The Unexpected Virtue of Birdman

A Spoiler-Free Review of ‘Birdman’

(Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu, USA, 2014)

By Sin Popena

Philippe Petit Wire Crossing, Twin Towers

Before we started shooting Birdman, I sent the actors a photo of Philippe Petit walking on a cable between the Twin Towers atop the World Trade Center. I wanted to share that with them because I knew that if I fall, or any of them fall, we will all fall … and there was no net.” – Director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu

Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance‘ is one hell of a risky movie. The success of the film is largely dictated by an intricate co-dependency between actors and technical crew as they attempt to pull off a ‘one-shot movie’ effect. Because of it’s ambition, both technically and story-wise, this film was always destined to be either a well-construed masterpiece or an incoherent, arrogant flop. Luckily, it’s the former.

I’m not sure what the opinion of the average spectator is, but for a cinematography major like myself, the technical prowess of cinematographer Emmanuel ‘Chivo’ Lubezki was mind-blowing. So many ‘how-did-they-even-do-that?!’ moments. The sad truth is, in our general culture we mostly remember the names of actors, rarely the names of directors, and hardly anyone can name a cinematographer (the person in charge of camera & lighting, and responsible for the film’s ‘look’). But Emmanuel Lubezki is a name worth remembering. He has done exceptional work on films like Terrence Malick’s ‘Tree of Life‘, Alfonso Cuaron’s ‘Children of Men‘ and most recently – ‘Gravity‘, for which he won an Oscar last year.

Emmanuel 'Chivo' Lubezki doing what he does best

Emmanuel ‘Chivo’ Lubezki doing what he does best

An entire movie, seemingly, in one take – the ultimate cinematographer’s challenge – poses a plethora of problems. The cameraman has to hit his marks, the focus puller has to make sure the image is sharp where it needs to be, the actors can’t mess us their lines, the lights have to be rigged in mysterious ways so as not to create unwanted shadows when cast and crew move around, the extras (which are plentiful) have to be coordinated perfectly. It’s insanely tough. The only crew member with a relatively easy job is the editor, and even he had the challenge of cutting the shots together seamlessly, through pans.

In reality, the film actually consists of around 12 shots (each approximately 10 minutes long). The transitions are largely invisible due to smart editing and color grading. Here’s a behind-the-scenes video, if you want to find out more about the technical stuff. (By the way, check out this classic sequence shot from cult film Soy Cuba (1964), widely considered a great cinematic feat.)

The one-shot movie format is also an immense strain on the actors’ abilities. In any other movie, it would have been possible to use Michael Keaton’s best performance in one shot, Edward Norton’s best line in the next, Naomi Watts’ facial expression in the third, and so on. In Birdman, every actor has to give their all 100% of the time, while fully remembering demanding, sometimes word-heavy monologues, and keeping in mind their blocking. In particular, Michael Keaton’s performance as Riggan Thomson (or Birdman) is honest, high calibre and Oscar-nomination worthy. As a Batman fan, I enjoyed the small references to this franchise. For those who live in a (Bat)cave and don’t know, Michael Keaton was essentially the original Batman (excluding a mediocre 60s version). He appeared in Tim Burton’s vision of Gotham City in 1989 alongside Jack Nicholson as the Joker, and re-appeared in the same role in 1992 with ‘Batman Returns’, this time supported by Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman (more seductive than Hathaway could ever be). The lamentable decline of Riggan Thomson is only made more powerful by knowing Keaton’s own recent decline into obscurity (look out for the dig at George Clooney, another actor who played Batman after Keaton). How post-modern.

See any similarities...?

See any similarities…?

However, the director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu claims the film is not about Michael Keaton, but is about himself – or rather, it is about any artist who at the age of 50 is forced to reexamine his priorities in life, his work, and consider his place in an industry that is brutal in its obsession for newness. The fantastical elements in the film (casual meteors crashing) are counter-balanced by this very personal investment from Iñárritu, who claims: ‘That’s my conflict – that humans seem to be now no longer subject to analysis and observation, and we cannot see ourselves in films because we feel so bad about ourselves.’ One could never call Birdman a ‘realistic’ movie in any sense, but the emotional tribulations of the characters feel authentic. It’s 50% real,  50% fake,  101%  cinema, 69% theatre, 10-90% real-life. It’s an incredible movie.




 (One to see on the big screen)



2 responses to “The Unexpected Virtue of Birdman

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