Up, Up, and Away! by Tyler Smith
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman is one of the most personal films I’ve ever seen. Not just for the director, but for a number of the people involved. And, indeed, for any artist that might be watching. But, it doesn’t stop there. This is a film that, though it is remarkably specific, explores such universal themes that it often feels like it’s telling everybody’s story. Yours, mine, everybody. All without ever sacrificing the individuality of its characters and story. That is a pretty astounding accomplishment.
The story is about aging movie star Riggan Thomson trying to mount a Broadway play. He has written, directed, and stars in the play. That is hard enough in itself, but the real challenge isn’t a practical one. It is cultural, and emotional, and psychological. Riggan, you see, became famous by playing a superhero called “Birdman.” He starred in three blockbuster films, becoming a worldwide name. That was many years ago, though, and now he’s just an old man trying to be taken seriously as an artist. And the only way to do that is to produce what apparently has to be the most successful play in Broadway history, both artistically and financially.
If he is going to get artistic credibility, he has to take it, almost through sheer force of will. Because God knows nobody is just going to give it to him. Everywhere he looks, he is told that he is a fraud. The critics say it, the other actors say it. Even his daughter says it. Nobody looks at this former superstar as a viable artistic entity. Instead, they see him as a sellout; somebody that once had potential, but squandered it on blockbuster success.
Quite possibly the person most vocal about this is Riggan himself. After years of attempting to put Birdman behind him, the character is always there, taunting him. Well, not a taunt, exactly. More like a a forceful prod. Sometimes it shames him, questioning why he thinks he has the ability to produce this play. Other times, it encourages him to shake off this ridiculous angsty bullshit and reclaim his birthright as a superhero and bask in the glow of worldwide fame and love.
This is the struggle of every artist. Do they strive for what is challenging and fulfilling, or give in to what is fun and accessible? The two are not always at odds, but our feelings about them often can be. As a critic, I often curse my own desire to watch something that is pure escapism, rather than something meant to broaden my horizons and confront my beliefs. These feelings can feel positively suffocating sometimes; how much worse must they be for artists, who are often called upon to resist both worldwide acceptance and financial security, in order to toil in poverty and obscurity, all for the sake of work that few will see and fewer still will care about?
As I think more about Birdman, however, I find myself realizing that these aren’t the choices faced merely by artists and the lovers of art. Everybody, in their own way, has to take a long look at their life and decide what compromises are worth making and which ones aren’t. It could be professional, emotional, religious, whatever. Everybody has that thing that is most precious to them that they will be tempted to push to the side for the promise of safety and security. Perhaps the reason that we so condemn this choice in others is because we are so deeply aware of our own temptation to make the same decision.
Shot with a fluid camera and hidden edits, Birdman plays like a sort of fever dream. One scenes rolls into the next without our even noticing it. This puts us not only into the bustling world of theatre, but the constantly-moving mind of our main character, whose perpetual activity is both exhausting and exhilarating. While we sometimes follow other characters, this is Riggan’s world. A place of judgment and fear, of volatility and glamour, of movement and paranoia. Inarritu expertly puts us inside the head of a deeply frightened man and allows us to make comparisons with our own insecurities.
In the end, though, the film is hopeful. It explores the notion that, no matter how typecast a person might be- in a role or a social standing or relationship- there is always the possibility that something amazing is just waiting to get out. Underneath our acceptable behavior and pleasant demeanor, there is a place that nobody sees. It can be terrible, filled with secrets and regret. But, perhaps even deeper, is a place of unrealized potential; a door that, if unlocked, will fly off its hinges as we finally embrace who we are and what we can do.
This, for me, is what Birdman is about. It is about all the barriers placed in front of us that prevent us from doing what we were always meant to do. It is about our desire to burst through those barriers. To finally get out of our own way, throw open the window, and take flight.