How many films from the 2010’s do most people regard as masterpieces that may be cemented as classics for decades to come? The Social Network, Boyhood, Inside Out, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Her certainly come to mind first. The films stand out within their respective genres and still resonate with audiences to this day. All of these films are certainly excellent and I’m a quite a fan of all of them. However, the movie I personally consider the best of the 2010’s so far is a film that’s far too unique, original, and intelligent to not deserve an in-depth dissection. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a film that works as a critique of many different things. The film is composed as a black comedy, a satire, and surrealist drama all rolled into one masterful character study (of multiple characters). This essay will strive to explain & decode the multiple layers of a modern cinematic masterpiece. There will be no major spoilers in this essay, however it may be essential to understand the analysis/interpretation. Let’s delve into Birdman.
Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is a washed up actor who was once famous for his portrayal of superhero Birdman 20 years previous. Now, he’s struggling to regain relevance and fame within his industry. He wants to be taken seriously and not only be associated with a superhero flick. Thus, he decides to write, direct, produce, and star in his own Broadway play adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”.
Involved in the process are his best friend & lawyer Jake (Zach Galifianakis), recovering addict daughter Sam (Emma Stone), and hot-headed yet talented actor Mike (Edward Norton). Riggan’s ex-wife and current girlfriend are also by his side during the stressful project. Along the way, Riggan deals numerous obstacles. He and his daughter seem distant, and they struggle to repair their relationship after her recent stint in rehab. Also, Mike’s narcissistic, overbearing personality leads to clashes on how to go about the play. Notably, Riggan is often tormented by apparent visions of Birdman, often hearing Birdman’s voice in his head and suffering hallucinations. Riggan must find a way to alleviate these concerns and put on a successful production, achieving the relevant recognition he desires.
Birdman is much more than the story that I’ve just described. It is quite unconventional and could even be described as art-house, films which are typically not multiple Oscar winners (it won 5, including Best Picture). The way it is presented and what exactly it is presenting is incredibly unique. For those unaware, Birdman is shot to appear as if it is one single take. The execution is absolutely fantastic and is quite relevant to what the film is attempting to accomplish. As mentioned before, the film is highly critical of many things. At the same time, it serves to highlight many themes, such as relationships and purpose. Each of these will be devoted to in this analytical essay. Without wasting any more time, here’s my analysis/interpretation.
Pretentiousness, Arrogance, & Film Criticism
Birdman is a highly meta film about film itself, or the film industry. It seeks to highlight commonly seen issues with Hollywood and films themselves through portraying them. Mike is a hot-headed, full of himself actor who adds something to every project. It seems very difficult to work with him. Nonetheless, he is viewed as extremely talented and highly sought after. Riggan is one who seeks to remain relevant and famous, thus he takes on quite the ambitious project to do so.
There is a scene within the film involving an altercation between a popular critic and Riggan. The critic declares that she will “give the play a bad review even without seeing it”, causing Riggan to go on an angry tirade in which film criticism simply doesn’t matter and the ones criticizing have no more relevance than anyone else. The critic herself is portrayed as a pompous know-it-all. What is Innaritu saying here? Is he completely agreeing with Riggan here? Yes and no.
The fact that the critic will give the play a poor review even without seeing it directly reflects similar action in real life. In recent memory, many people decided to flood review sites with 10/10 ratings of films like Batman V. Superman and Suicide Squad to make it appear it’s getting great reviews. Of course, this was before these films had even been released, and in my opinion, turned out pretty bad. These ratings simply reflect a desire to assert one’s predetermined love/hate for a particular property, in this case DC Extended Universe films. The film argues that this dishonest portrayal of a movie often taints the actual appeal and meaning of a film. It discourages people from thinking for themselves and is more concerned with personal satisfaction. However, it doesn’t mean that one’s opinion on film or art or on anything is less/more relevant than another. We shouldn’t disparage the critic for their opinion. What matters is how genuine it is. The late Roger Ebert would sometimes clash with general consensus over really good films, and vice versa with bad films. For this, Ebert should be respected. Every review was how he saw it and what he took from it. This is the goal I hope to accomplish on my personal website as well. Everything you read from me is what I took from it. All I can do is do my best to explain where I’m coming from.
Relevance, Purpose, & Identity
Let’s take a look at Riggan’s rise to fame, Birdman. The movie within a movie (adding to the meta quality) was a superhero film similar to Batman that was hugely popular back in the day. Ironically, Michael Keaton himself became famous for playing Batman in the original 1989 film, making this character even more meta. When people recognize him on the street, they recognize him as Birdman. Riggan is so affected by this reputation that he often hears and sees Birdman, who taunts him for his fall from grace and lack of modern relevance. Clearly, Riggan wants to move past this. Birdman has effectively replaced Riggan’s subconscious, berating him how he unknowingly berates himself for leaving the spotlight. Riggan’s is not as passionate about his passion project as most would imagine. He decides to tackle a serious drama and possess nearly every major role. You would think this is a passion project. Perhaps the film itself it lamenting these so-called “passion projects” we often see from directors that turn out not so good.
Riggan’s main motivation is to be relevant again. More specifically, he wants to be taken seriously. Thus, he takes on a Broadway play adaptation based on a serious short story. Superhero films won’t get him the relevance he wants and feels he deserves. In reality, he could do more Birdman movies and achieve that recognition again. His ambitions go beyond this. His control freak nature of the play directly symbolizes his desire to completely control his life.
That being said, is this Riggan’s ultimate purpose? Certainly it’s one he has set for himself. But what’s the purpose of being relevant and respected in the industry? It has personal meaning for Riggan, but only for him, it seems. Jake and Sam both question his large ambition and ask him why it means so much to him? Being relevant, of course. But what’s the appeal in being relevant? We live in a culture where celebrities, film stars, and Hollywood denizens’ worth is based on their popularity. We celebrate uninteresting, trashy things and we ourselves increase their relevance and popularity. Think Kardashians or viral videos. It’s easy to parrot the usual, “we make stupid people famous” argument, and quite frankly, the argument itself is getting tired. It adds nothing to the discussion. There is more harm being done than good. The concept of going viral and glorifying trash is only growing, due a lot in part to the internet.
Most importantly, who cares? One’s relevance in society or their perceived popularity should bare little relevance to us. What’s more important is to ignore this culture and focus on your own life. That’s what Birdman is telling us through Riggan. It’s his relevance, and that’s all that matters. His reasoning, or even a lack thereof, is unimportant to everyone. Riggan feels he can find satisfaction in his project. Who is anybody else to take that away from him? When you discover what will make you personally satisfied, don’t let anybody get in your way. They should be worrying about their own satisfaction first. There really is unexpected virtue of ignorance, sometimes.
This directly ties into Riggan’s identity, a crisis many characters face in the film. Riggan wants to be identified as the talent behind his successful play. On a broader scope, he wants to be known as a talent in the film/theatre industry in general. Sam struggles to understand her role in her Dad’s and Mike’s life as well. Mike’s extreme self-confidence in his own identity presents an ironic picture of insecurity and self-doubt. Before the play, Birdman had always been Riggan’s identity. It was an identity he didn’t assign to himself, presenting the driving force of the film. Thus, we can conclude we should always be able to choose our own identity. They set us apart and define us, so why let somebody/something else control it? The entirety of the movie follows Riggan as he struggles to establish a new identity. He wants to spread his wings and fly away from the life he’s known.
The film’s decision to appear as entirely one shot is flawless. This makes the film feel like a play in itself. The pacing is constant and fast paced, never letting the viewer take a break and instructing them to maintain a constant focus. For me, this was quite effective as I often struggle to focus for long periods of time. We feel like we’re involved the play’s production itself, helping us relate and understand each of the characters. Each character is portrayed with immense depth and complexity. We learn so much about them in the span of a 2 hour film. We see Riggan’s inner turmoil, his inner thoughts spoken out loud the portrayal of his subconscious. We see Sam’s attempts to stay clean, Mike’s thought process and attitudes. Most importantly, we see their growths and arcs complete. Each main character’s ending I find quite satisfactory and appropriate.
The acting in this film is phenomenal all around the board. Michael Keaton is definitely the best he’s ever been and I firmly believe to this day he was robbed of the Best Actor Oscar. Edward Norton hasn’t been this good since American History X, and Emma Stone and surprisingly Zach Galifianakis are both excellent. The cinematography is amazing both in execution and visually. The screenplay is honestly one of the best screenplays I’ve ever read/seen for a film. Each conversation, each encounter, each moment establishes humor, irony, the depth, and satire combined like I’ve seen only a handful of times before. Birdman is a masterpiece of 21st century cinema and among the greatest films I’ve ever seen. I see Birdman being considered a film classic in the decades to come. It certainly already is for me.