It’s all I can do not to heave a wooden chair from the balcony of my 3rd floor apartment to see if, according to Edward Norton’s character in Birdman, it just isn’t high enough. “Birdman, or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance,” was annoyingly good. My one-sentence-twitter-age-viral review went a little something like this in my head: “Birdman is the highest peak in the mountain range of this generation of movies.”
The sheer breadth of themes and techniques covered in Birdman are made more astounding by how deftly the film structures all of them. The story can feel disjointed to a viewer expecting a more conventional plot; the film plays like a jazz suite at some moments, with deeper, more subtextual visual moments, abstract and surreal elements like the Riggan’s flight around Manhattan or the flaming meteor-like object that burns down through the frame in several scenes. The flowing jazz drum beats fit rather nicely into that narrative. But it never seems too pretentious or inaccessible, and maybe that’s a function of Keaton’s intensely mortal portrayal of the former superhero, Riggan Thomson.
And I am now convinced more than ever that contradiction, creating ambiguity in a film, and thereafter leaving viewers with decisions to make is one of the most important devices available in making art in this world of mass exposure. One of the primary conceits of the film is people wanting to be important and relevant; Keaton and Norton’s characters with the play; Emma Stone’s Sam Thomson with her relationship to her father; the entire viral media institution looking for that one moment to get eyes or clicks or views or whatever it is they look for; and where, I might ask, is anyone as important as they are inside their own head? There is nary a place. And so, as everyone who watches the film tries to figure out whether or not Riggan has super powers, or whether or not he killed himself, or tries to solve any of the other ambiguities built into the story, the writers can sit back knowing that they made people pour back over the scenes and events in their film. And even though the filmmakers playfully minimize the ego and self-worth of the human race as being worth no more than a single piece of toilet paper, harnessing that ego, reckoning with its flaws, is omnipresent throughout every possible level experience that the film presents, going even beyond the frame. They commanded that ego-driven attention in the minds of their viewers; and that, as Stone says, is power.