Study Guide

Birdman

Birdman Introduction


Release Year: 2014

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance

Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu

Writer: Alejandro Iñárritu, Alex Dinelaris, Armando Bó, Nicolás Giacobone

Stars: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton


"There is a man in a room wearing only his underwear, levitating a few feet above the floor and…then what?"

We like to imagine that this is how Mexican director and screenwriter Alejandro Iñárritu started the brainstorming process for the movie that swept the 2014 Oscars and firmly established a) Iñárritu as a Big, Huge Directing Success and b) Michael Keaton as back in Hollywood action.

We're talking about Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)…but you can just call it Birdman (we're all pals here). Just don't mix this film up up with the esteemed lawyer, the less-esteemed rapper, or the dude whose favorite hobby is feeding birds at your local park.

And don't mix Birdman up with a superhero movie, a la Ant Man. No really; definitely don't do this. Because Birdman's about Riggan, a guy who used to star in a Marvel-style explosionfest as a caped crusader called—you got it—Birdman. And now Riggan wants to separate himself from his celebrity past. He's getting old. He's getting lonely. He's getting the feeling that he's about to be forgotten…and so he's trying to prove his worth as a director, playwright, and actor. (Because you might as well try to do all three at once, right?)

When we meet Riggan—who's played by Michael Keaton—he's working on an adaptation of Raymond Carver's story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" for Broadway. And it's not going so well.

Not only is the play pretty messy, but Riggan's got the habit of levitating in his dressing room, picking fights with everyone in sight, and having conversations with Birdman himself…who starts as a disembodied voice and ends up standing in front of Riggan in the flesh.

Maybe Riggan's having a mental breakdown. Maybe Riggan's actually juggling some serious superpowers. But we never find out—it's kind of like "Maybe she's born with it; maybe it's Maybelline," only about a washed-up actor who seems like he has telekinesis on lockdown.

Birdman snagged Oscars for Directing, Cinematography, Screenwriting, and Best Motion Picture, and we can't say we were shocked when that happened. This movie literally has everything—from missile attacks to monologues about art and relevance; from giant robot birds to tender father-daughter moments; from penis jokes to meditations on aging.

All that it's missing is a scene where Michael Keaton runs through Times Square in his tighty-whiteys…oh wait. It has that, too.

  

What is Birdman About and Why Should I Care?

We get it. Just because a bunch of stuffy Tabitha-esque movie critics decided Birdman was worth a bunch of Oscars doesn't mean it's worth your time. Your time is precious. There are whole subsections of Netflix you have yet to explore. How are you going to get through all of those Steamy Period Dramas if you've got old Michael Keaton cramping your style?

So why watch this film? Is it because Birdman is—say it with a posh British accent—High Art? Because it's True Filmmaking? Because it's Cinema At Its Finest?

No.

We're not here to preach to you about what it means to make true art, or truly authentic movies…and neither is Birdman.

You might expect a movie about a washed-up celebrity failing on Broadway to be all anti-Hollywood, but Birdman treats all entertainment media equally…in that it critiques all of them equally. Just like it takes shots at the blockbusters of the silver screen with its fictionalized superhero franchise Birdman, we also have cynical parodies of theater actors, theater critics, social media, and people who critique social media.

No one is spared—not the young, not the old, and certainly not the middle-aged—because Birdman's only agenda is to make you laugh at (and second-guess) everyone.

And because Birdman is so lampoon-happy, it ends up being earnest…in the best way possible. This is a story about a man who fears death and not being loved, after all. It's also a story of the quest for truth and authenticity, both inside and outside of making art. It's also a story about redemption and second chances.

But just because these subjects are Big Deal Themes, there's no need to get stuffy with them. Birdman manages to tread the fine line between making you cry and making you cry with laughter. It's almost impossible not to be moved by the plight of a man trying to make something beautiful and lasting…but it's equally as impossible not to laugh at the same man when he's walking down Broadway screeching like a demented eagle.

Ultimately, if there's one thing that Birdman is trying to tell you, it's that life is way too serious to be taken totally seriously.

Trivia

Sort of depressing and also sort of uplifting: Raymond Carver's quote used to open the movie can also be found on his tombstone. (Source)

Riggan's third Birdman movie came out in 1992, the same year that Michael Keaton's second and last Batman movie was released. Just like Riggan refuses doing more Birdman movies, Keaton chose not to continue his Batman career. (Source)

The electric light on a pole, seen during Mike's first appearance and during the short cuts after Riggan shoots himself, is known as the ghost light. It's used to provide lighting to help late goers and early comers avoid falling into the orchestral pit (and to scare away ghosts, of course). (Source)

When we first meet Mike, he immediately begins suggesting edits to Riggan's script, being the prestigious, know it all actor that he is. Before doing that scene, Edward Norton was picking apart the Birdman script with Iñárritu, who pointed out the irony to Norton. (Source)

Birdman Resources

ARTICLES-AND-INTERVIEWS

What Could Have Been
The whole "flying out the window" ending was actually written halfway through filming when it came to Iñárritu in a dream. How was Birdman originally going to end? Find out here.

I Know Why the Birdman Sings
Keaton sits down for an uncaging of his character in an NPR interview

The Powers of the Long Take
This article analyses Birdman's form—the whole one giant tracking shot thing—as magical realism.

Lighting the Way
A behind-the-scenes look at some post-production lighting, coloring, and saturating and the difficulties presented by a movie that needs to look like one long take.

VIDEO

Birdman in Action
Action figure, that is. Check out this '90s-style commercial for the action figure for the character in the movie there never was (chest laser not included).

Behind the Birdman
It's no secret that the shooting style of Iñárritu and Lubezki was incredibly demanding. Check out all of the oversight and directions and different takes that went into the final product.

Q&A with the Cast
Everything's covered in an audience question-and-answer session with all the big players. Bonus: we learn Iñárritu really loves going to the dentist.

The Big Birdman
Riggan isn't the only one with a famous bird haunting his past.

The Other Adventures of Birdman
What happens when kids write their own single scene Birdman fanfics? Jimmy Fallon and Michael Keaton will act them out while pondering the complexities marriage and Walmart.

IMAGES

Poser Posters
Fourteen nifty fan art posters. We like the one with the Birdman.