Putting the Art in “Art Film”

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What We Talk about When We Talk about Love (1981) is one of Raymond Carver’s most significant short stories. Four characters — two couples — sit around a kitchen table talking about — well, talking about love, in all its manifestations, but never actually communicating what they mean in a way that the others can understand.

Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Innocence) stars Michael Keaton as Riggan Thomson, an aging actor best known for his cinematic superhero alter ego, Birdman. The film could just as easily be titled How We Act When We Act as Though We Aren’t Acting. It’s a forgivably self-indulgent self-study of the art of acting, portrayed by some of the least celebritized actors in the business.

Like many celebrity movie stars today, Thomson is trying to shake off his stardom by treading the boards of Broadway. He has been pigeonholed by his fans as the Birdman and is trying to escape the character that seems to have taken up residency inside his brain. The Birdman talks to him in a voice that is strangely reminiscent of Batman, and seems to give Thomson kinetic powers. Thomson’s daughter in the film (Emma Stone) is often on the ledge of the rooftop, and Thomson is often on the edge of sanity. He sees and hears things that aren’t there, does things he doesn’t do — or does he? We really don’t know.

It is unnerving and suspenseful and anything but dead air. At other times your jaw will simply drop, wondering how they did it.

Keaton portrayed Batman in two Tim Burton films almost a quarter of a century ago, so it’s easy to make a connection between him and the character he plays in this film. Keaton is a fine but reclusive actor, choosing his projects carefully, and mostly choosing not to work. Yet he has said in interviews that Riggan Thomson is the least like him of any character he has played — and he has played a lot of unusual characters, including Batman, Beetlejuice, and the Multiplicity clones.

The film is set in the St. James Theater on 44th Street, where Thomson is writing, directing, and starring in a “serious” Broadway play based on the Carver story. Art imitates life imitates art as characters break character within the play and actors occasionally break character within the film, making the audience intently aware of the difficulty of both filmmaking and playmaking.

Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu wanted to film this movie in the way a play is made — live, uninterrupted, all in one take, mistakes and all. After discussing the project with stage and film director Mike Nichols, he realized he would need to settle for several long takes of 15 minutes or more rather than one two-hour take, and it was a good compromise. The camera work is stylized and unsettling without calling undue attention to itself. Instead, it recalls the unsettled and stylized state of Riggan Thomson’s fragile mind. For example, the camera climbs the walls to get from a sidewalk shot to a rooftop shot, preparing the viewer to accept Thomson’s ability to reinhabit the Birdman’s power of flight — for real. Or as real as acting can be. At one point the camera just sits in a hallway, waiting for Keaton’s character to come into view. Perhaps Inarritu intended it this way. Perhaps Keaton was late for his entrance. Either way, Inarritu left it as is, instead of editing it out. It is unnerving and suspenseful and anything but dead air. At other times your jaw will simply drop, wondering how they did it.

In the Carver story, light plays a significant but subtle role; the room is light while the four friends are talking, but light gradually leaves the room as it becomes apparent that they will not be able to articulate sufficiently what love is. They can talk about love; they can feel it individually when it happens; they can share stories that seem to express it, but they can’t explain or define it for someone else. They talk about stories and examples that seem to prove what love is, but they discover that language is insufficient to express what they mean. In the film, music seems to take the place of light. The film’s soundtrack alternates between lush symphonies by Mahler, Ravel, Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninoff and a cacophonous interpretive jazz drum piece created brilliantly by Antonio Sanchez. The music is one of the best components of the film, conveying the changing moods of the character as he soars and frets, yet insufficient for expressing what Thomson is really experiencing.

Birdman is not a mainstream film. It’s not even a standard indie film. If you’re looking for an absorbing plot or wacky entertainment, this isn’t it. But it’s a fascinating piece of art and well worth watching.

How do you act when you act as though you aren’t acting?


Editor's Note: Review of "Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Innocence)," directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. Twentieth Century Fox, 2014, 159 minutes.



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