Birdman (directed Inarritu) 2014

With Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianikis.

Since February ads have been popping up on my computer in the form of a masked man’s head next to the word: “Birdman.”

birdmanAfter a while, before I knew what it meant, I began  googling it and discovered it was a forthcoming movie directed by Inarritu and starring Michael Keaton and Edward Norton, both of whom appear  in their underpants in the Youtube trailers which made it seem like an avant garde or independent movie more than something I would be trolled for on the Internet.

Finally, the movie opened in a major rollout sort of like the  major rollout of the play that is the subject of the movie.  It opens after many previews  before the official  opening on Broadway.  Michael Keaton plays Riggan, the writer, director, and lead actor of the play based on Raymond Carver’s short story, “What We Talk about when we Talk about Love.”   Riggan is in the act of reviving his stalled career after earning Hollywood billions in a series of superhero action fantasies playing the Birdman of the title.  What better way to prove your seriousness as an actor than in an adaptation of the downbeat realistic stories of Carver.

The character of Riggan comes with a full blown mess of side problems– a supporting character actor in the play whose acting grates on his nerves resulting in his hiring a better actor who out-performs him; an ex-wife who crops up at odd moments; a daughter just out of rehab; a lack of money; and here’s the interesting ambiguous twist– an ability to fly and soar out of his dilemmas if he can just conjure music of the right tone and tempo.

Thank heavens for the magical realism. The Carver material as played on screen here is, as the drama critic waiting in the wings to destroy the actor’s career complains,  not well framed.  Carver’s stories have been well adapted to the screen before, most notably in Robert Altman’s heart breaking Short CutsBut Riggan’s adaptation relies solely on melodrama, and concentrates on the dark side without an ounce of the lightness that made Carver palatable.  I wonder what Carver’s estate thinks of it– it must have given permission.

The two methods of acting –melodramatic and dour versus fantastic and over the top are not really in conflict and I wonder if that is the point of Inarritu (who wrote the screen play along with several others). Or is it that stage craft and movie production have been coarsened by audiences’ need for pure sensation?

Most astute are the asides on fame and the celebrity culture.  The scenes of accidents — of reality– which are picked up by social media– support the audience’s demands for some kind of authenticity, and genuine discovery.  Compared to the lecturing and hectoring that crowd the stage, they are most welcome.

Acting is excellent from all hands.  Edward Norton and Noami Watts are especially good.  The music is used cleverly to signal how the characters feel, and cue Riggan’s flights. I wish there were fewer extreme close ups of Emma Stone whose bulging eyes and extremely pointy chin made her look like a dehumanized anime figure.  Much has been made of the tracking shots that follow the actors as they make their way through the bowels of the theater.  The cinematography gives the feeling of claustrophobia that comes with acting on stage compared to the exhilarating freedom hinted at with film, and wide open spaces.

The movie, like so many others lately, felt 15 minutes too long.  It began and ended with a quote by Carver which is inscribed on his tombstone:


And did you get what

you wanted from this life, even so?

I did.

And what did you want?

To call myself beloved, to feel myself

beloved on the earth.




About Patricia Markert

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