Birdman explores many paradoxes of art, identity, and reality. The one I want to reflect on here is the illusion of reality in drama, both theater and film, as shown within the movie and through the movie.
The baseline of this paradox gets introduced by Edward Norton’s character Mike. Mike is a method actor, short for Stanislavski method, developed by a Russian theater director of the same name who strove for “theatrical truth.” At the heart of method acting is trying to make the character as real as possible. Mike attempts to “inhabit” the character, Mel, that he plays. He drinks actual gin on the stage as his character is supposed to do. He goes into a rant about the fake fruit on stage. Later he yells at Riggan for having an obviously fake stage gun. He demands his significant other and acting partner call him Mel on stage as she attempts to ward off his unwanted sexual advances. This theatrical truth comes at the cost of his off-stage identity. Mike has lost the ability to have real experiences off-stage, symbolized by his ability to only get an erection on stage.
Michael Keaton’s Riggan Thompson is a movie actor–a mere celebrity according to the theater critic. His performances in the play within the movie start out stiff and over-emphasized. Mike gives him an acting lesson to get him to be more natural. As Riggan loses himself in the chaos of the play and becomes more desperate to get through each subsequent previews to opening night, his performances become more in the moment and naturalistic. This is part of the brilliance of Keaton’s performance–the levels of acting ability. But this shows the first part of the paradox–Riggan’s naturalistic performance can only come about after continued rehearsals and life stress. There’s nothing natural in the craft of it.
The realism is an illusion created by artifice.
This film is also attempting to create an illusion of reality through its cinematography. Emmanuel Lubeski crafted the photography to look like one continuous shot–from the moment we see Riggan transcendental meditating, floating a few feet off the floor, to the moment Riggan shoots himself on stage. This illusion was created through a series of long takes, most around 10 minutes in length, masked together through tricks of lighting and editing. The effect is pronounced because audiences are used to cuts every few seconds. Being denied those continuity cuts creates a growing tension in anticipating the cut but also creates the feeling of being in the action, of the action being live, like in theater, and all-encompassing. The action feels more real and in the moment because of this feat of cinematography.
In an interview with NPR, Michael Keaton addressed the precision of blocking and dialogue that the film required:
Not only was it [scenes like] going down a hallway [where] another actor has to enter precisely at a moment, then there might be three people in the hallway, then you go downstairs — it was even things like downstairs out a doorway into the hallway where I see Edward [Norton], then we walk down the sidewalk. It had to be timed perfectly to get to a line exactly when I toss the coins to the drummer, and then timed out so we were dead-on the exact word, not just the line, to enter the bar. And then went into the bar and did the scene — and then that whole scene runs through the bar, and then I go over and walk back out.
This precision paradoxically creates a feeling of absolutely naturalness in the moment.
So the illusion of reality in theater and film requires absolute transformation from the real. Mike must erase Mike to play Mel. Riggan must lose Riggan to capture Eddie. And Lubeski must wind the real up like clockwork to make it naturally unwind for the camera.