In Which Birdman Makes An Ingenious Move

Birdman, Black Swan and Gender Performance Anxiety

by SARI EDELSTEIN

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu
119 minutes

Alejandro Iñárritu’s new film Birdman opens with a sustained view of the back of Michael Keaton’s body, clothed only in white jockey shorts, asking us to scrutinize the physical tolls of aging – the sagging, the balding, the spots.  Yet we can’t help but notice that he is levitating feet above the ground, the first indication that he retains the afterglow of great powers. Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a middle-aged Hollywood movie star, who writes, acts, and directs in an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s work on the Broadway stage.

The film derives an extra punch from Keaton’s star-text: his status as the Batman of the 1980s and his subsequent disappearance from the Hollywood scene. In Birdman, Riggan is literally haunted by the character, Birdman, that made him famous; this superhero-cum-alter ego dwells in his dressing room and unconscious, reminding him of his glory days and scoffing at his turn to the theater. Riggan yearns to make good art in a world that only seems to reward cheap exhibitionism.

With his enormous feathery black wings, Birdman offers an unexpected visual echo of Natalie Portman’s nightmarish black swan in the 2010 film of that name.

Like her avian vision, Riggan’s Birdman is ominous and omnipresent, pecking at him with insults and reminders of how he has fallen from big box office stardom. Both films reveal the porous boundary between self and role that characterizes immersive performance. And like Black Swan, Birdman examines the emotional and physical costs of performance, especially the relentless self-scrutiny it inspires.

Whereas the self-destructive consequences of the female beauty standard are coming to be widely acknowledged, Birdman’s study of aging male celebrity reveals that no one is immune from the ravages of our culture of images. The film constantly dwells on male anatomy, making an equation between cultural relevance and masculine potency.

Edward Norton stars in Riggan’s play and serves as a reminder of Riggan’s own aging body. He proudly displays an erection on stage, a feat that he can apparently only accomplish in that venue. The alter-ego Birdman equates Riggan’s move away from the big screen with irrelevance and failure. Urging him to return to his superhero franchise, he tells Riggan, “Sixty is the new thirty.” We might read this as Hollywood’s injunction to the stars it creates: sixty must be the new thirty; there is no room for older people. Renee Zellweger’s surgically altered face is a case in point, but Birdman reminds us that this is true for male bodies as well.

Birdman juxtaposes multiple media forms, including high and low literature, the theater, and the superhero franchise, in order to reflect on the fate of American entertainment. But even as Birdman laments the decline of serious art, it is an experimental, new kind of film that doesn’t resort to older techniques. Indeed, the entire film appears as one long continuous shot without a cut.

This ingenious formal move emphasizes the extent to which the characters are always on stage, always performing, and the distinction between representation and reality erodes. Birdman transforms the well-trodden narrative of the old, white man in decline into a truly original statement on the state of celebrity and age in contemporary culture.

Sari Edelstein is the senior contributor to This Recording. She teaches American literature at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. She doesn’t tumbl or tweet.

“Surrender” – Bush (mp3)

“The Only Way Out” – Bush (mp3)

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