An Honest Performance / by Frixos Masouras

You heard it many times by now, of that I am certain. What have you heard? Well, that 2014 was a fantastic year for film. Of course, if you had placed a pebble in your backyard every time somebody had said that come awards season, you’d have a seriously large pile of rocks in your back yard with a disgruntled wife/husband/partner chewing your ears off for putting them there in the first place. Do you see what I did there? Served a little bit of absurdity, fooling you into building a picture of rocks representing a phrase inside your head, then washed it all off with a bucket full or reality.

By the gods of art, Iñárritu knew what he was doing when he set off to co-write and direct Birdman. The story is that of an actor, Michael Keaton, whose entire legacy is simply the fact that he starred in the Batman films, who then decides to make one final dash to glory wit….oh wait… Ahem, I mean, the story is that of an actor, Riggan Thomson, whose entire legacy is simply the fact that he starred in the Birdman films , who then decides to make one final dash to glory with a Broadway play of a book directed and written (for theater) by him. Also, starring him. The road, of course, is filled with MANY obstacles. Is he good enough? Does he have enough money to pull this off? Can he complete the cast in time? And if yes, with which actors?

Trust me when I say that this is a story you want to watch unfold. Iñárritu’s direction is a work of beauty, harkening-back to an era when cinema and theatre blended (think 30’s and 40’s). An era in which everything was “Real” (the most slippery-slope word in the art of cinema). In an era when we often place our butts in the cinema seat to be blasted with CGI of huge armies and monsters doing their thing on the silver screen, Iñárritu turned the table and used some clever editing to simulate a somewhat long lost art. The long (HUGE) take. The entire production of Birdman is edited in such a way that it seems like one enormous take, and for anyone who has ever dabbled in editing or cinema for that matter, you know the gravity of that statement. If you are convinced that you witnessed Smaug for real, there is no reason why you would not be utterly fooled and be spelled by the flow of this story... even though it was not one single take.  

The film unfolds like a theatre play (featuring a theatre play… yeah, there’s a lot of “that” in Birdman) with almost all the exposition contained within a theatre more or less. We meet the characters, actors, who make their living being someone else for everyone’s entertainment. But something is off. Something is different.

These are not the stars we know from all the social media exposure and their bombastic roles. They are human beings, complete with insecurities, emotional outbursts behind the scenes and flaws that create an honest wave of hilarity and humanity that builds up like an orchestra going through its paces. It’s sometimes a low rumble forcing us to think and sometimes a booming crescendo keeping us open-mouth and wide-eyed. The end result, however, of every “orchestral explosion” is almost always the same. We are brought down to earth and cajoled into looking at ourselves the same way the actors are (the ones in the story not the ones actually starring…well, perhaps both!).

Iñárritu and his co-writers (Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo), forced their cast to bare everything, down to their souls in front of Alejandro’s camera. You will be hard-pressed to believe that the conversations between Keaton and Norton are in fact between their characters and not their actual selves. Yet they are blended perfectly into Thomson’s race against time to redeem himself from…himself! An ageing actor whose glory of bygone years is still riding on the shoulders of a series of superhero films he starred in decades ago. This is Keaton at his motherfucking best. The connection between the character and Keaton is not entirely accurate, one could say. Then again, in the Wikipedia page of Michael Keaton, the Career section of the page is broken into three chapters. Early career, Batman, Late career. So yeah…

Keaton has been part of many great films (Beetlejuice, Jack Frost, Mr. Mom come readily to mind) yet if you ask any member of the newer generations about him they will probably remember the remake of Robocop (mmmaaaaaybe!) but if you tell them, perhaps remind them, that Michael Keaton was the first “true” cinematic Batman they will go nuts! So in that respect Riggan and Michael have something in common. That which they have absolutely in common is the body which they inhabit. The ageing physique of Michael Keaton, displayed almost in its entirety in Birdman. And sorry, mini spoiler, the man runs through Times Square in ONLY his tighty whiteys in a scene drenched with catharsis-cum-hilarity for the character. There is no fantastic make-up here to cover the creases that 63 years of life on this rock will do to a man’s face. Nor does he care to cover it! It’s there in YOUR face to see. Keaton delivers himself, unapologetically and with the precision that only an actor with his experience could muster. He himself stated that Riggan Thomson is a personality which is by far the farthest from his own that he had ever had to play. Here’s some irony for both Riggan and Michael. I don’t care. In fact, for all I care the person I see on that screen is Michael. He is what I see, not what he says he is. That’s the thespian’s curse and that’s Riggan Thomson’s curse in Birdman. Try as he might, the entire world looks at him and all they can see is Batman, umm I mean Birdman.    

The rest of the cast? Take your pick. Emma Stone? Another on-the-dot performance. Naomi Watts? She is beautifully fragile. Edward Norton? 0bnoxious, unbearably charming, enough talent for two lifetimes etc… so, Edward Norton!  Zach Galifanakis? Hold the press, because he dons his absolute best here. If you are expecting the slapstick, silly Zach from all those gaggy and overdone comedies he insisted on churning out in past years, you are in for a shock. Then again that’s what happens when serious actors stand in front of the camera of a great director and are faced with a monumental task. I did mention that editing was used in order to make the film look like one long take, but there is a mind-numbing number of actual long takes in which the actors are choreographed to perfection around each other, with life happening around them. They deliver lines and place themselves around a camera which dances, turns, pivots and generally hardly ever sits still (watch out for those mirror shots, directing majesty).

The score? Apart from some actual orchestral parts, most of the time during the Birdman the action on screen is accompanied by drum solos (by Antonio Sanchez). Too 'artsy' for ya? Don’t even go there. It sets a fantastic mood for the film. Coupled with a brilliant voice-over from the actual Birdman (don’t ask!) the film gives off an aura of noir amidst the comical anxiety surrounding the whole ordeal.

I have previously “given” the Academy Award for Best Director 2014 to Christopher Nolan for his total vision regarding Interstellar. The Golden Globes have already taken place and Iñárritu has won the Best Screenplay Globe and Keaton took home the Best Actors (Musical or Comedy) award. Come Oscar’s night I will be torn but ultimately I believe that Iñárritu has done something incredible. He freshened up an art that is slowly changing (curse you, I will not say “dying”), in a film where he did not rely on cutting edge technology to get his vision across (nothing wrong with that) and he did not rely on an enormous budget to complete his project (nothing…well, mostly nothing wrong with actually doing that). He picked up his camera, pulled a cast of immeasurable power and depth to his side, gave them a punchy script and shot the absolute living shit out of a film that you simply have to watch if you have an ounce of film-fan in you.
If you are still down for throwing pebbles in the yard, throw one in for me. 2014 was a fantastic year for film.

- Frixos Masouras 2014