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Keaton et al go a little batty in ‘Birdman’

November 26, 2014
By Tony Rutherford ( , Graffiti

Instead of looking up in the sky for a drone or daredevil, the non-existent trilogy of Birdman (now 20 years past on screen) re-awakens memories of once young fans. Riggan "Birdman" Thomas, played by Michael Keaton, mounts a splashy Broadway philosophical love opus "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" in a last ditch attempt to propel himself as a serious actor and lose the wings forever.

Riggan's transition costs him emotionally and financially. He's short on budget and waning in confidence that he can actually put the bird suit behind him and out of his head. Much as the six-foot invisible pooka named Harvey conversed with Jimmy Stewart, Birdman's always speaking in Riggan's ears, remembering the old days and (ironically) questioning why they didn't do a fourth sequel. (Note: Keaton starred in "Batman" (1989) and "Batman Returns" (1992), then took off the cowl, then slipped into obscurity.)

Throughout the film, its director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu ("21 Grams"; "Babel") and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki imply that it's a one-take continuous event, although the "previews" and "opening night" at the St. James suggest 72 hours. Still, the camera follows the cast on stage, backstage, in dressing rooms, and waxing into alone time. While viewers may expect a satire of the superhero genre, the edgy Birdman expands to a wide-angle lens, putting stage persona and real-life speculation beyond Riggan's inner redemption demons. The viewer debates whether the actor sits on the verge of madness, a lethal bout of insecurity or could his film alter ego actually exist? One brilliantly placed sequence has the worried Riggan assume the hero's powers (revisiting past memories?), yet others hint subtle placements.

Stuffing the film fantasy satire approach, Inarritu weaves philosophical gems, such as the eternal battle between Hollywood's rich popular celebrity style and the thespian's desire to contribute everlasting art to their craft evidenced by Broadway's rep for serious acting. Self-absorbed personas juggle selfish narcissistic career mainstays soothed by overly indulgent substance abuse and serious confessional conversations with family and friends, often teetering on the shallow "love" of fans and long empty hearts gasping for a beloved acceptance of themselves, not the character(s) portrayed, whether on stage or screen.

Birdman opens with Keaton asking, "How did we end up in this horrible place that smells like buttholes?" (perhaps, referring to the thousand seats in the Broadway theater), then begins the first of many theatrical scenes referring to the quest for "the kind of love that is absolute." The script later opines, "you confuse love with admiration."

Incredibly, each of the ensemble cast members searches for altered states of unconditional acceptance from a special person in edge-of-the-roof bizarre manners. Emma Stone plays Keaton's still struggling ex-addict daughter testing the healing state, which often sends her sitting on the edge of the St. James' roof deep in thought, spirited conversation and, perhaps, contemplating a leap to the sidewalk (though a cinematic glimpses shows her perch has a veranda).

Stone's character Sam is one of those who can't seem to put down the cell phone to interact with real, not cyber impersonations, of people. Thrusting a technological generation gap, Stone chides her father's approach to publicity for not having a blog, Facebook page, a Twitter account, or other social media.

Stone, however, sitting on the roof peak, symbolizes her fear of rejoining real life. She spars with Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), Broadway's golden boy in truth or dare games. Speculation has it that Shiner wants to seduce Sam (true and false) but he also wants to nurture her beyond the Tweets from her cell phone screen.

He's achieved the fame on Broadway that Riggan had in Hollywood with Birdman. Shiner, the reigning king of serious art, hopes to preserve the play from a nasty review that "Birdman falls from the sky..." Yet Shiner's off stage life can best be illustrated by his love for himself and only getting a "high" when he speaks on stage.

So, the glaring crux of the film is that none of the characters can come to terms with society's elusive wants. For Keaton, a bulging bank account of success (now spent) draws him to orchestrating a work of art. He forgets, the nature of the creative beast likely buries the best artful creatives deep in poverty, while bucks backed mainstream popularity overshadows the best art - the art is overlooked, then found, perhaps, a generation or lifetime later. Initially seen as metaphors from imaginations which manufacture through their craft(s) a piece or performance that stand against thousands of works not for purchase, not for an audience, not for a critic's blurb, but secretly for the unquantifiable magical blending and rediscovery that decade after decade bursts accolades from new viewers, listeners, or readers.

For his other cast members, they have put on a happy face suggesting coming to terms with the absolute love question. They love themselves. They love the stage. They love their high. They love their "power" to make or break a show. They love their social network. They love journeying into the past. Despite their pretensions, they all seek the healing of broken hearts by a new serious love partner or resolution of prior woes that led to break-ups.

"Birdman" suggests that the preoccupation with singlehood has millions without partners looking for substitutes to help them cope, since the idea of being everything to themselves without anyone else in their lives reflects a sham. Missing a true love, they obsess on themselves, their careers, an elusive dream, or a symbolic cyber community, which spin positives out of daily life negatives. It's a cruel, emotionally and physically jabbing world, but, pretending to get by offsets the humbleness of admitting that one is the loneliest number... whether an almost forgotten Birdman or a lonely theatergoer watching next to an empty seat.



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