by Tim Jones 3/8/15
Being a movie buff that appreciates quality films, I finally got around to seeing Birdman (Or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). Birdman was the recent winner of Best Picture at the annual Academy Awards ego-fest, an event that seems to get worse with every passing year (but that’s a subject for another essay). Michael Keaton stars in the movie with a very good cast that includes Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Amy Ryan and Zack Galifinakis, who does a great job playing against type from his low-brow type of character like that in the Hangover trilogy.
There are many layers to the movie, but the primary story is that of Michael Keaton playing the character of Riggan Thomson who’s writing, directing and starring in his own Broadway play. Riggan is an aging movie star who earlier in his career had become famous for and typecast as a super-hero in a trilogy of movies called Birdman. It seems to me that this movie is about the acting career of Michael Keaton, who once starred in the original Batman (with Jack Nicholson in his infamous role as the Joker) and the subsequent sequel, Batman Returns.
Riggan is desperate to redefine his career and escape the identity of the character Birdman that’s haunted him for years and this is what makes the movie so good. There is one scene in particular where he is literally haunted by his past when he’s being followed in his imagination by the Birdman character he once played as he’s walking down a street in New York City. Throughout the movie there are a number of other scenes, mostly in Riggan’s dressing room, where he hears the Birdman character speaking to him and taunting him that he’s no good, that he’s washed up and to give it all up.
The one scene that I thought was the most important to the movie was when Riggan comes upon his daughter Sam, played by Emma Stone, in one of the theater’s backrooms. Riggan, after a few words with Sam, smells the odor of pot and then comes down hard on her when he finds what’s left of a joint she had been smoking. Sam replies by going into a rant (video) lambasting her father for his need to be relevant, that he’s not important any more and to get over his need to be important because it’s not going to happen.
RIGGAN: Listen to me. I’m trying to do something important.
SAM: This is not important.
RIGGAN: It’s important to me! Alright? Maybe not to you, or your cynical friends whose only ambition is to go viral. But to me . . . To me . . . this is — God. This is my career, this is my chance to do some work that actually means something.
SAM: Means something to who? You had a career before the third comic book movie, before people began to forget who was inside the bird costume. You’re doing a play based on a book that was written 60 years ago, for a thousand rich old white people whose only real concern is gonna be where they go to have their cake and coffee when it’s over. And let’s face it, Dad, it’s not for the sake of art. It’s because you want to feel relevant again. Well, there’s a whole world out there where people fight to be relevant every day. And you act like it doesn’t even exist! Things are happening in a place that you willfully ignore, a place that has already forgotten you. I mean, who are you? You hate bloggers. You make fun of Twitter. You don’t even have a Facebook page. You’re the one who doesn’t exist. You’re doing this because you’re scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don’t matter. And you know what? You’re right. You don’t. It’s not important. You’re not important. Get used to it.
Another scene I thought was interesting in a metaphysical sense, when Riggan comes upon his daughter again, this time in his dressing room, where she’s got a roll of toilet paper partially unravelled on his makeup counter where there appears to be little marks she’s put on each square. When Riggan asks her what she’s doing, she explains to him that each mark on each square is a representation of time on earth. She tears off the last square where she says to her father that this represents the time man has been on earth, something like the last 150,000 years and that by comparison it’s just a blink of the eye when compared to the overall history of the planet. She apparently is trying to make a reference to the short period of time not just for humanity but that each individual’s time on earth is short. The interpretation is left for the viewer as to whether its meaning is one of existential dread or kind of a New Age reference to making the best of one’s time on earth since in the scheme of things it is not very long.
I thought the name of the play Riggan is putting on had some underlying significance as well: “What We Talk About When You’re Talking About Love” (based on a real book by Raymond Carter) . The only time you even know what the name of the play is during those scenes outside the theater where you see it on the marquee. Here Keaton’s character again is struggling to find meaning and depth beyond the shallowness of the Birdman character he played and to find redemption in his attempt at creating meaningful art.
Some of the other narratives that take place during the movie include Riggan’s guilt over being a terrible father to Sam and a not-so-great husband to Amy Ryan; his emotional detachment to his girlfriend who is a character in his play; and the somewhat funny riff of Edward Norton’s adequacy as both a person and sexual inadequacy with his girlfriend Naomi Watts. And in an encounter with Sam at one point, who clearly likes him, want to know why he won’t do it with her, he says he’s afraid he won’t be able to get it up. Earlier in the movie he said the only time he really feels adequate both as a person and sexually is when he’s on stage. There’s a hilarious scene where he actually attempts to have sex with Watts under the sheets while they’re doing a live performance of Riggan’s play making his point.
There is the somewhat obligatory scene where Riggan confronts a New York Times theater critic who has it out for him. When he asks her why, she tells him because she thinks most actors are basically narcissistic jerks who don’t contribute to any understanding of the ways of the world, and that she’s going to destroy both him and his play. Of course he goes off on her and describes critics as contributing nor producing anything themselves to the world other than lazily applying unfair and unthoughtful labels to those who really are struggling to make a contribution to their art and in turn to the world at large. In the end she writes a great review to everyone’s surprise.
What I also liked about the movie was that is took place almost entirely inside the St. James Theater, where one gets an inside looks at the many narrow hallways, messy dressing and makeup rooms, giving one a look at the realism that is behind the illusion of the actual play (or movie) that the audience experiences from their seats.
What is not so clear is the subtitle to the movie, “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance.” I tried to find particular significance to it following the movie and came up empty despite a clue that comes near the end. To me, I think it would have been better written with the subtitle “The Unexpected Virtue of Irrelevance.” It is clear that the primary theme of the movie is Riggan’s/Keaton’s attempt to stay relevant by redefining himself and his career after being typecast and haunted by his earlier, career-making star of the Birdman/Batman movies, and the nobility of his endeavor of trying to make the transition to a dramatic actor of significance.
Finally, what I believe is a biographical movie that tells the story of Michael Keaton himself, it succeeds in redefining him with a performance that was by far the best of his career after trying to escape the long shadow of playing the super-hero that left him typecast early in his career. • (997 views)