Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2014
Nearly every review I’ve read has mentioned the fact that Birdman has been shot and edited in a way so as to seem as if it had been filmed in one single, continuous take; that it manages to recreate the claustrophobia of being backstage in the narrow, grubby corridors of a Broadway theater; that Michael Keaton, who played Batman in three successful action adventure films, is playing Riggan, who made his reputation playing the titular superhero; and that the movie contains a number of references to canonical, cerebral authors (Barthes, Borges, Sontag) and classic films.
These references have given cineastes and academically-minded critics an apparently irresistible opportunity to show off. Richard Brody’s review in The New Yorker not only mentions Godard and Hitchcock but also “Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Chantal Akerman, Abbas Kiarostami, Tsai Ming-liang, Hong Sang-soo, Lisandro Alonso, Pedro Costa.” An essay in Forbes magazine criticized Iñárritu for basing Riggan’s play on the original published version of the Carver story, which was alleged to have been substantially changed by his editor Gordon Lish, instead of on the draft that was later published and that was, according to Carver’s widow, closer to what Carver intended. I read the Forbes writer’s detailed comparison of the two versions and remained unable to fathom how any of this might possibly affect our understanding of the film: indeed, why any of it should matter.
What does matter is Birdman’s extraordinary originality, its intensity, its depth, its mixture of nightmare and fun. Like Riggan staggering through Times Square, Birdman charges forward, headlong and without stopping, alternately scourging and exalting its audience with the genuine pain and the holy-fool ridiculousness of a “washed-up” former superhero intent on becoming a martyr to art.