The thing that sets Alejandro González Iñárritu apart as a filmmaker is his humanity. He shows human beings at their extremes, showing people at their most animalistic and also at their most humane, doing so with empathy and free of judgement. He has an incredible ability to not just examine human behavior but to see into the human soul. Iñárritu is the foremost humanist director of his generation.
From Amores Perros through Birdman a single technical aspect of Iñárritu’s work has stood out to me the most: he knows exactly where to put the camera to affect the best emotional moment. This is the technical extension of the humanity mentioned above. He and his fellow Mexican masters, cinematographers Rodrigo Prieto and Emmanuel Lubezki have been deft at this. Their camera roams and probes, often intrusively, showing us images and aspects of characters that are so raw and true that their often painful to view and experience. In his first triptych of films shot by Prieto and written by Guillermo Arriaga, Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel, this probing camera seems to be in three places at once on a singular mission, this technique taken to global extremes in Babel. In Biutiful, it seems to follow one person through his final journey. In Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), the camera seems to be tethered to a single location, showing us the details and workings of a man and those surrounding him. Birdman shares a quality with Biutiful in that it follows a man and examines him and those around him and how they directly affect each other.
It’s far too simple to say that Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is suffering from a midlife crisis or that he’s merely a washed-up movie star looking for a lifeline through the theater. By all indications he’s a successful film actor-he’s looking for an outlet to express himself and explore truths through the theatrical medium that he doesn’t feel he can in his more familiar settings. Riggan is in search of an elusive and often indefinable essential truth that remains elusive to him and every other artist.
Lubezki’s camera moves throughout the theater like an intent observer, intruding into one hilariously unflattering moment after the next. Part of the grace of this film is that it allows itself to be funny. While sharing some traits with his previous four films, Birdman stands in contrast to Iñárritu’s previous efforts because of its humor, which is by no means light-hearted, but when stood next to Iñárritu’s first four films, four of the bleakest films you’ll ever see, it serves as quite a departure for him. Birdman works as a comedy while staying true to Iñárritu’s vision and style.
The frenetic and fractured nature of his characters fit perfectly in the Manhattan setting, becoming a part of the constant, non-stop activity of that place. The way Iñárritu uses cities is fascinating: he takes neither a panoramic nor telescopic view of the massive cities some of his stories are set in, but rather takes the approach of a binocular view from the ground level, depicting and exploring specific individuals in specific enclaves-like when we see the Sagrada Familia in the distance in Biutiful–it’s in the shot but it’s far away, inaccessible. It’s not an establishing shot showing us we’re in Barcelona, its an acknowledgment that it’s there and part of the fabric of the city, but it’s not our focus here, not the Barcelona of that specific film. Similar is the brief but vital use of Times Square in Birdman: Riggan’s walk through Times Square is almost coincidental–he must traverse this over-peopled hive of unwanted attention to get back to that small space of New York that he’s chosen as his medium for expression and search for truth and authenticity. He enunciates his desire for authenticity several times but its appropriately unclear what that entails or even means. Its also unclear what the opposite of that authenticity is and why it’s alluded him.
The cast here is excellent; Michael Keaton and Edward Norton do some of their best work in years. The scenes with these two actors going toe-to-toe were among the best in the film. In addition to the performances being top-notch, the casting choices were inspired. The choice of Keaton is obvious given his background with his work with Tim Burton in the enormously successful Batman films of the late 80s and early 90s, but a handful of the other stars have experienced the big budget, tentpole type success that the Riggan Thomson character seems to be running away from (Emma Stone in The Amazing Spiderman films, Zack Gallifianakis in the Hangover Trilogy, Edward Norton seeming to drop off the face of the earth after rising to leading man prominence, even starring as the Hulk in the Marvel tentpole). Naomi Watts is reunited with Iñárritu, after turning in what I consider the finest performance under his direction in 21 Grams all those years ago. Actors like Keaton, Watts, and Stone are well suited to the camera techniques I mentioned before because they all communicate so much with their faces. Keaton’s face and aging body tell so much of the story of Birdman. Iñárritu’s excellent use of his trademark close-ups is a deft way to explore the theatrical medium, a medium that’s both intensely personal yet distant for an audience member–one is in the same space as the performer, yet at a critical distance, allowing you to take in and process the proscenium as a whole. This film takes you inside that process from the point of view, not of a performer or audience member, but as an observer given special access given to no one else.
As a viewer, writer, and as a filmmaker, I’ll make no secret of the fact that I’m an acolyte of Iñárritu. In fact, the icon image at the header for this blog comes from Amores Perros. I love and revere the film as a whole and Gael García Bernal’s performance in it. The reason I chose this particular still from the film, however, is that when you take it out of context it becomes difficult to tell whether García is laughing or screaming (he’s laughing). The possibility and dichotomy of those two extremes encapsulates something essential about human nature–and therefore the nature and purpose of cinema in general and Iñárritu’s films in particular. His is a raw, honest, wrenching, but ultimately affectionate vision that stands unique and unrivaled in world cinema, his characters and dramatic situations laying tenuously on that razor-thin line between screaming and laughing. Only a few cuts after the moment the still was captured from, where García Bernal’s character looks to be escaping retribution for a violent transgression and so laughing in taunting defiance, his life is changed forever in a horrific car accident after running a red light in the car chase. In the aftermath of the collision, his laughing has indeed transformed into screaming. Iñárritu’s films live on this tightrope between the most extreme of opposite emotions. Birdman is not Iñárritu’s best film but it’s a continuation of his brilliance, a new way to flex his considerable cinematic muscle.