“And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.”
I watched Birdman when it was first released and it still strikes me as a film masterpiece. I thought every aspect of the film – the script, the design, the performances, the directing, the cinematography, the score and the editing were superior in every way. It was immediately apparent to me that everyone who worked on the film was heavily invested and felt a joint sense of responsibility for its success. It is definitely a movie-maker’s movie.
Birdman is one of those films that possesses great depth in both the story-line and the character development. Like peeling an onion, every time I watch this movie I find myself gleaning something new from it; whether it’s a different interpretation for the ending, or noticing a subtle change in the set design. Birdman is substantial, organic, and poignant – the result being an emotional rollercoaster for both the cast and the audience.
The film opens on the lead character, Riggan, levitating in his cluttered, grubby dressing room. It’s a room filled with the miscellaneous props and memorabilia of a jobbing theatre actor. I love the dusty colour pallet production designer Kevin Thompson chose to reflect Riggan’s washed up career. This was just one example of Thompson’s impressive and cleverly constructed sets. The scenes that take place onstage and in the audience were shot at Broadway’s St. James Theatre, however because the whole film was shot to look like a single continuous take, Thompson had to design a custom set outside the theatre for the backstage scenes. The set had to be built and dressed to shoot 360° due to the complexity of the epic steadycam shots. Thompson helped disconcert the audience by creating a confusing, three-level, rabbit warren of rooms and corridors so that people wouldn’t understand the geometry of it on screen.
Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu wanted the backstage corridors to grow narrower alongside Riggan’s changing mental state. I was aware of Riggan’s increased sense of frustration and claustrophobia as the long corridor scenes grew more and more tense, but I never noticed the minor changes to the set’s size. I think Thompson managed to pull off these subtle changes tastefully and without it looking crass. In addition to this almost subliminal manipulation of the sets were the many wonderful intricate details in the set dressing – the clutter. This will be a great film for me to use as reference material when designing my next short film, Thespian; which is about an 87-year old ex-theatre actor who is desperately trying to hold on to the spotlight he once enjoyed. Thespian will take place at the protagonist’s council-estate apartment, but I envision the interior of his house as being much like Riggan’s dressing room – a disorganized accumulation of sentimental objects such as old manuscripts, black and white stage photographs, props, costumes and of course a make-up mirror.
But back to Birdman. I want to briefly talk about the ending, which apparently most people didn’t like. I personally couldn’t imagine a better way for the film to have ended. It was completely in keeping with the mysterious magical realism of the film. The final shot ties in with the opening shot perfectly in a wonderfully surreal manner. I think the whole point behind the ending’s ambiguity is so the viewer is forced to embrace the film’s magic. Its open-endedness is designed to be interpreted differently by each individual viewer. The quote at the beginning of the film captures the essence of what the film is about, that is, our innate desire as human beings to feel accepted and loved, and to feel that our purpose in life has been fulfilled.
I like to think the ending symbolizes Riggan finally achieving the “beloved” recognition he’s been desperately trying to obtain for his whole life. His harshest critic, and the most important person in his life, is his daughter Sam. Perhaps my favourite scene in the film is the argument that takes place between Riggan and Sam in the theatre basement. It painfully sums up their complicated father/daughter relationship; exposing their vulnerable sides and the deep-rooted betrayal Sam feels towards her father. I think it was a meaningful way to end the film – with the focus on Sam, wide-eyed and smiling, as she finally witnesses her father’s “magic”. It’s what completes him as a person and as an actor. I loved that the ending wasn’t one that answered all our questions but instead left us with an emotional reaction that moves us. Powerful stuff.