Birdman (2014): A meditation on the meaning of art, success and failure,life and death, and human existence

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a 2014 Oscar-winning drama film co-written and directed by Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu whose previous assignments include Babel, 21 Grams, and Biutiful. The movie stars Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, and Zach Galifianakis in major roles. Birdman is a departure from the contemporary style of filmmaking. Iñárritu uses a technique that gives an illusion as if the entire film were shot in a single extended take. Birdman’s strong albeit bizarre dialogue and impeccable slapstick timing on one hand hark back to the works of the American screenwriter and playwright David Mamet, particularly Glengarry Glen Ross, while on the other, it strongly reminds of the films like Barton Fink and The Player in that it deglamorizes Hollywood while exposing its hypocrisies in a rather tongue-in-cheek manner.

Birdman tells the story of Riggan Thomson—a washed up Hollywood actor, essayed by Michael Keaton, once famous for playing an iconic superhero called “Birdman”—as he battles both his inner demons and outer foes in a desperate attempt to reinvent himself as a Broadway director by staging a new adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story called “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. But, there is more to Riggan than meets the eye. Is he a tormented artist so committed to his art that he goes to the point of living his act? Or, is he a paranoid schizophrenic with suicidal tendencies?It is this dichotomy associated with Riggan that gives Birdman its true meaning and impetus.At the 87th Academy Awards, Birdman won in four of the nine categories it was nominated including the Best Picture and Best Direction,edging past critics’ favorite Boyhood—Patricia Arquette bagged the solitary Oscar for theBest Supporting Actress.

Birdman offers a nice blend of realism, surrealism and magic realism—à la Gabriel García Márquez. The movie has a strong undercurrent of dark humor but that doesn’t stop Iñárritu from posing several serious questions about the meaning of art, success and failure,life and death,and human article-0-1A13F3F0000005DC-882_634x1035existence.Birdman doesn’t feed any definitive answers but rather allows the viewers to engage at their own intellectual planes.Birdman exalts artists, celebrating their commitment and dedication to art, while  critics, deeming them incompetent to judge artistic works.While Birdman is best seen as a parody on the comic book superhero films that Hollywood churns out year in and year out, there’s no denying that Birdman is a significant superhero film in itself. Perhaps to exaggerate the effect (  hasn’t acknowledged it publicly whether it’s deliberate or not), almost all the major actors cast in the movie have, at one point or the other, been associated with a superhero flick: be it Michael Keaton (Batman), Edward Norton (Incredible Hulk), or Emma Stone (Amazing Spider-Man). Given the Academy’s lack of regard for the superhero genre,Birdman’s Best Picture winner this year’s Oscars is truly historic.

Overall, Birdman is a formidable work of cinematic art that’s highly entertaining as well as deeply though-provoking. The innovative techniques employed during its filming make it an essential viewing for every student of cinema.Birdman is brilliant on the technical front: be it Iñárritu’s innovative direction or Emmanuel Lubezki’s Oscar-winning cinematography.While the entire cast puts up a brilliant show, Michael Keaton and Edward Norton deserve special mention for their sublime performances. For Norton, Birdman marks a return to form. As to Keaton, he delivers a performance so emphatic and complete that it can be easily described as the performance of the decade. One wonders what kept him from unleashing himself on the celluloid all these years. It’s a pity that Keaton missed out on a well-deserved Oscar win. Alas, the Academy seldom fails to disappoint. An important facet of Birdman that this critic would like to throw light is its ending. Iñárritu makes a creative choice by choosing an ending that’s open to interpretation—one that a thinking viewer would truly appreciate.A must watch!

Murtaza Aliis an independent film critic based out of New Delhi, India. He has been writing movie reviews at IMDb.COM for over six years. His education spans science, technology and management. He considers cinema to be not only his passion but also his greatest obsession. He is the Author of the movie blog A Potpourri of Vestiges

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4 thoughts on “Birdman (2014): A meditation on the meaning of art, success and failure,life and death, and human existence

  1. How the heck did the director shoot the opening scene where the camera pans from side to back to side ways of the actor sitting in front of the mirror? And there is no image of camera in the mirror?

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