Birdman winged Best Picture, Best Direction, Best Cinematography and Best Original Screenplay at the 87th Oscars last week. Here’s why this scathing satire on the world of show business, revealed eloquently and eccentrically through the disintegrating mind of a washed-up superhero, deserved to win.
Even if you haven’t seen the film, the now infamous Times Square scene in which Riggan Thomson (Michael Keeton) runs semi-nude through an unsuspecting crowd in real time and the iconic long shots that make this creation so delightfully original and refreshing, are bound to have registered on the Richter scale of Hollywood hearsay.
Birdman’s brilliant cinematography is the handiwork of director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki. With epics such as Gravity and Tree of Life under his belt, he effortlessly glides the viewer through miraculously seamless transitions, his skilled use of a steadicam and sweeping freedom of the handheld creating the continuity that Birdman’s dysfunctional characters lack. Despite some long takes lasting up to 20 minutes, transitions are so artful that only the most eagle-eyed seamstress might spot the stitches.
The complex lighting throughout the film is particularly striking, with colour schemes diffusing backstage drama into blues and reds, compelling the viewer into the narcissistic realm of the actors and actresses whose haunting desperation lurks endlessly behind the scenes. Lens flares, subtle and dramatic, are used tactfully to denote particular themes; flecked beads of blue light accentuate the uncommon intimacy between father and daughter when Thomson awakes in hospital from his self-inflicted ordeal and contrasts sharply with the glaring flare during onstage scenes when Thomson and his rival for stardom, Shiner (Edward Norton) are embroiled in their incumbent battles of the ego. Multiple wide lens shots emphasise the distance between the sanctum of the theatre and the outer city that is caught in glimpses. In a particularly striking scene that precedes his demise into the mind’s eye of his anima, Thomson enters into a shop, guiding the camera through a tunnel of fairy tale fluorescence and heralding Lubezki’s strategically triumphant use of practical light sources. The bright city lights of New York are subdued, in fact much of the imagery lacks clarity, leaving the viewer to piece together parts of a frame, a fitting visual depiction of the psyche of the protagonist and indeed the other characters, who are struggling to battle their way through Broadway. Lubezki compared the craftsmanship of his cinematography to a ballet performance in which he and his lighting team would move together to eliminate unwanted shadows, a constant struggle when filming the labyrinthine passages of the backstage area.
Antonio Sanchez’s percussion-laden score merges elements of the animated and the macabre, accentuating the unpredictability and instability of the characters. The decision to work the improvised jazz rhythms into the script rather than adding them to the final product lent a synchronicity which meant no crashing cymbal was out of place. At one point, Shiner and Thomson pass a drummer in the street who appears to be playing the film score and a later reappearance of the same drummer backstage draws further reference to the symbiotic relationship of cast of the onstage play and the crew of the film itself. Attentively executed sound is central to two of the most poignant scenes: The highly audible hum of strip-lighting that rips through the awkward silence in the moments after Thomson is condemned by his daughter for longing to be relevant and the distinct ticking clock, which eats away into the silence during Thomson’s admissions to his wife about his past failings as a husband and father.
The symbolism is unfathomable. Although the meteor that tore its way through a hazy sky in the opening scene is without explanation, its reappearance in a montage of fanciful imagery, amongst rippling waters of washed-up jelly fish and preceding Thomson awakening after his apparent theatrical suicide, hints at the notion that the telekinetic powers he is imbued with may be the by-product of some global force. Such boldly bewildering imagery is not easily interpreted, nor should it be from a director who seeks to teach the unexpected virtue of ignorance.
All of the characters, perhaps with the exception of Thomson’s estranged wife, battle their demons behind the curtain. Like the costumes they step into, they are fleeting and transient, none of them seeming to matter externally from the pulsing organism of narcissism that is the cast of the play in which they star; a bold move in an age when avid viewers expect an overindulgence in the particulars of each characters personal history.
Perhaps the most venturous part of the plot is when Thomson is swaggering down the sidewalk with the onyx wings of the birdman unfurling behind him. Thomson’s predilection to the bottle appears to have awoken the beast and subsequent visions of grandeur, and with a click of his fingers he unleashes his powers. Explosions and SWAT teams fill the street, helicopters and missiles tear through the sky above a gigantic one-eyed rampaging metal bird and Thomson defies gravity, ascending to a rooftop eyrie- a surrealist parody of a Hollywood blockbuster.
And this is partly why Birdman strives to save us from our ‘boring miserable lives’. An incessant yearning for ‘s**t your pants action’ and the mainstream disdain for ‘talking depressing philosophical bull-s**t’ moulds the back-stage antics of an antihero into a feat of cinematic strength. Birdman is the epitome of the fully-fledged human condition, crystallised in self-doubt and cloaked in uncertainty; this is why its morbid humour has soared so high and why it deserves to go down as a truly original piece of cinematography.
With that in mind, ‘a man becomes a critic when he can’t be an artist’ so don’t trust the ramblings of a failed artist and go and make your own mind up.