Review Companion: An analysis of theatre and cinema in Alejandro Iñárritu’s Birdman


I love Birdman. A lot. If you don’t believe me, go look at my ludicrously positive review. Even if you do believe me, you should do so anyway, because this is a companion (and not a replacement) to that piece.

But unlike my last review companion, this is nearly spoiler-free. I’m going to talk about the (not-secret) magic trick that the film pulls, but if you know what that trick is, then you can read this and still go into it feeling untainted. But if you have the chance to see it before reading, why would you be doing anything else with your time? It’s an incredible film, and easily one of the best to come out this year (or, really, any year).

But I made a conscious decision to avoid talking about Birdman’s cinematography in the review, which meant that I had to hold back at least two-thirds of what I had to say about the film (and what its cinematography means in the bigger picture of both theatre and film). Here are the other two-thirds:

[This film was seen as part of our coverage of the 52nd New York Film Festival.]

BIRDMAN - Official Worldwide Trailer

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Release Date: October 17, 2014 (Limited)
Rating: R 

In my review, I called cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki a hypocrite for filming Birdman as he did. And I stand by that claim. In fact, while I was watching the film (unaware of who had shot it), I found myself thinking back to something Lubezki told Vulture last year about Gravity’s spectacular opening shot:

Cuarón tried to make the shot much longer! I felt a little bit like the Inquisition, coming in and saying, ‘Cuarón, this is too long.’ It felt contrived, like we were pushing it. I don’t like it when a movie becomes a series of ‘tour de force’ shots, and in a way, I was disappointed that with Children of Men, people noticed that the car scene was one shot with no cuts. If people notice that, it’s like they’re noticing my trick, you know what I mean? I’m doing it so people will get immersed in the movie, not to show off.

But more importantly, this, in response to a question about whether he and Cuarón would do a film in a single take together. He laughed off the notion and said:

If the audience starts to sense your trick, it’s good to stop the trick at some point and start again. It’s like erasing your tracks, so that the people cannot trace and follow you.

He said this in September of 2013. In October of 2014, Birdman released, with the exact trick he decried just over a year prior. Not knowing how long Birdman has been in production, it’s entirely possible that Lubezki didn’t know he would be shooting a film entirely in “one” take, but it doesn’t really matter. The guy said one thing and almost immediately went off to do the exact opposite. Definition of hypocrite.

That being said, he’s a ridiculously talented hypocrite and I am not complaining about his hypocrisy so much as pointing it out. As I watched Birdman, I thought, “I’m so going to quote Lubezki in this review.” When his name showed up in the end credits, I thought, “Well… alright then.” 

Edward Norton and Michael Keaton fighting

And now let’s talk about Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope. Birdman director Alejandro Iñárritu hates Rope, so the fact that it’s so frequently compared to his film probably grates a bit, but the reality is that of the films that present themselves in long takes, it’s probably the best point of comparison. Where Iñárritu was brought to tears by Russian Ark, the fact that that film was actually shot in a single 90-minute long take means that on a technical level the two films really aren’t comparable.

Rope masked five of its ten cuts because reels simply weren’t long enough to keep things going. By hiding behind clothing and props and running continuous dialogue above, it works well enough to keep the illusion that the film doesn’t cut. While the advent of both tape-based and digital media have made the effect a whole lot easier to pull off, that legacy lives on in films like La Casa Muda (later remade in the US as Silent House), which was limited by the 12 minute recording limit of the Canon 5D Mark II.

But the real reason Birdman most reminds me of Rope is the shared connection to theatre (for clarification: theatre is a thing you do; a theater is the place you do it). Rope is based on a play, and it feels like one. It takes place in a single room and plays out in real time. If the play had co-starred James Stewart, it probably would have been better than Hitchcock’s film. But the whole theatrical aspect of it brings me to Birdman, a film about a play. 

Rope Set - nofilmschool

Here’s a personal story that has nothing to do with Birdman but a whole lot to do with why I love it so much: A few years ago, I was in a community theater production of Death of a Salesman. I played Happy, one of Willy Loman’s sons. There’s a key moment in the first act where it’s revealed that Willy has been seriously considering suicide and has left himself the means to do so in his basement. During one of the performances, we skipped it entirely. Biff said something at the wrong time, and in my head I thought, “That’s… not right.” But I didn’t have time to think about what it was and just had to go from the cue he gave me. There was no hitch or pause. It just kept going. It wasn’t until we got off stage for intermission that we actually realized what we had done, but it was so seamless that even people who had seen the show already didn’t notice.

(And in the most brilliant bit of acting I’ve ever seen on stage, our Linda replicated the entire scene one-sided in a phone conversation during the second act.)

It’s the kind of thing that could never happen in a film, because the director would shout “Cut!” and then they’d do it again. It’s also exactly the kind of thing that makes theatre so exciting, as both an actor and audience member.

But with its one-take conceit, Birdman feels like there are moments where things can go wrong. Maybe where they did go wrong. The play within a play certainly has its fair share of those. Nearly every performance of the Riggan Thompson’s Raymond Carver adaptation is hit with something. And though each of those “mistakes” was meticulously planned and endlessly rehearsed, the magic of theater – of making it work even when things go horribly wrong – is preserved. The show must go on. There is no other option.

A film without editing, then, is like a play in motion. There are shows like that, where the audience is shuffled from room to room seeing bits and pieces of the story and piecing together the gaps for themselves until it all comes to a head. (My first experience with that was in a particularly elaborate haunted house. La Casa Muda is a haunted house; Birdman is something more.) And here, Iñárritu is not just the director of the play but the designer of the play’s motion as well. Lubeszki, on the other hand, is a member of the audience. He is the perfect audience member, knowing exactly where best to look at all moments. Unlike a moving play, we cannot look beyond the confines of the screen, but like a play in a traditional theater, attempting to look beyond the edges of the stage will only show you curtains.

So Birdman has the impression of one sort of play but the actual experience of another.

But it’s really neither. Birdman is undoubtedly a film, which makes the theatrical feeling all the more fascinating. It takes this idea of theatre and morphs it into cinema. I’ve heard it said that film is theater + editing. It’s an interesting thought, and it’s not entirely false. But neither is it entirely true. What makes it unique is the frame. To focus on a person’s monologue in theater, perhaps the lights will go down as a spotlight comes up. Maybe the speaker will just come forward and command with their presence. As an audience member, you will be drawn to their upper body (and their face), either because of lighting or simply because that’s the natural place for you to look. But that’s not the only thing you can see. Maybe it’s lit, maybe it’s dark; maybe actors are moving, maybe they’re tableaux. But they’re never really invisible. In film, whatever the director doesn’t want on focus will be out of focus, either literally through the use of depth of field or by simply keeping things from entering the frame.

Emma Stone

If a frame doesn’t require editing, it does require motion. A focused spotlight can illuminate a person’s head on a blacked out stage in an approximation of a closeup, but the effect is nothing like a closeup in film. On the stage, Riggan Thompson is still a person, and he’s at a distance. If you’re in the back row of the theater, you may not really be able to see the fine details of his expression. But on screen? Michael Keaton is larger than life. His face is everything you see, and you see every little twitch.

(Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables takes this idea to heart, although it goes much too far and in the process comes dangerously close to ruining an amazing musical.)

Birdman is often told in closeups and rarely is that one shot wider than a medium – which shows from an actor from waist to head. And because of this, you never get a real look at the stage itself. From the stage, the frame shows the audience, but except for one scene you never see the stage from the audience, and even that doesn’t really give a sense of what is up there. Onstage, you see actors sitting at a table on stage but the camera circles around them as they talk. It’s a uniquely cinematic view of an otherwise theatrical moment.

(On a television, I imagine Birdman loses some of its impact. Emmanuel Lubeski’s last outing as cinematographer, Gravity, lived and died by its ability to be seen as intended, which was in 3D on the biggest screen available. That’s not really the case with Birdman, but a close up on a television screen is more akin to a spotlight on a face in a theater.) 

I will take this moment to discuss the use of long takes by one of the best directors working today: Steve McQueen. Specifically I want to discuss the brilliant shot that comes right in the middle of his first film, Hunger. Unlike many (really, most) long takes, Steve McQueen frequently puts a camera in place and lets it rest, putting the performances front and center. In Hunger, the camera stays still for 17 minutes as Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) and a prison priest (Liam Cunningham) talk. Hunger, Shame, and 12 Years a Slave are all full of these static moments (though 12 Years A Slave’s best shot is in motion), but he’s never done anything that long since.

(That shot from Hunger, by the way, is theatre.)

And Birdman’s best moment is a Steve McQueen moment, and I mean that with the utmost respect to all parties involved. Although Lubezki’s camera is constantly in motion, it does take the time to sit when it needs to. Most brilliantly, it rests on Emma Stone’s face as she shouts at Michael Keaton. For the entire monologue, the camera doesn’t move from Stone’s face, and then when it’s finished it stays still. Rather than seeing how Riggan Thompson reacts to his daughter’s words, we see his daughter react to that reaction. When she eventualy moves and the camera follows her, Keaton’s face is visible but still not the focus of the moment. Even another film with long takes likely would have shifted the camera to put both of the characters in frame. But by playing it that way, Birdman becomes something uniquely brilliant.

That moment is not theatre, and though there are likely ways it could be replicated on stage, it is undoubtedly cinema. Birdman uses a trick to keep the audience immersed (though it’s impossible to forget what the trick is once you’ve noticed it, as Lubezki said would happen) and there are a whole lot of tricks used to keep it (apparently) intact. Whip pans and movements through darkness successfully mask all but a couple of transitions, but if you know what to look for you’ll catch nearly every one. 

Michael Keaton and Birdman

But that doesn’t matter. In fact, the seams in general may even benefit a narrative that deals with the line between cinema (or theatre) and reality. For just a moment, it becomes the movie you might expect to be called Birdman (instead of a movie you would expect to have the parenthetical “or (The Unexpected Virture of Ignorance),” which is what most of Birdman is). Something like a minute of footage plays to that crowd at Comic Con that Edward Norton (not incorrectly) felt they’d bait-and-switched. It’s a fascinating moment, made all the more fascinating by the fact that the ugly CGI fits into the narrative. Whatever it’s supposed to be in Riggan Thompson’s head, it is outwardly a representation of Blockbuster cinema as we know it. And as such, it’s ridiculous and imperfect. It’s what people crave, and and Thompson quite literally walks away from it.

And as he walks away, sticking to his guns and staying with the theatre and fighting against the image of the role that made him famous, he shows himself to be stronger than his eventual actions may make it seem. Thompson has put everything into making the play a reality, and he commits himself to it in a way that is beyond reproach. (Even his most ardent critic thinks so.)

And while Birdman is not so infallible, what it accomplishes cannot be overstated. It may falter at moments, but this is a film that tried something unique and really took advantage of its “trick,” which is thus not really a trick at all. As theatre, Birdman is a success. As cinema, it’s a masterpiece.