An exchange on Birdman

“And now that I’ve done the movie I understand why they couldn’t explain it. (Laughter) Because I’m not sure what happened. … by the way, I’m really proud of having done Batman. (Cheers) I mean, I never back off of that. It’s kind of cool and interesting and bold and intimidating.”  –Michael Keaton at the New York Film Festival

“I think Freud said if you have a dream, the one that shows up in the dream is really you. I think this film is Alejandro. I think my character is definitely Alejandro. I think Michael’s is Alejandro. I think the two girls making out in the mirror is Alejandro. I’m pretty sure! (Laughter) This movie’s like Dorothy Parker’s line ‘if you scratch an actor you’ll find an actress.’ (Laughter) … Everything I’ve said in the movie, I’ve heard him say or I know he wants to say!”  –Ed Norton at the New York Film Festival

“Iñárritu’s films…always withhold anything even vaguely resembling a happy ending [but] are nevertheless in the uplift business. While trucking in…liberal pieties, his that’s-just-the-way-it-is perspective resists explicit ideology, so as to evade the idea that there might be anything resembling a genuine political response to any of the human misery his films depict.… This really does let everybody off the hook, but the perspective doesn’t so much come out and congratulate the audience as it does Iñárritu himself: for his seemingly self-proclaimed insistence on looking at all of the pain of human existence with an unflinching gaze. And of course it is that which spurs on a form of audience self-congratulation: ‘He gets it, and I get it the way that he gets it.’ Iñárritu invites you to wallow in his tragic sense. And this, of course, is what makes his films sort of critic-proof. But it’s also what makes so many critics feel he’s a strong-arm artist, a filmmaker who instead of allowing the audience to respond emotionally, bludgeons or even blackmails them into being moved.”  Glenn Kenny, “This Can’t End Well: How We Live Now, or The New Humanism according to Alejandro González Iñárritu” Film Comment, November/December 2010

The spectacle is nothing more than an image of happy unification surrounded by desolation and fear at the center of misery.

“No matter the part, [Keaton] added, reaching for a sports metaphor to describe his career, ‘I play it like I’m losing.”  Melena Ryzik, “Everyman Returns: In ‘Birdman,’ Michael Keaton Confronts the Nature of FameNew York Times, 8-8-14

“I said, guys, I am going to propose you the worst idea ever. I told them what was the concept; they love it. … [Mike Nichols] was having an olive in his mouth and he just take the olive out of his mouth and put it on his plate, and he said: ‘Alejandro, you are running to disaster. You should stop now.’ And he was right, but I had no choice, because we were one week to start shooting. … We will never know if [Mike Nichols] saw [Birdman] and thought he saw comedy destroyed forever. Maybe I killed Mike Nichols, and I never knew.”  Melena Ryzik, “Mike Nichols Told Him Not to Do ItNew York Times, 1-2-15

Louise Donovan, ShortList: “Finally, Christian Bale recently said he felt jealous to see Ben Affleck wearing the cape and cowl – do you ever get that?
Keaton: “No. Do you know why? Because I’m Batman. I’m very secure in that.”


[Spoilers ahead]


My initial thoughts upon exiting the theater were not of disappointment [with Birdman]–not an all-timer or anything after the first viewing, but certainly a worthy showcase for the undisputed heavyweight champion MK [Michael Keaton]. My main takeaway was that it does a very compelling job of conveying the experience of being on the stage (something you’ve recently experienced) on both formal and domestic fronts, and while many po-mo films about “performance” tend towards casting theater/narrative/role-playing as a sort of fully transcendent, magical act that is cathartic, baggage-curing, or earth shattering (thinking of Synecdoche, New York for one), this film portrays theater as exhilarating, fun–glamorous even–and worthwhile for that and its own sake, rather than something that cures what ails the soul, redeems you, or brings you to The Truth. Some notes (mild spoilers):

  • Bringing in suicide tones was a bit odd at first– not really wrong or misplaced but strangely just not registering as much as one might expect; but the more I think about it, it was handled very well–any more and it tends to engulf the tone of the film.
  • Last scene is a bit of a cop-out, perhaps if only because we’ve gone to that well before, so, not sure what we’re getting at. The specter of Birdman is always there? We take off the mask…?
  • I like how the shooting the nose coincides with the mask.
  • Speaking of, they remain surprisingly oblique with what the “Birdman” is about. Combined with actually naming other actors/superheroes, and dating 1992, Batman is heavily implied. In turn, this makes the Birdman not work in some ways. They might have gone with an even closer knock off (the wings are kind of eh), or something more evocative of the Dark Knight, a detective, or a Zorro type. Something Tim Burtonesque anyway? Could have used a cape.
  • Ed Norton very well cast.
  • Makes the stage seem strangely fun. It’s difficult, doesn’t clear baggage, and isn’t necessarily cathartic, but it’s worthwhile because it’s just fun. Best thing about the editing was how we’re placed on the stage–can’t think of many films that give such a full rendering of it. Also good how the camera takes on a bit of a personality with its wavering and sometimes not choosing the ideal angle.
  • Still working on what to make of the telekinesis. It kind of felt tacked on, though not in a way that was distracting. Like how the voice in the end isn’t really demonized; from the protagonist’s surface reaction we’re supposed to find it antagonistic, but it speaks some “truth.”
  • Drunk/critic sequence felt a bit flat, inorganic.
  • Thoughts on social media and power are maybe a little unclear. Is it supposed to be a kind of shot across the bow for people who pooh-pooh it?



I give Birdman three bags of popcorn out of six, plus one Birdman 3 poster signed by MK. I found it to be self-contradictory in two main ways: 1) In its touting of both essentialism and postmodernism; 2) In its alternating between satirizing egotism/baby-boomerism, and endorsing egotism/baby-boomerism. The essentialism is perhaps most explicitly represented by the note card on Thomson’s makeup mirror that reads “A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing,”–a saying sometimes attributed to Susan Sontag. Alternatively, that can be read as the difficulties of capturing or recapturing a previous, original experience, or simply as an endorsement of the theater as brass tacks.

I might go so far as to call the introduction of suicide wrong or misplaced. I immediately used “cop-out” myself to describe the ending, and particularly the final shot. It seems that its magical realism ending only works if it’s interpreted as a metaphor for Iñárritu’s cessation of hostilities with his ego and/or baby-boomers coming to terms with getting off the stage, and those are strained readings. Quite frustratingly, it may be adopting the opinion of Terri from the Carver short story, that the suicide of her abusive boyfriend was an act of love. We should not be romanticizing or minimizing suicide or abuse. Couple that with the film’s misogyny and “Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus” worldview, and we’re already at categorical failure. Iñárritu says reference to Icarus is unintentional, but Thomson explicitly invokes Icarus right at the beginning.

The criticism of critics is too much, stupid, and offensive. Its belief in supposedly pure art/pure creation and the supposedly Authentic Artist/Authentic Creator is narcissistic and misguided. Relatedly, it carries that kind of Spanish male narcissism, performativity, formalism, and obsession with propriety that’s camouflaged as being intellectual, attentive, and/or artistic. It’s like it’s trying to be Don Quixote at points, but failing at flailing. Ed Norton said he based the Mike Shiner character completely on Iñárritu, down to the clothes, and both he and MK said that every character is a variation on Iñárritu. Wes Morris speculated that Iñárritu has a competition in him with the other leading Spanish-langauge directors and Birdman came out of that. I like the Gauze Nose itself, but it’s also an example of Iñárritu’s unmet conceit of being a Great Authentic Artist. It’s like he’s literally claiming Dostoevsky’s gauzed veil that covers our most extreme and rawest emotions and selves, but not actually getting close to a real facility with it. Instead, he stays at a kind of superficial surrealism/absurdism, never actually getting to any shade of deep and layered Dostoevskian hyperrealism.

I agree that the stage experience is well-conveyed and I did feel well-immersed and nicely part of the action at multiple points. It’s a play-within-a-miracle & morality-play, and a stage/film meld that’s subsumed by the tension between its essentialism and postmodernism. Good point on the portrayal of the theater as fun, though I thought it ultimately portrayed it as not curative, redemptive, true, or fun enough, in that despite all Thomson put into it, it couldn’t save him–unless you read the ending as it doing just that! The cut through on that may be, whatever he becomes when he goes through that hospital-room window, Sam is looking at some physical representation of him with a look of admiration, which brings us back to baby-boomerism/egotism, and Sylvia’s admonition to him not to confuse love with admiration.

The telekinesis did feel tacked on, and if it and the flying was intended to signal some (latent) power or ability that people didn’t understand or appreciate, that needed to be justified more and explained better.

Sam’s social media diatribe is as ridiculous and unintentionally comedic as Thomson’s diatribe against the New York Times god-critic.

I also appreciated some of the camera personality, but at times it seemed too aggressive, insistent, and representing a kind of self-importance.

Even as intentional pomo, the whole film feels too constructed. I’ve seen comments praising its supposed irony and allowing Iñárritu to have it both ways, but that seems like too much allowance. Iñárritu has said it’s not supposed to be ironic or cynical, but “twisted” and looking at trauma with humor. That goal is muddled by the lack of actual countering; for example, the anti-critic diatribe just stands there. Also, if you’re trying to be funny, you’d be wise to actually unleash MK.

Points to it for the outrage over Robert Downey, Jr. as Ironman–funny because it’s true–and Thomson’s line “They put a cape on him too?!”


MK stay in school



I give Birdman three bags of popcorn out of six, plus one Birdman 3 poster signed by MK. I found it to be self-contradictory in two main ways: 1) In its touting of both essentialism and postmodernism;

I see what you mean, and the more I think about it, the more irksome the lack of thematic clarity seems. I would say it’s really not touting postmodernism at all, it just affects an associated style. It is about authenticity and identity, and perhaps illusion. The editing/camera trick is interesting where you would expect a film touting postmodernism to make the artifices of the medium explicit. But here, by never quite revealing the camera or having it point at a mirror, we almost end up with a triumphant refutation of its existence; sure, it’s calling attention to itself, but the intended effect is to to capture a particular pace and sense of place and be impressive (which it generally was), rather than expose or subvert. I agree with Wes Morris that it’s easy to imagine Inarritu taking up a challenge from his more critically-lauded peers–not touting po-mo, not really. Not his MO. He’s not meditating on artifice, he’s saying “be impressed, knowing that films are filmed, sure, and yet we’ve filmed this film in such a way!” The bent then, absolutely, is magical realism: you know that this had to be filmed, but look how great we are at not showing the camera and tripping over wires! And the telekinesis seems so real, how is he doing that in this extended shot? It’s spectacle. I think the spirit is essentialist, as you say. There’s magic in these here feelings. For a po-mo exploration of film narrative I look at Inland Empire as a prime example of something deeply committed. There’s a scene towards the end where Laura Dern has broken down, bleeding in a gutter on some L.A. street near Sunset Boulevard, and the camera tracks back to reveal lighting/mics/cameras, and it’s a splash of water because you’re like, “Man, I was just relating to her as this wretched soul in a crazy movie. And yet–!” Even though whatever Lynch is getting at with “Hollywood” per se is a bit hackneyed, it achieves a sort of effect this doesn’t. There’s also the scene where she rushes forward from an otherwise unremarkable shot and makes a scary face and it’s shittingly terrifying. And it’s (mostly) all interesting and exciting because even though the film has been rupturing intermittently for hours, the content on the screen is hypnotizing or compelling enough that it keeps disorienting you. I agree that affecting the style creates tension with the essentialism, which is where its heart really is. The last shot of us gazing at her gazing at [him] (with a look of admiration) is too empty.

The other front it would seem thematically po-mo on is as a nested-in-real-life narrative, but I never felt settled on the extent to which MK’s character was supposed to reflect MK. It didn’t, not much, insofar as a man might seem not to reflect himself. This has to be particularly distracting to people who took in his mainstream career during formative stages and have a very well-developed notion of Michael Keatonhood. I was disappointed at how broadly Thomson was painted. Maybe folks who hadn’t thought much about MK for 20 years got a desired effect, but for me it was a wobbly table to set things up on. As you say, at least fully unleash him! Instead he gets set up as an ex-peddler of modern, hollow, bombastic, sequelized action heroism–which is perhaps worth talking about, but that wasn’t him! Quite the contrary, he has always been known as a decidedly off-beat choice in decidedly off-beat films like Batman, films that, if anything, get flak for being too personal and stylized, too silly, not standard or broad enough. There is a story to that. But this wants to bring up the issue of “movies today” instead of one reclusive guy’s uncommon story–maybe a choice made to appeal to a wider audience, but a waste. Batman is known for not being able to fly, or use magic, or battle giant bird robots. So the Birdman persona is not really even trying to fit either Batman or MK–MK here ultimately operating as more a cipher for Inarritu than anything related to MK himself. Which, as you point out, the actors themselves avow. Bad choice. Birdman is reduced to a producer, and a pressure to do things more in line with his peers–there to tempt him to produce a faker and more wrong kind of film. Throw in the misogyny cadre of difficult-women-who-revolve-around-me (seemingly another Spanish lit trope) and it’s an ode to Fellini and 8 1/2; it’s the film Fellini would’ve made today, and if I recall correctly, he dabbled in magical realism too.

I read one articlette defending the critic scene where the critic isn’t meant to attack MK but the wrong-kinds-of-films, and how critics these days are forced to deal in hyperbole in order to be relevant in the new media landscape, and how there’s nothing either one of them can do about it, so they have to attack each other. A) This is a strained reading. An adaptation of a Carver short story already suited to the stage doesn’t fit the mold of a rehash of a tried-and-true production. Also, the “need” for hyperbole, while played out, is conspicuously unaddressed. B) There are things we can do; they don’t have to just attack each other as proxy. Instead, we get a flat attack on an outdated stereotype–a sour woman who sits alone at the bar in librarian glasses with a legal pad. There’s something to Riggan’s diatribe on critics trafficking in labels, but it’s framed as critics being merely those who dismiss Authentic stuff without giving it a chance.

I would argue that it’s possible for Thomson to invoke Icarus among other activities in the film while still being a satirical character. The sense that he’s an Authentic guy in an untenable world is at least as strong as any satire it gussies up poking holes in the idea. It does seem to want things both ways and I may be a little more willing to let him have that if only because I found myself engaging with a lot of texture and minutiae and this muted some missteps. And if people are going to see it as a “what you get out of it depends on what you bring to it” project, I can begin to see that, though as you say this feels overly constructed, with certain questions already too badly answered to go too far down that road. In the end, if I were to imagine what a film would tend to look like with Inarritu of all directors “looking at trauma with humor” this is not far from what I’d expect.

2) In its alternating between satirizing egotism/baby-boomerism, and endorsing egotism/baby-boomerism. The essentialism is perhaps most explicitly represented by the note card on Thomson’s makeup mirror that reads “A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing,”–a saying sometimes attributed to Susan Sontag. Alternatively, that can be read as the difficulties of capturing or recapturing a previous, original experience, or simply as an endorsement of the theater as brass tacks.

It’s funny that it ends up this way as MK is a rare example of one who DID by and large “get off the stage.” And again, it’s a way in which he’s strangely wasted since there’s that more-remarkable angle to use. If anything, the conspicuous Sontag quote and such may be his waving at an “oh there’s something to this Postmodernism; but really, it’s silly, too, don’t you think? Which is good because this is a humorous film.” Anyway, there’s certainly some hand waving going on. It’s like essentialism wins the day, but here, let’s couch it in what would seem to be some of your instincts, and everyone can see what they want. And now it’s objectivism. The Emma Stone character stood out to me on the failure list. She’s been typecast beyond effect at this point as the spunky, hellraising, trouble-having Real Worlder (this was Angelina Jolie in the late ’90s to mid-aughts) and the second Ed Norton makes his crass (and Authentic, right!) proposition to her ass, we know she’ll throw herself at him. I suppose her diatribe is what baby-boomers feel their children must be thinking? And they’re co-opting her to say it?

Nice that Galifianakis plays against type mostly, though he minces a couple of times. I was expecting a little more self-consciousness of type and personal persona across the board.



I think it’s touting postmodernism in the sense of advertising it, rather than actually committing to it and doing it well, and, as you say, ends up just affecting more of an associated style. No, it’s not his MO, that’s the thing. He’s just trying the hat on; waving at it, as you say. He does have a shell of nested-in-real-life-narrative, and he has some specific attempts–like the diegesis where we see the drummer whose jazz-drumming dominates the film’s score, and when the guy outside the liquor store tells Thomson he was giving him a range and says “It’s too much, isn’t it?”–the latter an apparent self-inoculation by Iñárritu. The attempts feel merely dropped in, and it’s self-congratulatory in the way you and Kenny describe. Its true spirit is indeed essentialist-objectivist. Great point about MK’s own actual narrative. He said he didn’t see much of himself in Thomson, though he could relate to some of the stuff in the film.

The camera, too, seems like another example of Iñárritu wanting it both ways. The illusion of one continuous shot is insidiously used to make the film and its events feel more natural than they are; to hide that the film is highly-constructed, and to hide its manipulations. Often it seems like it’s close up and aggressive because he thinks that it is more exposing, and more real and capturing. It seems too obtrusive to be refuting its own existence. Sure, a sense of pace and place, but to what end? It’s not yoked to anything compelling.

The former gatekeeping New York Times theater critic that the Tabitha character is apparently based on is long gone in real life. I don’t see any general problem of criticism/critics run amok, and even if there was, as you say, there would be things we could do, and hyperbole would not be the solution. Snark is certainly a huge problem in the culture at large, but I don’t see current film criticism as a bastion. Thomson decries the lack of critics discussing technique and other elements of performance, but that point is lost in the overall absurdity of the diatribe, which has all the nuance of a Joaquin Phoenix acting out against the media. One related, valid criticism would be that movie stars shouldn’t rotate so much into Broadway leading parts–which I find to be roughly analogous to NBA players playing in the Olympics–under the rationale that it takes away opportunities from deserving others.

It does feel very much like they’re baby-boomeristically co-opting Stone’s character to deliver that social-media-as-identity diatribe.

Some other points: 1) The hospital scene works better if he’s dreaming, but that would still be something of a cop-out; 2) One of the parts of the theater-as-life metaphor that works is the claustrophobia and confinement of the theater and its tight spaces, and the traversing and bypassing of its passages. When Thomson gets stuck outside by way of accidental exit, he runs a literal and metaphorical gauntlet on his way to literally and metaphorically finding a new entrance and perspective, which, unfortunately, gets muddled by the suicide attempt; 3) Thomson, along with the theater critic, could be interpreted as gods who’ve heretofore resented and/or struggled with their terrestrial moorings, but have finally come to terms with them, and, ironically, it’s only then that they’re truly awakened/enlightened/liberated; 4) The film seems to be attempting a kind of conflicted, spiritual warfare out of a place of heavy Catholic sin debt; 5) It has problems with the body, in a Cartesian and Catholic way; 6) Iñárritu says he’s going for comedy, but the subject matter simply isn’t right for it. It works if you’re laughing at taking yourself too seriously or at being too self-absorbed, but not with paternal absenteeism, suicide, and violence.



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