I don’t care who you are or how much of a legend you happen to be. Beyonce? Are you Beyonce? Fine. You are Beyonce. There will come a point when the world will treat you like a cold it’s trying to flush out of its system. That seems impossible right now: imagining a day when Beyonce will seem irrelevant, past her prime, eager to recapture the attention that once flowed over her and tragically incapable of making that happen.
Almost nobody gets off the hook. Elvis. Sinatra. Nobody wanted to be those guys by the end. Get out while you’re still iconic, like Bacall and Loren, and don’t try any comebacks. So merciless is this tide of human affairs that two different actors from “Friends” — Lisa Kudrow and Matt LeBlanc — are currently appearing in separate series about celebrities riding the heartbreaking downhill funicular of fame.
Watching Albert Maysles’ film about Sir Paul McCartney’s post-9/11 benefit concert, I realized that even Sir Paul is not immune. The film catches him repeatedly hawking — to other stars — a not-particularly-memorable song he’s written as a finale. For someone like me, for whom “Beatle” and “godhead” are nearly interchangeable terms, McCartney’s wheedling, self-protective tone are almost unbearable to watch — and oddly predictive of the tone and theme of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Birdman.”
OMG. That is painful. So much for unpremeditated art.
So “Birdman” is about that. And about the question of whether one is allowed to reinvent oneself. (Real answer: yes but only with a rich sense of irony. I give you William Shatner.) And about whether one can ever escape that life sentence of steady degradation. It’s also about trying to keep it real and — specifically — about what happens when you get very self-conscious about trying to keep it real. Does thinking about keeping it real effectively subvert the concept? It certainly does if you’re trying to make keeping-it-real a substitute for your lost paradise of completely unreal celebrity. A paradise against which you, like Lucifer, rebelled.
“Birdman” wears its wingedness on its sleeve. If your attention wanders, someone will be along to slap you into remembrance that its protagonist, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is indeed a fallen angel (Better to reign on Broadway than to serve in Hollywood?) and an Icarus figure.
One of my favorite moments — and let’s stipulate that even if you ultimately don’t buy the movie, you have lots of favorite moments — occurs during one Riggan’s innumerable, surreal strolls through the Theater District, where he is attempting to stage his own adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” In the near distance, as Riggan walks, we hear a man roaring the Act V Macbeth soliloquy. It’s a crazy, wonderful roaring, and it turns out to come from a very crazy-looking man whose arm is inexplicably hitched up on some scaffolding, like maybe it’s manacled there. And you’re thinking, “Well this guy, at least, is keeping keeping it real, by his lights.” And then he says something to undermine that. Even the maniacs are overthinking it. (The guy is Bill Camp, an actor who really did do Macbeth in New York and wound up marrying his Lady M. in real life. This movie is full of in-jokes. Naomi Watts randomly making out with a female co-star? How is that not a “Mulholland Drive” joke?)
“Birdman” is one of those movies that begs you to go all-in. And I decided : why not? I quieted the voice that asks whether this material really hangs together. I gratefully lapped up jokes that did not insult my intelligence, ranging from the absurd effortfulness of the Carver project itself to the invocation of Barthes (in a joke about baby pig semen injections!). I grooved on the illusion of the movie as one unbroken take and enjoyed — amid the magical realism — the powerful sense that this is as close to really being backstage on Broadway as most of us will ever get.
America’s Greatest Living Film Critic did not go all-in. He would not be seduced by a tour de force. I respect that. And he’s certainly right that there are no new ideas in this film. But the movie feels very new, very fresh, very unlike anything else I can think of. And Iñárritu anticipates AGLFC and all critics by asking a question about keymasters and gatekeepers. Riggan confronts a viperish theater critic asking who the hell he thinks he is, For the last eight years, I have been fascinated by this (essentially Old World) question and its New World answer: Who do I need to be? Just somebody who thinks he can do a better job, right?
Also…do baby pigs …even …have semen?
I’m not even sure what point I’m making now. And in that sense, I resemble “Birdman.” What sets us free, according to this film? Not being present in the moment, I’m pretty sure. Being absent in the moment? Surrender? Not caring? It can’t be that. We can’t have traversed all those semi-dark mossy hallways just for “not caring.” But maybe the ride is the thing. And come on, this is a great ride.