Birdman

Birdman-Movie-Michael-KeatonAfter reading a string of scripts from this year’s Blood List [and finding nothing which made me proud to be a screenwriter] I decided to spend a few hours on a script with Academy ambitions.

I won’t comment on the feud between Arriaga and Iñárritu over what constitutes authorship of a film. That is an ontological screenwriting discussion that deserves more space than an offhand comment in the introduction section to a script review. What I will say, however, is that I think that Inarritu [and by extension the other four writers on his team] wrote this script with chips on their shoulder. They had something to prove.

Before we get into interesting stuff [like theme and subtext] let me highlight a few scenes that I really enjoyed for their striking use of metafictional components. The following scene from page 8 had me laughing out loud:

RIGGAN
Find me an actor. A good actor. Philip Seymour Hoffman…
JAKE
He’s doing the third Hunger Games.
RIGGAN
Michael Fassbender?
JAKE
Doing the prequel to the X-Men prequel.
They arrive at Riggan’s dressing room.
RIGGAN
What’s his name? Jeremy Renner…
JAKE
Who?
RIGGAN
The… the Hurt Locker guy.
JAKE
Yeah. He’s an Avenger.
RIGGAN
(With disgust.)
Fuck. They put him in a cape, too?
(A beat.) Look, I don’t care. Find me someone.

In a way this satire is too blunt to function in its role as satire. The point [that all the talent in Hollywood is currently being wasted making cartoon movies] is so obvious that it hardly needs to be made. At the same time, I really enjoyed the fact that someone working in the system was willing to state the obvious– no matter the costs.

Of course, the humor in the scene dissolves most of the viciousness of what is being said. Perhaps, then, the risk to careers is not as great as it seems at first glance. Too often, satirists are cruel for the sake of being cruel; they forget to use humor as a palliative. Birdman remembers to be funny when it is succeeding in being cruel.

There is also this piece of metafiction which I thought was equally brilliant (pgs 19-21):

RIGGAN
“I’m the wrong person to ask. I didn’t know the man. I’ve only heard his name mentioned in passing. I wouldn’t know. You’d have to know the particulars. But I think what you’re saying is—”
MIKE
Okay, can I– Do you mind if I—
RIGGAN
No, go ahead.
MIKE
Follow me. He says, “I’m the wrong person to ask.” What’s his intention? Is he fed up with the topic? Deflecting? Guilt about his wife maybe? Then four sentences all say the same thing… “I didn’t even know the man”.
“I’ve only heard his name mentioned in passing.” “I wouldn’t know.” “You’d have to know the particulars.” First of all, particulars? What are you, my grandmother? But the point is, YOU DON’T KNOW THE GUY, WE FUCKING GET IT. Make it one line. “I didn’t even know the guy.” Right? …
RIGGAN
You pretty much know my lines too, huh?
MIKE
Can we– Are we doing something here? Come on let’s go. Cut it down, give it to me again.
RIGGAN
“I’m the wrong person to ask–”
MIKE
Oh, right, sorry, you see? “I’m the wrong person to ask?” That’s another fuck you. “Don’t put me on the spot. Don’t make me self conscious about my marriage when my wife is sitting right here…” See? Give it to me. Give me a good fuck you. Come on…
RIGGAN
Okay, let me—
MIKE
Come on. Give it to me right now. Fuck me. Right now. Right here. Let’s do it.
RIGGAN
Okay, yeah…
MIKE
DO IT!
RIGGAN
(Jumps in w/out thinking.)”Hey. I’m the wrong person to ask, okay? I didn’t even know the guy. So what’s your point?”
MIKE
“What’s my point?”
RIGGAN
“What’s your point? What are you saying? Spit it out. You’re saying, what? That love is an absolute?”10/29/14 / 20.MIKE (CONT’D)(CONTINUED)
MIKE
(Exploding.)”Yeah! Alright? The kind of love I’m talking about is absolute. The kind of love I’m talking about you– (A painful memory.)Well, you don’t try to kill people.
Riggan stands silently, his heart pounding.
MIKE
(CONT’D)So what do you think, boss? Do I have a job?

This entire scene is a discussion of subtext. Mike is taking the author of this play [Riggan] to task for writing “on the nose” dialogue. Mike puts each of Riggan’s written lines under the microscope and dissects them for their more significant meaning. Mike’s critique:

Then four sentences all say the same thing… “I didn’t even know the man”.

is devastating. How many scripts have you read where four sentences say the same thing? This is a dialogue error that gets made endlessly. Say what you need to say once, and say it in the fiercest way possible.

The best thing about this scene, however, is the subtext. The scene screams Mike is an Artist and Riggan is an inferior [or pretend] artist. Riggan wants to be respected as Mike’s equal, but that’s never going to happen for him the way he wants. Not because he won’t try hard enough, but because he doesn’t have the kind of talent required to wear the label Artist.

Now, THAT, is a piece of subtext that COULD put someone’s career in jeopardy. Fortunately [for those behind the production of Birdman] most of the Hollywood targets seem to have missed the fact that Birdman is telling them they suck.

Having disposed of a scene with great subtext in less words than I’ve ever managed before, I’ll now turn to theme. AS I LOVE, the subtext in this script supports its theme. [Holy shit, we finally have some authors who understand how one piece of our craft complements another!] I take the theme of Birdman to be:

Talent is more important than accolades.

I get this from this from Sylvia’s [Riggan’s ex-wife] line on pg. 43:

But that’s what you always do. You confuse love with admiration.

Mixed with this line from art critic Tabitha on pg. 96:

Well, this is the theater, and you don’t get to come in here and pretend you can write, direct and act in your own propaganda piece without going through me first. So, break a leg.

And then combining that with the HIGHLY ambiguous ending in which Riggan may [or may not have] actually turned into a Birdman.

[You can see how the subtext in Mike’s scene about dialogue reinforces this theme.]

I will say that the ending is opaque. Birdman is such a vicious script [nothing is sacred] that it’s hard to know exactly where the writers stop skewering and start endorsing. I, as always, want my pieces of art to unambiguously endorse SOMETHING. I think Birdman leaves Riggan for dead. There is nothing to endorse in his character. He is not an artist and therefore he is worthless.

Unfortunately, the script also skewers every other character too. We can’t endorse Mike, he may qualify as an artist—but there’s no way anyone wants to be him. Tabitha’s Way, The Way of the Critic, is also deemed worthless. Sam [Riggan’s daughter] is the most likable person available, but she doesn’t DO anything. All of which means, we’re left with Riggan. A man who accidentally invents an art form by shooting his nose off. Even this only earns him the decidedly tepid endorsement of possessing:

The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance.

The script’s subtitle and the title of Tabitha’s [“endorsement”] review. I don’t know. I feel like the author’s tried to do something original and just when I thought they were going to succeed, they didn’t. They settled for the mediocrity of ambiguity. The point about ambiguous endings being:

They make even Hacks look like geniuses in the hands of a skilled critic.

Overall, though, this is by far the most impressive script I’ve read since I began round three of my critical life.

Rating: Recommended Reading

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3 responses to “Birdman

  1. So happy you uploaded this review! Right after I saw the movie, I instantly wondered what you thought. All elements of the movie (e.g., writing, directing, acting, and cinematography) mixed perfectly for me.

    I agree on the ending though. I was let down that they took that ambigous finale. I am just glad that they played with the idea of him actually having powers the whole movie rather than just dropping that ending on us without a setup.

  2. I thought the back and forth about the powers was very well done. Just when you started to believe maybe the writers were intending them to be real, they pulled back.

    The light falling on Ralph at the beginning and the ending being two times they tilt their hand pretty far. You’re almost forced to interpret Birdman as Farce in order to maintain strict structural integrity in the presence of those two plot points.

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