The first thing you’ll notice about Birdman is its score. An anxious, a-rhythmic drum solo backs up most of the action lending the film a desperate, scattered emotional tone. The moments when that drum solo breaks and allows more melodic sounds to rise the fore—most often when two characters are sharing a private, empathetic moment—are a welcome relief, a respite in the midst of an existential storm.
This drum score is dis-integrated from the film. It is evidence of a personality disintegrated from society and a person’s psyche disintegrated from her or his psychological whole. Disintegration is anathema to the artistic characters Birdman revolves around. Wholeness requires the beautiful integration of all things. All things are not integrated.
The disintegrated score contrasts with the second thing you’ll likely notice about the film – Birdman’s cinematography. Ostensibly a single take, although the plot includes action that occurs over the span of multiple days, Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera haunts the theater where the story takes place attaching to whichever character it finds most interesting moment to moment. It never includes them all at once, because they are all contained within the story and story space, they are not together. Birdman’s camera is like an unseen character that is puzzled by these people and what they do. At times it sees what they see. Other times, it sees what they cannot.
Birdman’s characters cannot see much, because they cannot see past themselves. Other people are merely means to a self-actualized end. They are all so concerned with their individual needs to either shine or disappear—both selfish desires—they miss opportunities to give to another, to help each other mature, and themselves mature in the process.
Fittingly, the story takes place in a theater during the preview and opening night performances of a written and directed by and starring a man who used to be famous (for wearing a mask) and who is now slipping into obscurity. Riggan Thomson, the former, eponymous “Birdman,” a superhero of some kind, hopes this production will propel him back into the limelight. Everyone else involved hopes for essentially the same thing to various degrees. Riggan seems to be the only one undergoing a psychotic breakdown during the film though. At least his psychological state is the only one we’re privy to via frequent, amusing special effects sequences.
The theater is an appropriate setting for this exploration of the darker side of the artistic psyche as the theater depends on actors giving to one another in order to elevate the whole of the play. Actors who chew the scenery, detract from the whole. They cut off their nose to spite their face, as the cliche goes. Additionally, there is less inherent graft in theater as the action takes place in real time with few barriers between the performers and the audience. (Birdman’s cinematography has a similar effect.) Thomas’ antipathy for superhero blockbusters of the kind in which he made his name is a reaction against the supposed dishonesty of the film form and a way of “siding with” something, presumably, more authentic.
Birdman is a fitful film. It’s characters are sometimes amusing, sometimes abhorrent. It’s tone swings from saccharine sentimentality to indignant, pretentious rage. In all hyperbolic cases, Birdman is genuine, and that is perhaps the most infuriating thing about it. The film shows artistic souls laid bare and paraded through a crowded square, and it is giddy about it. Birdman wants your applause in its virtuous moments as much as in its vitriolic ones. Birdman wants you to love it no matter how beautifully or badly it behaves. Birdman is a dare.
I loathed Birdman as I walked out of the theater after seeing it. I was so put off by how it revels in disintegration, I didn’t want to think about it anymore, much less write about it. It left me in a weird emotional place. I have to praise it for that. Birdman is effective, and it ably opens up the artistic mind. I live there already, and I don’t believe disintegration of the kind shown in Birdman is the fate of all of us concerned with beauty and authenticity in all things.
However, that better fate depends upon honestly acknowledging the artistic proclivity for graft and selfishness. Birdman makes the need for that kind of confession clear. I am grateful for that. Birdman is also a unique cinematic experience, and since its characters are all so concerned with being unique, even as they question that drive and deride it in others, I suppose it succeeds in that respect as well.
Can I love Birdman though? Can I meet its dare? I don’t know that I possess the strength. I’ve been trying to find a way to love it since I saw it, and as my deadline approaches, I am still at a loss. I don’t loathe it anymore. I appreciate things about it. I recognize its truth like I recognize myself in a mirror. I pray someone is capable of loving it in all its beauty and brokenness. I need that love too.