmoil and confrontation between his fictional character appear to be large barriers blocking his way.

Michael Keaton is exceptional as Riggan but both Edward Norton and Emma Stone provide excellent performances. Norton, to start with, is perfect and provides just the right amount of emotion and charming wit to make the audience love his character. Contradictory to this, Stone delivers a powerful performance masked with scenes of helpless nothingness and the relationship between her and her dad, Riggan, mark some of the most important parts of their respected arcs.

Iñárritu has mastered the thematic influence between Riggan’s “superpowers” and his insanity. Iñárritu builds such power in the ambiguity of these two things. The importance of these powers to Riggan, is apparent. The genius nature of this film is that it dares the audience to question the supposed reality of such apparent things; that is, the resentment and ignorance of these “powers” and “everyday magic” we tend to abide to.

My favourite part of the film was a severe turning point in Riggan’s arc. It is the moment where he realises who he is and who he will never be able to become. Narrated with one of the most nihilistic speeches ever written, this moment is certainly as powerful and poignant a climax as you can get. Shakespeare’s “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech embodies the harsh reality of the scene perfectly. The abundantly dreary metaphor about the supposed “uselessness of existence” ties seamlessly in. The fact that we don’t know who speaks this monologue until the very end of it further highlights the satirical wit in this moment, highlighting the evidence of underlying nihilism throughout.

I must also commend the jazz score. It perfectly complements the story Iñárritu is telling. The melodies are graceful with perfectly balanced tones of classical music in abundance.

Iñárritu has created one of the best films I have ever seen. Not a single thing is out of place. With or without the mind-blowing technical ability shown here, Birdman is a remarkable feat in filmmaking.

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