The pompous, self-important Method actor played by Edward Norton in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman is not, as you might think, based on any particular prickly thespian Norton has worked with (and he’s worked with many: De Niro, Brando, Keitel, himself). In fact, he confessed after the picture’s New York Film Festival press screening yesterday, he was mostly inspired by his director. “I’m wearing his scarf in the movie, I’m wearing the jacket, everything I say in the movie, I’ve heard him say or know he wants to say…” It got a little eerie, Iñárritu confessed, when they got to the scene where Norton’s character is in the midst of a contentious rehearsal with Micheal Keaton—playing a character at least somewhat inspired by himself. “So I was explaining to Edward the movement of the camera and the pace and everything, and he began to question me about it: ‘What is it? Why is she saying that?’” And that’s when it hit the director: “Oh my God, this is a fucking mirror in a mirror in a mirror”—which is a pretty apt description of Birdman, when you get right down to it.
Much of the advance word has focused, and rightfully so, on star Michael Keaton, playing—if you can believe this—an actor who disappeared from the limelight after starring in one of the first smash superhero movie franchises. Now, he is trying to prove his legitimacy by starring in a Broadway play, which he directed and adapted (from Raymond Carver, no less). A framed poster of him former self, in full “Birdman” garb, lambasts him from the dressing room door, a voice in his head with what sounds an awful lot like Christian Bale’s Batman growl.
That inner dialogue makes for some of the most nakedly confessional acting this side of JCVD. “You were a movie star, remember?” demands the voice. “I was fucking miserable,” he insists. “What’re you trying to prove, that you’re an artist?” it taunts. “I’m a fucking Trivial Pursuit card!” he declares, pinpointing the end of his superstardom at 1992. (Fun fact: Batman Returns was released in 1992.) But the role isn’t just autobiography; it’s a whirligig of emotional pyrotechnics, a character who spends the entirety of the picture on the brink of financial, professional, and psychological ruin, and who may be utterly crazy to boot. “It was really, really difficult, but I like that,” Keaton said Saturday. “I like difficult, most of the time.”
Indeed, the film is a thunderbolt reminder of the kind of quick-thinking, quick-talking, quick-witted characters that Keaton used to specialize in, and Iñárritu finds the right style to showcase his gifts. Working with the brilliant cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Iñárritu devises the action to unfold in what appears a single, unbroken shot, a kind of Rope for the digital age—one-upping Hitch, even, by transcending the real-time structure of Rope and later practitioners (like Timecode and Silent House) and weaving in elements of dream logic, magic realism, and theatrical transition to cover several days, with minimal edits and interruptions. If you geek out over this sort of thing, you’re likely to do as I did, and spend the opening passages wondering how they’re doing it; after a while, I stopped wondering, because I was too involved in what was happening within that unbroken frame (and because I decided it was just magic and left it at that).
But let’s be clear, as the awe-inspiring technique may well dominate the conversation surrounding this movie: it’s not just a gimmick or empty trickery. The bulk of Antonio Sanchez’s score is jazz drumming of boisterous power, and the film pulses with that improvisational energy, from the bracing camerawork on down. And the go-go-go style is just right for Keaton’s jittery energy—form is rarely better matched to function.
And beyond that, it makes narrative sense—because it’s a film about the theatre, and the all-in-one execution allows scenes to unfold and actors to interact as they would on the stage, and for Lubezki’s camera to function like another player. “A lot in the way this film was shot, with this speed and the high stakes and the technicalities and the dependency on each other,” co-star Naomi Watts said, “all of those things created this high-level intensity and pressure that felt emblematic of how it feels onstage—at least my long-time memories from long ago.”
That’s appropriate, because when you get right down to it, it’s a picture about performance. Beyond the explicitly (and intelligently) stated subjects of celebrity, ego, New York vs. L.A., film vs. theater, the invasion of the latter by the former (one unnoted, nice touch: Tom Hanks in Lucky Guy is playing across the street), it’s an occasionally poison-penned valentine to actors, and a consideration of the roles they play both onscreen and off. One of the most telling moments is between our hero and his daughter (Emma Stone), working as his assistant after a stint in rehab. She has a big speech where she unloads on him, laying out all of his shortcomings and oversights, and it feels slightly overwritten and over-rehearsed—because it was, since that’s what her character would have done. But Iñárritu holds on her face, longer than usual, and during the “unrehearsed” part: her reaction to his reaction. She’s said those words before, but she’s never said them to him, and seen how they effect him, which is a whole ‘nuther ball of wax.
The entire film sustains that playful freshness; you get nervous by the second half, it’s walking such a fine line, right on the precipice of self-indulgence or self-parody. But it never tumbles over (except, perhaps, for the clangingly paranoid anti-critic scene, which feels in retrospect like a bit of bait that I’m NOT GOING TO TAKE). Its quicksilver humor and swoony weightlessness mark a departure for the filmmaker, whose detractors—and there are plenty of them—find him a purveyor of punishing misery. It’s lithe and scrappy, “a semi-serious film made by deeply unserious people,” as co-star Edward Norton noted Saturday. But it’s also not a full 180.
“In a way, I think the film is the same, I think the characters are as tortured as in any film I’ve done—it’s just the approach is different,” Iñárritu explained. “I decided to approach those events in a different way. Upside-down. So I think this film’s a little twisted, because I think you can do that. I learned that, at 50 years old, if you don’t take life with that humor—not cynicism, but humor—you can survive.”
The filmmaker has not only survived—he’s thrived. “Hey!” shouts the woman across the way at Michael Keaton, as he perches on the edge of a building. “Is this for real or are you shooting a film?” He’s not shooting a film, but he assures her that he is. “You people are full of shit!” she shouts back. And as the man said, it’s fucking mirror in a mirror in a mirror.
Birdman was the closing night selection at the New York Film Festival. It opens October 17 in limited release. NYFF Photo Credits: Jason Bailey / Flavorwire