The Unexpected Virtue of Theatre

Michael Keaton is not an actor who’s easy to love. He famously blew his career out the window, or perhaps up his nose, and then made a gradual recovery through not particularly memorable roles, his one stop in Shakespeare a travesty of misunderstanding of Dogberry, one of the funniest roles in English drama.

Emma Stone is on the other end of the actor’s career path, a woman blessed or cursed with the greatest set of eyes in the movie industry (how ironic that the art house where I saw the picture was previewing Big Eyes before showing Birdman). This is the first film role I’ve seen her in which allows her to stretch herself 180 degrees against type.

To say that neither of these two actors has been stretched, or has succeeded as well, as they do in this film is to aim high praise not only at them, but at director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, whose co-writing of the screenplay is sparkling and brisk, but whose most important quality, to judge from this film, is that he likes to watch actors work.

Birdman is a backstage movie about the theatre, a postmodern The Dresser, concerning itself with the mental health of people who pretend for a living. It’s an interesting concern, as anyone who has a passing acquaintance with the madness of the stage knows. Edward Norton’s character Mike attests, as he is courting the young daughter of the playwright/producer/lead actor of the company, that the only time when he feels like he’s not lying is when he’s on stage.  It’s a sentiment that calls out existential confusion, either expressed gravely in Shakespeare’s Macbeth (quoted at the emotional climax of the film) and by Tom Stoppard in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (“every exit here is an entrance somewhere else”).

Riggan (Keaton) is an aging Hollywood star, formerly famous as comicbook Birdman.  He is trying to revive not only his acting career, but his sense of self-worth by mortgaging the remains of his film-star fortune to produce his adaptation of a story by Raymond Carver. In a kind of meta-film coup, the film takes a kind of credence from the mental image that we have of Keaton wearing the cape of another winged creature in an 80’s blockbuster. He is ably seconded by Norton and Stone, as well as an always-capable Naomi Watts. Tellingly, one of the finest performances in the film is that of Lindsay Duncan, who plays the Times critic who is about to torch the new play stillborn, misguidedly in order to defend Broadway against the ravages of Hollywood. This declares the film as a celebration of theatre, as the actor’s-daydream revenge that the story takes on the critic is the stuff of theatre peoples’ dreams.  It is through theatre that the characters receive not only a sense of absurdity and existential punishment, but the blessings of comedy.

What also tells us that the film’s primary concern is with theatre is the long-take technique that Inarritu employs throughout. He puts his camera on a dolly or a steadycam unit, rolls film, and asks the actors to do the work of delivering the story. The New Yorker angrily dismissed the long shots as a gimmicky quotation of earlier filmmakers (notably Goddard), but I can’t agree. As a theatre person, I’m only too happy to let the camera serve not as a motion-capture device for the editor, but as a recording of extended moments of performance. In a long shot where Stone and Norton fence while sitting on a parapet above Broadway, the two Hollywood stars go at the scene with the relish of fine stage actors, ears wide open for each other, revealing hidden vulnerabilities and desires subtly but surely. Interestingly, the text (a conventional jousting tryst between soon-to-be lovers) is mere convention—a game of truth or dare—but the acting gives it enough levity to keep it afloat.

Birdman, or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance is a surprising film, with its magic realism and its cinematic quotation of master filmmakers. It is not altogether satisfying, since its surrealism doesn’t quite seem to match the primary theme; it is, however, full of quick, subtle humour, a love of theatre and its denizens, and of the fun, unfettered spirit that comes to directors when they decide that it’s okay to bend the rules.

December 18, 2014

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s