In Birdman, Carver and the Carrion Bird of Broadway are used to teach us a few lessons, amongst many other subterranean vignettes.
I will not risk here becoming the voice of the thin-lipped old woman critic of Birdman. She is the dragon antagonist of the film, the canonized, mercurial New York Times reviewer Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan). In one fiery scene, she sits alone at the bar with pad and paper and flames method actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton):
“Aren’t you ever worried I’ll give you a bad review?” she asks him of his play.
“Oh, I’m sure you will,” he replies, “if ever I give you a bad performance.”
And he does so fabulously, in the audienced previews leading up to Tabitha’s crucial attendance. Mike, the freshly planted replacement starring in a staging of Raymond Carver’s, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. The creation of the play a desperate clutch by the aging writer, producer and co-star, protagonist Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton); his final attempt to retain his dying relevancy in the public eye. Riggan is also the former Birdman; venerated, levitating, telekinetic superhero of the nineties. (Meta upon meta, of course, this was Michael Keaton’s actual real-life career, as Batman.)
Mike (Norton) joins the cast of Riggan’s play with a plot-altering temper, replacing the mysteriously injured leading man, who was anyway, a furiously awful actor. Unfortunately for Riggan, Mike’s acting antics (consuming gin onstage, the attempted improvisational rape of his co-star and alienated girlfriend), make his presence more antagonizing than soothing to the death rattle which already is Riggan’s career.
As for the girlfriend, the many stray women of the movie are women portrayed just as what Carver gave us, insignificant in comparison to the broodings of men and validated only when given praise by them. This is by no means an anti-feminist film, rather, commentary on Carver’s time, where women were caught in-place by their depression and social immobility. Sam (Emma Stone), Riggan’s daughter and personal assistant, is fresh out of rehab. She is paralyzed by her reliance on her father, who is so concentrated on the redemption of his public image he is debilitated and unable to parent by his lack of confidence and creeping alcoholism.
This is director Iñárritu’s homage to Carver; allusion to the late writer’s failure to perform as a good domestic figure. Somewhere, Mike drops a line about Carver never writing a page without leaving a piece of his liver on the table. Then come hints of Riggan’s rising dependence on the bottle. As for the sacrifice of the flesh, Riggan’s slow insanity and despair leads him eventually to shoot off his own nose for Tabitha’s critique on opening night.
I find it important to note here, that I have not been bribed by anyone’s severed appendages to alter my review.
There is an echo which surrounds Birdman’s numerous Oscar nominations. It is the talk about “the one damn shot!” in which the movie is entirely filmed. It’s true, the scenes are passed off from actor to actor like a spirit stick at summer camp. Characters slide in and out of the frame with punchy lines and diverse, histrionic moods. Some exchanges of time and place are more nauseating, a slower movement, the feeling of the gin haze by which Raymond Carver was so affected. Time and scene are signified by the rising light of the theater marquee, a turn down a dark hall which fades the screen to black.
The snazzy ridicule of hiss of symbol and punchy drumline accompany the single shot theatrics. This is a soundtrack which weaves hilarity around the personal moments: Mike in a Spandex bikini wrestling Riggan, Riggan locked out of the theatre just before his entrance, running half naked in tighty whities through a uproariously entertained Times Square. For all of his seriously tragic commentary on human pride, director Iñárritu balances the gravity of Riggan’s receding sanity with profoundly mortal comedy.
Taped to Riggan’s dressing room mirror, a slip of paper printed in Baron Neue:
“A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing.” (Carver).
This certainly is a film full of unspoken things, momentous, vital things which speak to the audience about the value of self-honesty, the weight of popularity in art, and the circumstances which guarantee freedom from self-criticism and doubt.
Coincidentally (uh-huh), it is the closing line of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love which provides the most gorgeous truth on the movie’s most throbbing questions about human condition:
“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.”