With nine Academy Award nominations, tying with Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel for the biggest number of nominations this year, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman sets expectations high. Transcending planes of fiction, Birdman is, at outset, a film about a stage adaptation of a Raymond Carver novel, during which the director, writer and lead actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) suffers severe, reality-altering delusions. The film then asks philosophical questions on the nature of fiction as we understand it, moving between imagination and reality, diegetic and non-diegetic. This, in different hands, could have been very dry source material, but Birdman defies expectation: it is hilarious, full of tension, and alive with energy, a living organism with an ego of its own.
Especially worthy of praise is cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera work. With no visible cuts until the end of the film, the transitions are seamless, making it appear like one long take. . The camera moves, not stopping, not blinking, following the characters with close-ups and long shots, stalking them as a constant presence. This also serves to further highlight the metafictional nature of the film, the camera’s observing eye mirroring that of the film’s audience. Lubezki’s dedication to film and technique is likely to bag him a well-deserved second Oscar, following his win last year for his work on Gravity.
Antonio Sánchez, a first time composer for film, has sadly lost out of the Academy Award for Best Original Score, having unfortunately been disqualified from the competition due to its apparently unequal balance between original and pre-existing music. The Mexican jazz drummer’s score consists purely of drum beats, pacing the film’s emotional tension; its energy serves as a living heartbeat to the action on screen. For some of the scenes acted within the play, the characters’ monologues (specifically Keaton’s) are accompanied by an orchestra. This also works in the film’s favour, as we presume that the music in these scenes is diegetic without even seeing an instrument. But it could easily be another ambiguous link between what’s real and what Thomson imagines, or maybe even non-diegetic, heard only by the privileged ears of the viewer. Expectations are always defied. Again, Iñárritu uses every opportunity available to blur the distinctions between what is real and what is imagined.
Keaton is perfectly cast in the role of the aging actor who seeks artistic acclaim, fearing he will be remembered only for playing a superhero in a blockbuster franchise; the self-satire seems almost biographical. The internal narration by Thomson’s Birdman, voiced in a throaty manner reminiscent of Christian Bale’s Batman, as well as the shared release date of the last Birdman film and Batman Returns, are just two of the similarities between Birdman and Batman that render the film so plausibly real. One could easily believe that we are watching Keaton, not Thomson, following him backstage as he tries so desperately to reinvigorate his career’? The Icarus parable of Riggan Thompson thus questions what in our society we value more: indie flick or blockbuster, silver screen or theatre, art or commerce, actor or celebrity, prestige or fame?