Birdman was the first film I was extremely excited about this year. Like one of my favorite films Adaptation, it is important to realize the unreliable way the camera works. Bizarre scenes unfold in front of our eyes, but the real truth lies within the narrative. Very similar to Adaptation’s protagonist, Riggan ( Michael Keaton) isn’t just one person but two. When his other half Birdman says, “People, they love blood. They love action. Not this talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit,” it references the foundation of the entire film. Hence the reason we have scenes with unexpected explosives and giant CGI birds flying around. It doesn’t work with the film, it’s not real, but it’s what much of society craves. It is a constant reminder that being great means car chases, escaping hungry alligators, or shoot-offs. In other words: Hollywood. These ideas and cliché storytelling start contradicting everything Riggan tries to do with his artistic life—he is torn between what is appealing and what is truth. And like Adaptation, the film involves and alludes to works of literature that do not have a conventional exposition, rising action, extremely intense climax, falling action, and a nice conclusion that either ends with an unrealistic twist, or a perfectly happy ending. It’s a story about a man with typical insecurities. But who really wants to see something that common? Birdman is inserted for dramatic effect—for drawing a large box office audience—but fooling us as we realize it’s not really about a birdman. Or is it?
Besides the film being similar to Adaptation, I think Riggan is a true on-screen adaptation of one of Raymond Carver’s complex characters in his short story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Viewers don’t have to have read the collection or even know whom Carver is to understand the film, but the comparisons are certainly clear as Riggan plays the lonely character in his adapted play based off Carver’s story collection and is actually very similar in his own life. Almost all the men in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love have an infidelity issue and/or drinking problem, much like Riggan. But that’s just the surface. Underneath those commonalities are men who are much more complicated: their isolated, disappointed with what life has dealt, and trying to find something to make themselves feel better. Riggan, according to society, should have it figured out by now. He’s a middle-aged man whose fame has run its course, but Riggan is not satisfied with the way things turned out and devotes his time to proving those handfuls of disappointed people that he is much more than a try-hard, old actor.
Riggan also isn’t the only disappointed character whose unhappiness becomes a clear motif throughout the film. One of my favorite scenes that shows this universal issue is when Lesley (Naomi Watts) talks to co-star Laura (Andrea Riseborough) and marvels over the fact that she finally made it to Broadway—her lifelong dream—except this moment of pure happiness is brief. It spoils seconds later as the two break themselves back down to feeling defeated and unworthy. We ride this rollercoaster of emotions with Riggan as well as all the other unsatisfied people in the film the entire time, and we eventually start to question our own ambitions. Why are we doing what we’re doing? Who are we doing it for and what are we trying to prove?
Of course the most talked about aspect of Birdman is the cinematography and the continuous shot that’s few cuts are masked extremely well. My favorite aspect of these superb camera movements is when we are taken through the hallways of the St. James Theater, where I assume the hidden cutting took place. To me the narrow hallways symbolize Riggan’s journey and also his spirally, chaotic mind. The colors in the hallways fade, light up, turn from dark hues to bright. The camera moves quickly, and then slows down, bracing us for what is about to happen next. Except, like Riggan, we don’t know what that will be and instead are left to navigate the hallways ourselves. Unfortunately, the shot/film comes to an end, but Riggan and Birdman’s philosophies still linger like ghosts. After watching Birdman, I felt similar to how I feel after reading a Carver story: the meaning is delayed while I start the next.