Film Studies Independent study, M.A. English Literature, Duquesne University, Spring 2016
For an independent study, I sat in on an undergraduate film studies course and supplemented the audit with independent readings of film theorists. Over the course of the semester, I became interested in depictions of mental illness in contemporary cinema. In this paper, I explore the acting and narrative frameworks within “Birdman,” the aesthetic theories that they represent, and the inherently unstable world of the film. I ultimately argue that the protagonist’s mental illness is a narrative tool used to depict the schizophrenia of stardom rather than a literal representation of illness.
Before proceeding to explicate the aesthetic theories implicit within the film, I will first investigate the most outer framework of the film— the world external to Birdman. A brief discussion of Michael Keaton’s performance and the film’s cinematography will reveal that even at its most superficial level, truth in Birdman is inherently instable. The most noteworthy elements of this external framework signify the theme of instability that runs throughout its narrative. The first and most noticeable element to the film’s external framework is Michael Keaton’s role as star. Upon learning of an upcoming film, potential audiences draw conclusions about that film based upon a few factors, perhaps most notably its stars and their associated star personas. Due to Keaton’s participation in the Batman franchise, the superhero franchise genre frames not only the narrative within Birdman, but also possible critical reactions to the film itself. Is the movie a meta-commentary specifically about this genre cycle? The superhero trilogy is, after all, perhaps one of the least “artistic” cinematic genres, in that the franchise structure is extremely corporate, the films themselves follow rote narrative structure, employ over-the-top special effects, and pander to popular audiences. The parallel between Michael Keaton as Batman and Riggan Riggan as Birdman seems so blatant that it is nearly trite; many casual spectators and authors of opinion pieces on Birdman have speculated that the character of Riggan Riggan is a portrayal of Michael Keaton himself. Yet, Keaton claims that though he found Riggan to be one of the most meaningful roles he has ever played, he does not actually relate to the character. He said in an interview:
The character, Riggan, I play in Birdman was a huge challenge. I related less to him than almost every other character I’ve played, in terms of desperation. There were times in my life when I felt desperate, but it was never about this. It’s a fear-based industry, and if you buy into it, you’re pretty screwed. (Saavedra, “Michael Keaton Discusses His New Role at the ETC”)
The film’s initial access point is Keaton’s star persona; yet, this access point is a red herring. It does not offer any meaningful insight into the actor himself or into the film’s narrative, save for what audiences might read into it independently (and incorrectly). Thus, the most outer narrative framework of Birdman, which would appear significant due to the film’s self-aware nature, signifies disharmony rather than cohesion. This disharmony between performer and actor is a theme that pervades the inner narrative frameworks of the film as well as its external features.
In addition to the (false) signal that Keaton’s biography could provide insight into Riggan’s on-screen anxiety (or vice versa), Birdman is also a self-aware film by virtue of its cinematography. The film’s most notable formalistic feature is its illusion of being filmed in one continuous take; it is not the first film to achieve this feat, yet it is one of a rare few. Because the film required long takes to achieve this continuous effect, the actors had to perform each scene without much room for error. Keaton relates:
And because of the nature of how it was shot, you didn’t have the luxury of edits, where you can do 15 takes of that one line from that angle. You had to get it all in one, and be word-perfect, and in the right place physically to accommodate the camera… There were continuous, 10-minute long tracking shots. There was no room for errors. I mean, if you didn’t hit your lines or your marks exactly, you had to do it all over again. (Saavedra, “Actor Michael Keaton Discusses His New Role at the ETC”)
The experience of acting in Birdman required skills normally associated with stage actors, rather than film actors: the ability to sustain a cohesive performance for the duration of an entire scene, rather than producing many refined moments that are later edited together. For spectators of the film, the cinematography constantly points to the film-ness of Birdman, reminding over and over of its production rather than lulling its audience into a distracted state of mind. For the actors, though, this cinematographic feature created a uniquely non-cinematic performative experience.
This distinctive cinematography has the effect of not only making more dramatic the disparity between the audience’s and the actors’ experience of Birdman, but it also allows, and requires, its actors to utilize skills normally only associated with stage acting. It will be helpful to compare this distinction with Walter Benjamin’s theory on the isolation of the film actor. He writes, “The stage actor identifies himself with the character of his role. The film actor very often is denied this opportunity. His creation is by no means all of a piece; it is composed of many separate performances.” (Benjamin, 801) The cinematography of Birdman reinstates the cohesive quality of stage acting to film, even allowing us to witness the actors stumble over a word here and there as part of this slightly less refined acting technique. Yet, the actors’ cohesive performance and the small flaws that come with it reminds us that the particular performance that we, the audience, witness, is happenstance. Multiple iterations would differ from one another in many small and maybe even large ways because the actors are human— fallible and subject to varied behavior. The motif of the unstable narrative is highlighted in the vastly different iterations of “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” that we witness throughout Birdman; though the stage actors perform a cohesive narrative, the means by which this narrative occurs changes with each performance. Birdman’s single long take is uncharacteristically monolithic for cinema, yet its cohesiveness also points to the arbitrary nuances that comprise a whole performance. First through its acting and second through its cinematography, Birdman presents us with instability.
In an online video interview with At the Movies, Emma Stone, who plays Sam, Riggan’s daughter, addresses the effect that the cinematographic technique had upon her experience of acting in Birdman.
It allowed us to be very free, in the moment, which is a lot like theatre. There was an extensive amount of rehearsal, which leads you to completely letting it all go and just living in it. All the themes which this explores are fascinating, maybe in a highly personal way because it is about the life of an actor, or many different types of actors, and why their way of approaching it is the best… All you hope for as an actor is to have a real experience and to tell the truth. (At the Movies, “Birdman or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance Interview”)
Though Stone states here that all an actor hopes for “is to have a real experience and to tell the truth,” the external elements of Birdman’s acting and cinematography reveal that truth is subjective. What does it mean to have a truthful acting experience? Stone alludes to a classic anxiety of performance: the question of authenticity.
Stanley Cavell and Richard Dyer both address the fraught relationship between actors and personal identity in their work. Cavell establishes a distinction between this relationship for stage actors and this relationship for film actors, stating that: “On the stage there are two beings, and the being of the characters assaults the being of the actor; the actor survives only by yielding. A screen performance requires not so much training as planning.” (Cavell, 346) The character identity on-stage subsumes the identity of the actor; because the performance must be sustained without interruption for the duration of the entire performance, the actor must almost literally discard their own identity and become this other personality— a personality often established as a character beyond the actors who have played him or her in various iterations of the same stage play. Conversely, the “planning” required of film acting refers to the technical precision and many takes that are often necessary to get each small moment just right. The film actor does not become the character, but the character becomes the actor; the public often conflates the actor’s star persona and the identity of the characters they play, while the actual personality differs greatly, as Richard Dyer points out. In light of these identity issues that are associated with acting, when Emma Stone tells us that all an actor wants is to have a real experience and to tell the truth, what is she really saying? Does she imply that the experience of acting in Birdman, which was distinctly theatrical rather than cinematic, was a more “truthful” experience than most acting she has done? Does she find that total submission to an established character role is a more authentic experience than that of superimposing her own persona upon a malleable character? The answers to these questions remain open-ended, and chances are that her comment about truth is little more than fluffy interview fodder; yet even as an offhand comment, Stone’s statement reveals that issues of truth and authenticity are often at the tips of actors’ tongues.
 As it turns out, this genre is just used as a proxy for cinema in general. As one of the most clichéd and highly branded genres, the superhero franchise is a perfect candidate for Birdman’s purposes— and also, the superhero character is an ideal aesthetic and thematic embodiment of Riggan’s ghostly ego. Iñárritu said in an interview: “It’s the same story told hundreds of times, each time with more explosions, loudness, and absurdity. I was conscious of that nonsense. That’s why I put that bird in there. Who the f— is that? Well, who cares! It looks cool. Exactly!” (D’Addario, Daniel “Birdman Director Alejandro González Iñárritu: Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope Is ‘A Terrible Film’”)
 Alfred Hitchock’s 1948 Rope was created with the same cinematographic concept, yet because Hitchcock had less advanced technology at his disposal, Rope was a much more laborious and difficult cinematic project than Birdman. The 2002 Russian Ark also utilizes a similar cinematographic effect. (D’Addario, Daniel “Birdman Director Alejandro González Iñárritu: Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope Is ‘A Terrible Film’”)
 Dyer also cites Melanie Griffith and Elizabeth Burns in this discussion. (Dyer, 20-21)
Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art In the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Film Theory and Criticism; Introductory Readings. Ed. Gerald Mast and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP, 1974. 665-86. Print.
Birdman, or, (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu. 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2014.
“Birdman or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance Interview.” At The Movies. N.p., 9 Dec. 2014. Web. 23 Mar. 2016.
Carver, Raymond. “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” 1981. Web. 23 Mar. 2016. < http://myweb.dal.ca/dhevans/2034/Readings/What%20We%20Talk%20About%20When%20We%20Talk%20About%20Love.pdf>
Cavell, Stanley. “Audience, Actor, and Star: From The World Viewed.” Film Theory and Criticism; Introductory Readings. Ed. Gerald Mast and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP, 1974. 305-07. Print.
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Dyer, Richard. “from Stars.” Film Theory and Criticism; Introductory Readings. Ed. Gerald Mast and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP, 1974. 480-86. Print.
Fairfax, Daniel and Joshua Sperling. “The Ashes of Gramsci: A Conversation about the 52nd New York Film Festival.” Senses of Cinema. N.p., Dec. 2014. Web. 23 Mar. 2016. < http://sensesofcinema.com/2014/festival-reports/the-ashes-of-gramsci-a-conversation-about-the-52nd-new-york-film-festival/>
Harvey-Davitt, James. “Performing Stardom.” In Media Res: a media commons project. N.p., 21 April 2015. Web. 23 Mar. 2016. < http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/imr/2015/04/21/performing-stardom>
Hyun-ju, Ock. “Birdman’s Kimchi Line Sparks Controversy In Korea.” The Korea Herald. 24 Feb. 2014. Web. 30 Apr. 2016. <http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20150224000155>
Rizov, Vadim. “Birdman: Five Points of Contention | Filmmaker Magazine.” Filmmaker Magazine. N.p., 24 Nov. 2014. Web. 23 Mar. 2016. <http://filmmakermagazine.com/88413-birdman-five-points-of-contention/#.VvNceYcUXdt>.
Saavedra, Kelly. “Actor Michael Keaton Discusses His New Role At The ETC.” The Piper. Carnegie Mellon University. 12 Jan. 2015. Web. 30 Apr. 2016. <http://www.cmu.edu/piper/stories/2015/january/michael-keaton.html>
Salovaara, Sarah. “Watch: Stitching Birdman Together in Post | Filmmaker Magazine.” Filmmaker Magazine. N.p., 5 Nov. 2014. Web. 23 Mar. 2016. < http://filmmakermagazine.com/88223-watch-stitching-birdman-together-in-post/#.VvNe-ocUXdt>.