Sean K. Cureton

Synecdoche, Lite

In Movie Reviews: 2014 on November 15, 2014 at 10:12 am
Theatrical Poster

Theatrical Poster

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
4 out of 4 stars
Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

Michael Keaton’s most recent cinematic turn as Riggan Thomas in Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman is the bravest performance of the year from a leading actor, laying bare all of Keaton’s insecurities, vanities, and virtues through a fictional character who possesses more than a passing resemblance to Keaton himself. Riggan is a washed up, out of work Hollywood actor, attempting to breath new life into a public image that has been distorted and manipulated by the cult of celebrity, bringing with it all of the personal vices of arrogance, avarice, and self-absorption that such distortions of self-worth and identity inevitably represent and instill. Likewise, Keaton is a figure of the popular culture who appears as more of a caricature than a three-dimensional actor in the collective mind of the general public, associated with some of the most iconic movie characters from the 1990’s, including Batman and Beetlejuice, thereby mirroring Riggan’s association in Inarritu’s film with the fictional big budget superhero, and at times near literal alter-ego, Birdman. Inarritu’s film thus becomes an examination of the blockbuster movie star, simultaneously celebrating and deriding the actor whose relevancy is at times more dependent upon the associations conjured up by the characters he portrays as opposed to the power of each individual performance, Birdman bigger than Riggan, in much the same way that Beetlejuice looms larger than Keaton, in both name and persona. Michael Keaton’s cultural status as one of the big budget stars of the 1990’s thus becomes a meta-fictional aspect of the very fabric of Innaritu’s film, inevitably informing the audience as to how to read Riggan’s deeply conflicted interiority and ego-driven flights of astrally projected fantasy, visually represented in the film through Inarritu’s use of one continuous, and spectacularly edited, long shot, seamlessly encompassing the entire film, and further mirroring Riggan’s subjective vision and reality in a way that is intensely characteristic of the film, the character, and the surreal nature of Inarritu’s beautiful meditation on the unexpected virtue of ignorance.

The frame narrative of Inarritu’s film centers around a stage production of the classic American short story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by minimalist writer Raymond Carver, adapted and produced by Keaton’s Riggan Thomas in the lead role, providing for an accessible point of entry into the film’s visually driven first person narrative, as Riggan’s highly subjective point of view very quickly begins to drive the entire course, and at times alter the reality of, the film’s plot and cinematic scope. As the camera pans across and through the small, claustrophobic hallways and back stages of New York’s Broadway theatre district, the playhouse a veritable Pandora’s box of Riggan’s artistic dreams, hopes, and delusions, the viewer is swept up in the storm of his creative fruition, bordering on the insanity and emotional fragility that makes up the core of Inarritu’s film. When we first see Riggan, he is literally floating in mid-air in his dressing room, a ludicrous first shot that boldly establishes the subjective unreality of the film, and immediately establishes a clear directorial vision, one that will be impossible to outwit or predict, making for a deeply compelling and intimately truthful performance based piece of storytelling. According to the demands of the one shot take that establishes the subjectivity of the narrative, every other actor’s performance becomes a part of one long stream of Riggan’s conscious and subconscious, each line delivered with the grace and elocution of live theatre, the players all a part of one organism in motion, their individually delivered performances in active participation with the creation of Keaton’s persona, the entire film brimming with a communal vitality. In establishing a film centered on, around, and within one character, Inarritu has created his own subjective world in Birdman, one that mirrors the celebrity driven popular culture of our own, each one of us supporting actors and walk-on’s in the theatre of celebrity and fame, all of us culpable in the ignorance of Riggan Thomas.

In this way, Inarritu’s film is about solipsism, with its closest precursor in terms of thematic scope and directorial vision being Charlie Kaufman’s 2008 directorial debut Synecdoche, New York, wherein the subjective reality of the New York actor and playwright is examined with the fierceness of an unforgiving and distinctively authorial force, at times remarkable in its overstated ambition and pretentious precocity. And yet, Birdman is never overly heady, as Kaufman’s film is, never treading too far into the subjective lens so as to become impenetrable, self-avowedly brilliant but visually opaque. Where Kaufman seems to be too overly in love with his own brilliance, his protagonist suitably left in a literal apocalypse of his own creation by film’s end, Inarritu’s Riggan is relatively warm, capable of emoting and connecting with those around him, even if they are all forced to co-inhabit his own subjective dreams and nightmares. Where Kaufman’s New York Theatre is filled with shadows of narrative misdirection and evasion, coupled with the indecipherable, Joycean mutterings of the literary intelligentsia, Inarritu’s is inhabited with the light of the artist still struggling to connect with his audience, embittered towards the academic establishments of theatre and film criticism, and eager to engage with Carver’s comparatively accessible text. Birdman is a worthy successor to Kaufman’s film, more immediate and emotionally compelling than Synecdoche’s grand opera, delivering the equivalent of a three and a half minute pop song to Kaufman’s twenty-two minute progressive rock noodling, Synecdoche, Lite in essence.

Despite the near insurmountable ambition and hubris of the film’s concept and subject matter, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman lives up to the self-conscious precocity of its subtitle, examining the socio-cultural status of the Hollywood celebrity through the eyes of a falling star. Michael Keaton makes a stunning comeback performance as Riggan Thomas that ranks as one of the best performances of the year, in addition to an already enviable body of work from the past. The level of meta-fictional, self-reference that Keaton is able to pull upon to lend some empathetic tragedy and intimacy to the iconographic nature of a former Hollywood superhero is effectively comical and heartbreaking, Riggan’s professional and personal association with the Birdman character as inseparable from his sense of self-identity as Batman is to Keaton in the public eye, lending the film much of its satirical bite and cultural relevance. And yet, for all of its carefully composed strategic plotting that might feel a little too smart for its own good in anyone else’s hands, Inarritu never falls prey to cinematic convenience or contrivance, his story of artistic redemption moving and dramatically satisfying, hopeful despite the melancholy of its character’s solipsistic ambition. When Riggan finally soars free at the end of the film, both in terms of creative fulfillment and surrealistically projected fantasy, the final note is hopeful, even though the viewer knows that the character still resides within his own head, ignorance his and our creative bliss, made necessary once more by the film’s titular and unexpected virtue.

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