"I don't know what I'm saying. My face is melting off. I didn't even answer anything, I just said a bunch of words," admitted Emma Stone on Monday night, sitting on a panel with three of her Birdman co-stars after a screening of their film, as part of the 92nd St. Y's Reel Pieces with Annette Insdorf series. Those words concluded more than a minute of rambling from Stone in response to an audience member's question about the interplay of craft, social media, and fame that Alejandro González Iñárritu's new movie about acting touches on.
No one else had anything else to say to the question that ended, "And I just wanted to know your take on that cultural critique…and whether you feel personally in terms of your work, if it ever gets muddled by technology and where we are today as opposed to when acting was a little more rudimentary and authentic, let's say 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago?" Not Michael Keaton, not Zach Galifianakis, not Edward Norton, who had passed the question over to Stone after it was asked. ("I'm going to Facebook for an answer. No. Em?") None of them.
Like that very stage, Birdman is brimming with talent. Emmanuel Lubezki's virtuosic cinematography presents the film as one fluid take. It cheats via clandestine cuts, but even still many of the scenes required single perfect takes stretching on much longer than in typical films—at times, about 15 uninterrupted minutes. The camera swoops all over Broadway's St. James theater (and its backstage, as recreated on a Los Angeles soundstage), actors shuffle in and out of these impossible marathon scenes, hitting their marks precisely, and conveying convincing emotion regarding human worth and how it's determined. It was all painstakingly choreographed by Iñárritu. As a formal exercise, Birdman is a triumph. It's an exhilarating experience.
But also as on that very stage, the ideas in Birdman are a bit muddled, and not entirely fleshed out. Perhaps this is partially intentional: As washed-up actor Riggan Thomson (Keaton) attempts to mount a comeback—via a Broadway production of Raymond Carver's story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" that he adapted for the stage and is starring in and directing—he is bombarded with critiques of his motivation. "You confuse love for admiration," his ex tells him. "You are not doing this for the sake of art, you are doing it to be relevant again," his daughter Sam (Stone) tells him. In a moment that is about as fantastical as Riggan's delusions of telekinesis and flying, an influential theater critic for the New York Times named Tabitha Dickinson details to Riggan's face why she plans on shutting down his play with a negative review: He's a Hollywood phony who's leading with his ego and out of his depth.
Riggan affirms himself with an internal dialogue stage-whispered in the voice of Birdman, a popular character he played at the peak of his career. (That Keaton once played the similarly hoarse Batman is no coincidence: Iñárritu wrote Birdman with the actor in mind.) On his dressing-room mirror is a card that reads, "A thing is a thing not what is said of that thing."
Riggan's struggle to preserve his peak-career ego is humiliating, and sometimes to his benefit: His What We Talk About When We Talk About Love garners buzz via some bloopers that go viral. That development in particular reminded me of the 2005 HBO series The Comeback, which also followed a desperate soul chasing the former glory of adulation. By virtue of its medium (a television series) and format (the raw footage of a reality show about actor Valerie Cherish's new sitcom), The Comeback felt more thoroughly lived in. Though we follow Riggan closely as his self-confidence inflates and deflates with lungs' frequency, the movie's frenetic pace via its one-take momentum (days pass between unbroken moments) serves to glide over the pain.
Regardless, Birdman is just the latest example in a legacy of self-reflexive art about fame featuring famous people. It feels like we're just watching mirrors sometimes, especially when these self-serving meditations have nothing new to say or even nothing in particular to say. People live for the applause, yeah, we know. Sometimes this seems desperate, sometimes it looks heroic, but it's probably a little bit of both. Fame fucks with your head. You shouldn't listen to others' opinions; others' opinions afford you the life you have. Fame and infamy are virtually synonymous. A hero lies in you. OK. OK. OK.
A movie's only inherent responsibility is to entertain. It does not need a point. It does not need to tell you how to think. To quote the director of another movie that's out today whose essence cannot be whittled down to a one-sentence takeaway, "If we're having a conversation because we have to boil it down, then what's the point of the conversation?"
I'm tired of the fame conversation in Birdman, especially in the elliptical way that it is presented. I admire the movie's virtuosity. I find helpful its detangling of the actor's ego from his craft, skewering the former and celebrating the latter. Since fame is the seeming endgame of anyone who enters an acting career, those concepts tend to intertwine, but Iñárritu loosens them via his script and the demands Birdman's format put on its stars. "It's a process that demands the total awareness of the actors," Iñárritu said (via Insdorf, who read the quote onstage at the 92nd St. Y). "It possesses the fear and adrenalin of the moment. You can't fake it."
The immense effort of this undertaking is always apparent on the screen, and you can't help but appreciate the actors for it. Others will too, and as a result these actors will keep getting roles that could continue to elevate their profiles. Maybe even Michael Keaton will win an Oscar and complete his own comeback arc without any irony.
At one point, Edward Norton's character tells Keaton's, "Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige," but you can't imagine any of the millionaires in this movie or any movie, really, making much effort to differentiate between the two. Maybe on a project-to-project basis, but not generally. Conflating the two, in fact, is what celebrities do, and truly successful actors are celebrities. How much does self-awareness excuse in a movie that shares benefits with what it indicts? If Birdman's reviews and buzz are an indication, a lot.
But then, that's just according to the people.