Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014) promotes identification by placing us fully inside the protagonist’s mind. Birdman follows a washed-up actor, Riggan Thomson (portrayed by Michael Keaton), as he attempts to revive his career by directing and starring in a Broadway play. Throughout the film, Riggan suffers from unspecified delusions which blur the cognitive lines between reality and fantasy, allowing an echo of his former self to literally haunt him. The film reflects these themes of suspended realism and the inescapable nature of the past through the rhetorical qualities of its music, cinematography, and acting. These combined elements act to immerse the audience in the narrative and align Riggan’s perspective with their own. Evidence of Birdman’s absorption will be accomplished by citing filmic sequences, relevant journalistic articles, and their relation to the film’s ability to pull the audience into Riggan’s mind.
In terms of music, the film’s soundtrack is influenced heavily by jazz, a genre of music that relies on subverting expectations through its improvisation, syncopation, and inherent restlessness. Birdman mirrors this subversion and improvisation as it unfolds in unexpected ways, making it difficult to guess where the narrative is headed. According to Mark Harris’ and Sara Vilkomerson’s Entertainment Weekly article, “If Michael Keaton Were A Bird He Would Be A Cat,” Iñárritu wanted “a sonic backdrop that matched his movie’s frenetic spirit,” and with the help of Grammy-winning jazz drummer Antonio Sanchez, they crafted a soundtrack that was “heavy on drums” but “light on melody” (34). In fact, to capture exactly what the director desired, Sanchez had to record the film’s tracks on a drum kit that was purposefully hampered and thrown together. Harris and Vilkomerson describe how Sanchez “taped the heads to deaden them,” weighed the cymbals down “to make them sound broken,” and how, on certain tracks, he would dub more drum sounds over ones already recorded in order to “amp up the cacophony” (34). The deadened, broken, and cacophonous nature of Sanchez’s drumset all mirror Riggan’s fractured state of mind.
The film also implements the extensive use of unaccompanied drum solos to build its lively rhythm. The use of a single instrument operating mainly on its own promotes the singularity of Riggan’s character, as he feels a widening distance between himself and those with whom he interacts. Additionally, the seemingly restless drums help to create an edge of suspense. At one point Riggan and his co-star Mike (Edward Norton) walk down a New York City street at night, baring their teeth and shouting over each other as they get caught up in an argument about the play they are performing in together. As they fight and their aggression towards each other increases the soundtrack escalates in intensity and volume, and in a moment of self-reflexivity a drummer shows up in the frame, drumming the same beat that began non-diegetically at the start of the scene. Here the music accompanying the scene works to reflect Riggan’s boiling emotions, but the added presence of the drummer himself shows a clear break between reality and the constructs of the film world, reflecting Riggan’s own mental break between agreed narrative and the fantasies his mind is constantly creating.
Interestingly, the jazz works well alongside classical music, another musical genre utilized in the soundtrack that would initially appear to be its lyrical opposite. Classical music is so disparate from jazz that it could be said to be its antithesis, a stylistic contradiction that reflects the warring nature of Riggan’s world as he fights to understand reality through his own increasingly fantastical and warped lens. The jazz heightens moments of tension and promotes anxiety, and the classical music acts to add dramatic beauty to certain scenes while allowing moments of peace in others.
In one notable scene, Riggan stands at the edge of a rooftop, taking in the skyline of the city. When a man comes up behind him, fearful of his intentions, Riggan dismisses him with a quick, “Sorry, can’t talk – music!” and a symphonic melody begins. The music is cut off as the man grabs his arm and starts to drag him away from the edge in an attempt to wake him up from his delusion, but Riggan breaks away and leaps off of the building, flying with outstretched arms as the music starts up once more. In Declan McGrath’s “Birdman” review in Cineaste, he describes how in this scene Riggan is able to break free “from the claustrophobic interiority of the St. James Theatre and its environs” and gain the ability to fly like Birdman “through Manhattan in a spectacular CGI sequence,” realizing that he is “actually happy” for once (68). Here the classical music heightens the fantasy Riggan believes he is experiencing, guiding it with a euphoric theme that plays into the joy he feels when he allows his imagination to overwhelm him.
Iñárritu says that in a film that “moves more like a jazz piece than something in 4/4 time” it was crucial that Michael Keaton played the lead character because he is “a master at shifting tones and emotions” (Harris and Vilkomerson 32). From a viewer’s perspective, it is significant that Keaton fully embodies the character of Riggan, or else it would be more difficult for the audience to identify with him and follow his journey into madness. While Keaton’s career parallels Riggan’s in that they both portrayed superheroes in the 1990s – Keaton as Batman and Riggan as the fictional Birdman – Keaton is by no means a washed-up wreck like his on-screen counterpart. In fact, Keaton is quoted as saying that he had a “tougher time trying to immerse himself in the neediness and insecurity of the bitter, jittery character he was playing” because while he feels confident and at ease with himself, Riggan is “an actor whose desire to be taken seriously threatens to turn him into his own worst enemy” (Harris and Vilkomerson 35). Despite these natural differences between actor and character, Keaton skillfully steps into Riggan’s shoes, appearing frustrated, downtrodden, and hungry for success, while also expressing a quiet insanity.
The acting in Birdman is of a particular importance to the narrative because it is a film about acting and what it means to perform. Primarily, acting is seen as an instrumental component in achieving fame and celebrity status. Riggan’s main goal is to create a play (adapted from Raymond Carver’s short story, “What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Love”) that will wow audiences and make him relevant again, to be as “respected and validated” as he was when he played a superhero in the fictional “Birdman” franchise. He is driven by an insatiable need for validation from his peers and from society, a need personified and encouraged by the Birdman apparition that growls dark thoughts in his head and often follows him around like a shadow. Acting is also seen outside of the play itself, as characters mask their true emotions, hiding the internal conflicts through confident veneers, lies, and self-denials. Riggan aims to regain his reality by acting normal in the face of his delusions and pretending that they don’t exist. Likewise, his daughter Sam (Emma Stone) acts tougher than she truly is, masking her vulnerabilities to prevent herself from getting hurt.
More importantly, acting is explored as an art form. Throughout the film characters struggle to create authenticity in a craft built inherently on the fabrication of facades and fictional portrayals, reflecting the blur of fantasy and reality that Riggan labors against in his own mind. In one scene a theater critic challenges Riggan to create a play that has emotional and psychological depth and continually in the narrative Riggan and his problematic co-star Mike disagree on acting methods, with Mike believing that acting must be real in order to convey truth to the audience. He pushes this theory to questionable limits, getting drunk on stage during a live performance to play an inebriated character and even attempting to have sex with his ex-girlfriend and current co-star during a love scene.
While Riggan initially resists these dangerous and foolish methods of maintaining realism in theatrical depictions, he eventually succumbs to them under the pressures of his fragile mental state while also taking them farther than Mike ever did. On the opening night of his play, Riggan replaces a fake gun with a real one and proceeds to shoot himself on stage in front of a live audience. Waking up in the hospital with a missing nose, he is pleased to learn that the play received critical acclaim and a rave review from the derisive critic who first challenged his ability to perform with authenticity. Ironically, it was only after Riggan was fully consumed by his delusions that he was able to create something that was closest to reality as possible.
Birdman is largely filmed and edited to appear as though it is unfolding in one seamless take, which adds to the realism while also forcing the actors to perform longer scenes and give theatre-like performances free of the luxury of cuts and multiple takes. Even critic Violet Lucca, who pans the movie in her review for Sight & Sound, admits that there’s “something undeniably graceful and impressive about the camera’s movements,” as it floats freely and captures unblinkingly honest performances from the film’s cast (69). This directorial style causes the performances to feel more authentic, a feeling enhanced by the smooth, handheld shots which create a sense of genuine intimacy between the camera and its subjects. Because it is free of the typical Hollywood style of shot-reverse-shots and traditional framing it also makes the film feel reminiscent of a documentary, further clouding the audience’s perception of what it means for something to be real or fabricated.
The minimalistic cuts and invisible editing style also allow Riggan’s hallucinations to come and go seamlessly, presenting them in a real-world context. Because they feel real to Riggan, they must feel real to the audience as well. Harris and Vilkomerson describe the Birdman phantom that haunts Riggan as “an ebony-feathered crusader with a deep Gotham growl and mask that covers the top half of his face” who alternatively utters “words of egomaniacal encouragement or ego-shattering contempt” (28). Sometimes the Birdman character’s distinctive, gravelly voice enters Riggan’s mind when he’s feeling vulnerable, and other times he appears on screen fully, striding confidently behind Riggan as they walk down a New York City street as the camera tracks ahead of them, pressuring him to do another “Birdman” movie and proclaiming that, “Sixty is the new thirty!” As long as he exists in Riggan’s mind and on screen, Riggan will never be able to move on from his past.
Other than constant mental confrontations by the Birdman hallucination, Riggan also exhibits an ability to “channel the superhero’s telekinetic powers” by “levitating while meditating in his dressing room” or making a lighting fixture “fall on an actor he doesn’t want in his production” (Lucca 69). Because viewers are seeing Riggan from his perspective these powers are shown as actually being real, but eventually, there is evidence that shows Riggan’s abilities as just being figments of his imagination. After his flight through Manhattan, Riggan lands delicately on the ground and steps back into the theater as a cab driver calls after him, demanding that he get paid. Though the film has just shown him flying through the air, the audience understands that they have been deceived; the flying sequence did not actually take place.
Iñárritu says he wanted the film to appear as if it were filmed in one continuous shot in order to reflect how Riggan “subjectively experiences the world” (McGrath 68). He does this by “restricting the viewer’s perspective within a single frame” as a way of portraying “a claustrophobia” that parallels Riggan’s “neurotic self-obsession” (McGrath 68). By the film’s end, after struggling to understand the truth of his art and the reality of the world as he experiences, Riggan is lauded by a theater critic for “creating a new form” of acting that she coins as “super-realism,” in which “reality and drama intersect” (McGrath 68). Similarly, Iñárritu accomplishes a similar “super-realism” in Birdman by submerging viewers into the story world through Riggan’s perspective and seamlessly mixing supernatural elements with real-world components. He continually reinforces his point of view through the music, acting, and cinematography until the audience feels as disoriented as the main character: unsure whether they can trust their own eyes, or more importantly, believe them.
Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). Dir. Alejandro G. Iñárritu. Perf. Michael Keaton. Fox Searchlight, 2014.
Harris, Mark, and Sara Vilkomerson. “If Michael Keaton Were A Bird He Would Be A Cat.” Entertainment Weekly 1333 (2014): 26-37. Print.
Lucca, Violet. “Birdman Or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance).” Sight & Sound 25.1 (2015): 69. Film & Television Literature Index with Full Text. Web. 2 Dec. 2015.
McGrath, Declan. “Birdman.” Cineaste 40.3 (2015): 67-69. Film & Television Literature Index with Full Text. Web. 5 Dec. 2015.