“I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone’s heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.”
― Raymond Carver, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman will go down as one of the best films of 2014. It will be written in ink, because the people who define these things already think so. What their reviews will tell you is that it is an astonishing feat of cinematic achievement and they will be right. Their reviews will say no one has attempted anything like this since Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, and they will be (almost) right. They will say it unpeels the many rotten layers of the crazy cultural shift we’ve witnessed since celebrity obsession and the internet merged. And they will be right.
Another conversation that is about to happen is the same conversation that will swirl around Foxcatcher, Gone Girl, Inherent Vice and Maps to the Stars (if Maps is even being released this year). The conversation will be about whether these films will be “too much” or “too dark” for the Academy and industry voters. I will circle back to this in a bit.
All of this has to do with the precise sort of analysis Birdman so cleverly skewers.
We are asked to look at our culture mirrored onscreen. For underneath all of the camera tricks, the many inside jokes, the brilliant performances, the extreme emotional outbursts, the snark, the despair, the ugly moments, the thrilling moments lies an influential short story by Raymond Carver called “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” It is Carver’s most famous short story but it is also the current that runs through this magnificent film. An alternate title might be What Do We Not Do If We’re Too Busy Talking About Love? We do all sorts of things that add up to not looking after those who need and deserve our love. The very definition of the word is different from how we talk about it.
There is a great sign in Michael Keaton’s dressing room that says something to this effect: “A thing is a thing not what is said of that thing.” Raymond Carver provides the impetus for “washed up” superhero Birdman to adapt, direct and star in the Carver short story. Carver is a well-regarded writer but Birdman has been erased. He does not exist anymore because what he was — a Birdman — has been replaced and replaced and replaced. An endless cycle of superheroes for the consumption and discarding of forever young branded audiences. It turns out it’s easy to sell a brand to human beings. Follow the model of Coke and McDonald’s? You can become a billionaire by giving people fewer choices but always exactly what they expect. You can be a billionaire by convincing people that you have what they really want rather than what they think they want.
Keaton’s character somehow misses what’s right in front of him in a mostly futile attempt to bring the essence of his art — acting — back from the dead. Watching a man driven and then destroyed by his ego, we are confronted with this notion of what it is exactly that we want from celebrities. In an era where getting an erection on stage or running through Times Square in your underwear goes viral and gives you untold power on a different level? What’s really left? What happens if you don’t want to play that game. Or live in that world. What happens if you can’t erase who you are in public to live a “normal” life in private? You’re always that guy. You’re always the guy who used to be a superhero.
Keaton’s character parallels the abusive boyfriend in Carver’s short story, another guy who has run out of options and rounds out his life to mean mostly nothing. We get the sense that he’s a man rounding down in the same way, limiting his own options, losing any kind of hope. You might find yourself wondering how anyone could be that depressed when they’re luckier than most — until you remember men like Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Williams face demons beyond our comprehension.
The destruction in Birdman comes from within Keaton’s character but he was also set up to fail from the outset. In another story, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” an angel gets trapped in the yard of a farmer. He’s a wounded angel. The townspeople come to see him and they fear him. That story, like this story, isn’t really about the angel at all but rather about the people looking at him. And so it goes with Birdman.
The beauty of Iñárritu’s film is not, as it turns out, just the camera trickery, though that alone would surely be enough to make it great. It is the way tendrils from Carver’s story are woven like vines through Birdman’s life that makes this film truly worthwhile.
What does it mean to be a hero? What is it to be a superhero? What does it mean to be a father? A husband? A boyfriend? An actor? An Artist? Let’s get back to the quote: “A thing is a thing not what is said of that thing.” Birdman is loved by people who matter and that is so much bigger than being loved by people who don’t.
What do we talk about when we talk about Birdman? Many will be talking about Oscars, starting with Michael Keaton’s fully realized, emotionally bare performance which will put him squarely in the eye of the storm to win Best Actor. Edward Norton and Emma Stone will likely round out the supporting nominations. Stone, because she has never been this icy. Norton because he has rarely been this funny (“You gonna get another actor for this part? Ryan Gosling?”).
Iñárritu has knocked it out of the park, and not just with his virtuoso feat of the extended long shot. Director, Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing – you get the drift.
What do we talk about when we talk about Oscars? We talk about what “they” will think. But Birdman is, more than anything, an actors movie. It’s a shoo-in for a SAG ensemble nod, a WGA nod, a PGA nod — A Best Picture nomination is the natural culmination. It doesn’t need all of the Academy members to like it, only a portion of them.
Birdman is a risky, messy, raw, beautiful triumph. Those are just words and they pale in comparison to the thing itself.