My experience with Birdman began with a decorous helping of turbulence. Which I suppose was rather fitting. The film makes no secrets about being an absorbingly absurd ordeal so, as we walked in a second late to a seemingly full cinema, teeming with energy, our tardiness was strangely in keeping with the ‘in media res’ opening. Shit, was my first thought, they’ve oversold. After bumbling down and up stairs, low squat jogging under the screen and muttering what I hoped would be telepathic verbal abuse at the ticket vendor upstairs, we were close to settling on the top of the steps. But, as the opening shot of Michael Keaton meditating in mid air illuminated the room, our seats shone out, right at the back, right in the corner. With three large bags and a cup of searing hot tea, we traversed the unmoving legs and feet of row J, to a chorus of tuts and Birdman’s echoing voice. “The film’s already started!” stuttered at just too loud to be a whisper from a head below me. So we sat and didn’t dare to move a hair until the credits rolled. The unexpected vice of ignorance: do not turn up late to a packed showing of eager film geeks. Especially when you are usually one of them.
With a gaggle of nominations lined up for awards season and the kind of cast that makes you step back and have another look at the poster: if you haven’t seen Birdman yet, you’ve probably heard of it. Filmed as what appears to be one continuous shot, it tells the tale of Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton), a washed-up actor desperately trying to light a semantic flame in the wake of his one-trick career as iconic superhero, Birdman. In short, do something that has meaning. And by meaning, I mean adapt, direct and star in a Broadway show. With an unruly co-star in the form of Edward Norton, an on-the-rocks daughter (Emma Stone) and a young girlfriend and ex-wife on the scene, Thompson is well and truly clinging on to his last thread.
Birdman explores what it is like to be a celebrity. For most, this is an unnatural ‘phenomenon’, but the film highlights the accessibility of stardom nowadays, what with the peculiarity of our viral video, celeb-generating social media. How do you align yourself ‘with the times’? How does success shape a person’s work and family life? The choices we make in the 21st century are often selfish and egoistic, especially in Western, individualistic societies. Does success really grant ultimate happiness if it means making indefinite sacrifices? How does one really control their own life, their own future?
The whole cinematic experience is choreographed to perfection. I don’t even want to imagine how many hours the cast and crew spent rehearsing on set, left and right, up and down, in and out. Never has ‘stepping on your mark’ been so important for everyone involved. And while the long-take technique is not new to film (thanks to Alfred Hitchcock), it is no less of an achievement. Its seamless and fluid, like a play, which, I suppose, makes it easier to forget how difficult it must have been to realise. In keeping with the theatrical nature of the filming, the performances are no less than Broadway worthy. Birdman has legally robbed me of my Michael Keaton virginity and, I’m happy to say, I think my overall happiness in life has now increased by a degree or two. Edward Norton is on ridiculously good form, sporting some interesting variations on the undergarment and a volatile disposition, while Emma Stone is better than I have ever seen her, truly sinking her teeth into the character that we, as an audience, can relate to – the ‘nobody’ amongst a raging sea of ‘somebodys’.
Seeing as this is a spoiler-free review, all I can leave you with is: that ending. It sums up everything the film says about celebrity, the pressures of success and dirty critics; a conclusion, of sorts, in retrospect of the previous two hours. It makes you question celebrity, for better or for worse.