Birdman. R. 119 minutes. Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. Starring Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Emma Stone. Comedy/Drama. Released November 14, 2014.
I have to admit one thing and that is that I love the word “thing.” I don’t know what it is about it but I do love it. When I hear it in a song or in dialogue in a movie. It always seems to add a sense of realism to…to things. For that exact reason, in real life when no one is writing a script for the things we say sometimes we can’t think of what to say or what to call things…so we call them “things.” I love in the song Horse With No Name how he sings “…there were plants and birds and rocks and things,” and in the third Die Hard movie when Samuel L. Jackson goes “Ahh, I dropped the thing!’ and Bruce Willis goes “You dropped the thing?!” In Silver Linings Playbook when Bradley Cooper goes, ‘No, you’re mistaken, he’s passed…his thing.’ It’s a strange word. If you say it a lot it sounds like you’re saying it wrong. If you read it a lot you wonder if you spelled it right cause it looks off. So when I was watching Birdman and I saw a note on the corner of Michael Keaton’s mirror that read “THE THING IS THE THING AND NOT WHAT IS SAID OF THE THING,” I knew I was hooked.
At the time I didn’t know it was a quote from a poem, or the title of a poem at least. So I read it and I thought it might be a reference to David Mamet, since the movie takes place in a theater about adapting a play and Mamet is a very well known and respected playwright. And Mamet has a very distinctive way of writing dialogue. His dialogue is sharp and it is real. He makes the actors practice to a metronome so that the dialogue is to the point. Synced to the beat he wants. In the play/movie Glengarry Glen Ross, Mamet has a whole dialogue that goes something like, “We are just talking about it, we’re not talking about it. We’re just talking.” So to read that sign in the mirror that said “The thing is the thing…” made me think of him and paying homage to him in the theater. The line on the mirror is from the poem by Wallace Stevens, Not Ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself—and the poem explains a lot of what the movie is about. Not the plot, but what it’s about. Or as Mamet might say, “It’s not what the movie is about, it’s what it’s about.”
Maybe I should tell you about Birdman now briefly.
Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance is the story of Riggan, a former A-List celebrity who came to fame by playing the comic book super hero Birdman. We learn he did three Birdman movies before wanting to branch out and do more, thus ending his fame and career. When we join the movie and meet Riggan he is a has-been. His marriage is over. His daughter just got out of drug rehab. And he’s working on directing and starring in a stage adaptation that he wrote. He’s adapting a Raymond Carver short story, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, into a Broadway play. Being a huge Raymond Carver fan I catch the joke right away. Or joke of sorts. Raymond Carver writes short stories. Very short. And they are hyper realistic. And they are snapshots of peoples lives. We are always joining the characters midway in the story we are learning about. And we just see a glimpse of the story. The characters are down and out. The stories say nothing and say everything at the same time. In the collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love there is story of a man with no hands, who has prosthetic hooks for hands and he takes pictures of a man’s house with a polaroid camera for money. And a woman who can’t sleep and meets her neighbor outside in the middle of the night while he’s killing slugs that are destroying his garden. So how do you adapt stories like that into a play? You have a down and out actor, life in ruins, family disintegrating (he sounds like a Carver character) and his plan for a comeback is to adapt impossible stories into a Broadway play. Right off the bat I knew I was going to love this movie.
It was a refreshing movie to me. Because it was weird. But that’s the great part of it. Through most of the movie we see Riggan doing supernatural things—we first meet him hovering like a mystic yogi meditating two feet off the ground. He can move objects with his mind. And he wrestles with his inner Birdman that seems to be the opposite of everything he is trying to be. No one ever seems to see or react to any of these supernatural powers, leading the viewer to wonder if it’s real or just in his head. But at the same time the movie has that hyper realism that a Caver story demands. Very realistic dialogue, and characters. Characters and a story we join midway through. The characters are ugly and raw. Addicts, failures, impotent. They are weathered. No one stands out as a beauty. Even the normally drop-dead Emma Stone looks coked out and withered. People stumble over their lines. And they don’t know what they are saying. They ask characters questions and don’t get the response they wanted so they have to rethink their approach. So real, but at the same time as a man floats and flies and moves things across the room just by waving his hands. This happens but never distracts us from that realism that Carver stories demand.
Edward Norton plays the most sought-after Broadway actor who ends up in Riggan’s play because of an accident and because Norton’s character is “sleeping” with another co-star in the play. It’s implied that they only sleep together in the truest sense of the word because besides having a huge ego on stage he has a plethora of problems in the bedroom. He comes into the play and already has it memorized, and he has ideas on how to make it better and more real—but the joke of it is that this actor is critiquing and trying to better Raymond Carver, who was said to be a genius, awarded in life and also after death for his work. He wants to make Carver…more real? So funny.
The movie from the start seemed like a treasure hunt. Or like a series of rabbit holes. How to explain it… There is…that thing about the movie that happens sometimes when you see a quote on a mirror or the title of a book a character is reading and you know it holds the key to a deeper understanding of the movie you’re watching. It fills in the gaps if you read into it and investigate it. When you read the Wallace Stevens poem you say, “Ohh, I bet that is what happened at the end.” Or you dive into the Caver stories you say, “I get it a bit more now.” So that’s what I did—especially to try and get a feel for the end of the movie. What happened? What is that look? That smile? What happened to that character? And you read these things and start to work through the labyrinth of the characters and plot.
“a scrawny cry from outside
Seemed like a sound in his mind.
“He knew that he heard it,
A bird’s cry, at daylight or before,
In the early March wind.”
That line from the poem says a lot about the character. About him wrestling with the literal bird’s cry of his inner Birdman and about whether his powers are just a sound in his mind, too. Some references you can catch right away from knowing the Carver stories. When Riggan is talking to his ex-wife about how she caught him cheating on her and she threw all the furniture out onto the front lawn, I thought of Why Don’t You Dance from the same collection of Carver stories as What We Talk About… When I got home from the movie I went to my bookshelf and reread the collection of stories again over the course of a few days but couldn’t find what I was looking for. Until I closed the book. Right on the back cover is a blurb written by J.D. Reed from Time magazine and he writes, “Carver not only enchants, he convinces.” And I think it says it all right there. All my questions about the ending. Or maybe even better as the last line of the mirror poem reads, “It was like/A new knowledge of reality.” Perfect.
The movie itself was just great. Real great. It is a wonderful movie. Normally I find the word wonderful a bit cheesy but it fits. The movie was filmed with invisible edits so the whole movie seems like one continuous take. Which requires a lot of planning, but also great acting and patience because each take was probably about 15 minutes long. If you look into some real famous movies, if there is a five-second shot before a cut, that is usually the average. So having one continuous shot (or seemingly continuous) is just great and it’s so engaging. Especially if you are a movie nerd. I do reserve saying that the movie was beautiful because I hold that category as pretty sacred and stand alone. Movies I would claim are beautiful would be movies like The Fall, Raging Bull, Tree of Life, The Natural—movies you watch and the whole thing is just beautiful to watch and see and be a part of. This movie is simply wonderful to be a part of. Just wonderful. Even the soundtrack is refreshing and fun and wonderful. It’s all jazz drumming. That’s it. Drumming.
The movie is a story of relationships. It’s a study in obsession and self identity. About becoming the thing, about only worrying about being the thing, and not what is said about the thing. To put aside what people say about you and just be you. Who you want to be. What better call in life is there than the journey to be who you want to be in life? To focus not on what people say about you, but on who you are. Don’t we all need that? To learn how dangerous obsession can be, how dangerous the loss of self can be. There is a great line where Riggan is having an argument with his daughter over self identity and not mattering and she belittles the play and he says, “Can’t you see that this is…this is, my God, this is…” and he’s stumbling over how to explain himself and he says “my god” as a filler the way we might say “like”—“this is..like, it’s, like…” But the way he phrases it is what caught my attention when he was talking about his identity and his past and his obsession—“This is my god.” Like a statement. And that made an impact with me.
It’s very clever too. To see how the real life parallels of the play Riggan wrote and adapted. The crossovers are very funny when they happen and very clever when you stop and think more of them.
Every so often you see a movie where you think, “This is the best movie of the year.” I would say that about this movie. That’s saying a lot in a year that gave us Boyhood, Grand Budapest Hotel, Foxcatcher, Gone Girl, and others. But I think this takes the cake. Because I would even dare say it could be one of the best movies I’ve seen in years.
Now I’d have to stop and think about that a while before I officially declared that. But that’s the thing with this movie, it makes you think and it sticks with you and you smile the whole time watching it. That’s the thing with this movie.
If he could get paid to do nothing but train jiu-jitsu, yo-yo, read, and talk about baseball all day he would do it gladly. Because it is all he wants to do. All day long. Every day. But sadly he needs to stay employed. So to meet that requirement he works doing graphics and design in the marketing department of an engineering firm. He graduated with a degree in communications and a minor in Biblical Studies, all of which he wastes by collecting more books than he'll ever read. He is a writer who doesn't write as often as he should. Maybe he will. He's probably best described as a cross between a believer and some sort of mystic weirdo ever since someone taught him to look for God in everything he sees. Which as it turns out is always a blessing, but sometimes a curse. And his life hasn't been the same since. He still hates riding trains.