BIRDMAN — “When did you take a risk?”

BIRDMAN (Or, the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Linda and I went to a matinee of Birdman yesterday, not being any more familiar with the work of the director than of its most famous actor, Michael Keaton. I’ve never seen any of the Batman movies, and it’s more than likely that I’ll never get around to viewing them. As a professor at UCSD liked to say, though, “You don’t need to read some things. The culture has read them for you.”

The aspect I enjoyed the most was a chance to look at a Broadway stage from the vantage of the stage itself. The theatricality of the movie kept me interested, even when the over-the-top meltdown of the protagonist seemed to pull the script in unbelievable directions. At times, it seemed as if the film forgot that Broadway is not art: it is a business — show business. It’s about enlarging dramatically and comically intimate moments into gestures capable of being perceived from fifty to eighty yards away in such a way that people buy tickets to see it happen. To make a film about the production of a play in which this aspect is relegated to subjective disintegration left me looking for allegorical levels of meaning; allegory, unfortunately, is on back order these orders, and it’s a long wait. Style, though, can compensate for a lot of shortcoming, and this film has style to spare. As short on time as I am, I somehow have to find a way to see this director’s other movies. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is someone I hope gets a chance to still be making films forty years from now.

As brilliant as the cinematography is, Birdman’s script could have used one more draft. The drama of Birdman focuses on an actor who is trying to salvage his ego. Since show business is the worst place to undertake that kind of self-reclamation, the story has problematic incidents. In the opening scenes of the movie, for instance, rehearsals for a play based on Raymond Carver’s writing are not going well. One of the actors is not pulling his weight. He gets eliminated from the cast by an “accident,” in which a leko drops on him. Keaton’s character confesses to his lawyer that it wasn’t an accident. While this event certainly portends the protagonist’s breakdown, it doesn’t match reality of show business enough. I simply don’t believe that an actor that bad would have been cast in the first place. I have to retract that statement. Bad casting happens more frequently than the principals in many shows would care to recall. On the other hand, was such an extravagant discharge necessary to generate the aggravated self-destructive trajectory of a “has-been” actor attempting a come-back? Well, perhaps so. In an odd way, this film reminded me of “Sunset Boulevard”; a marinated pathos exudes from the story-line, which we watch with fascinated repulsion.

“Birdman” at times seems like a variation on an aging rock star trashing the dressing room in all too familiar tantrum. (There was — for me, at least — a distant echo of Sam Shepard’s “The Tooth of Crime.”) Comic relief is provided just in time, at the spot when according to the man at Art Theater’s candy stand, some people decide to take a cigarette break themselves. The scene in which Keaton’s character is trapped outside of the theater in his bathrobe, and he must squirm out of it in order to run around the theater and enter through the front door, is a classic moment: all the overwhelming anxiety any of us might have experienced at being caught naked in a crowd is encapsulated in a “bad dream” that is poignantly hilarious. The magnification of this scene in social media provided just the right note of absurdity to make it all the more delicious.

All the actors in Birdman will be able to look back on this project with genuine pride. The actor challenges the theater critic: “When did you ever take a risk?” For the most part, this cast brought a degree of legitimate risk to their commitment. With luck, they’ll get a chance to work together again.

Most entrepreneurs of plasticity in all its forms realize that the most delightful moments of a work’s development involve palimpsestual layering. The choice to include the most famous monologue from Shakespeare’s “MacBeth” falls short of being the underpinning that was hoped for, however. A more complementary selection from Shakespeare would be a short speech by Caliban from “The Tempest,” one in which he is addressing Ariel. (A cover of “Field” poetry magazine with Duncan Bell as Ariel in a 1988 production of “The Tempest” is on top of the table I am typing this on: the source of this chance suggestion.) Or, at the very least, the actor’s daughter could have been named Miranda.

Finally (and it’s not fair that this aspect is relegated to the final paragraph), the score to the film deserves consideration. It should be noted that the drummer provides a sane counterpoint of percussive determination to the “sound and fury,” and his inclusion in the play was worthy of the early work of Tennessee Williams.

This film is a must-see, and don’t wait for it to be available on DVD. It’s a mandatory big screen viewing.

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