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Still from the movie Birdman featuring Michael Keaton.

The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, A Reflection on Birdman


González Iñárritu abandons any self-gratifying art to give us an unforgettable story.

Everything seems to indicate that it did Alejandro González Iñárritu good to shake Guillermo Arriaga by the lapel. I personally feel that Babel, while as baroque as his other films and also deeply sentimental, is the duo’s best work.

Birdman (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2014) is perhaps, in technical terms, the best film in its years. Michael Keaton (Riggan) plays himself and perhaps alludes to the former US president with a similar surname, and perhaps to all the ex presidents at the same time. The ego as the horse of artistic creation, and close to that egotism in political terms as the only shield against an imaginary dragon, which in reality is the people assimilated like opium.

Riggan is an actor who once enjoyed fame thanks to his role as a superhero, a kind of Batman (Tim Burton, 1989), as played in real life by Keaton. Since then he has enjoyed those past glories and now plans to rise from the ashes like a phoenix, directing and acting in a play based on a Raymond Carver story.

The long sequence shots remind the viewer, more than Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002), of the videos by Carlos Marcovich for Mexican rock band Caifanes. Except that in this case the film has the perfectionism provided by the demi-god of world cinema, Emmanuel “El Chivo” Lubezki, in addition to the ghost of Terence Malick, the omnipresent maximum prophet of pure big-production cinema, showing the influence he has had on Lubezki after making several films together.

The camera follows Riggan and becomes his eyes, seeing him lose control and then regaining it. Calm returns only to be lost again. Riggan’s daughter Sam (Emma Stone) deserves a special mention, accumulating the emotional part of the film that is captured in her gaze, her body language, movements and her way of complaining. Addiction is a sub-plot that affects all of the characters in the story, starting with Carver himself (the author of the story that Riggan adapts). The addiction makes us ask: Could Riggan, Sam and Carver have been a better family, better artists, without that addiction? Or is it thanks to the addiction that we have a film as good as Birdman?

Another absence from Iñárritu’s team is the musician Santiago Santolalla, but neither is he missed. The drum solos by one such Antonio Sánchez not only fill that absence but also take the scenes to very different places. It sounds like jazz and this film is jazz in its purest essence. The drumming reminds one of Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich or some other beatnik musician missing from this century. The drums sound like an addict that no longer consumes, overbearing and trying to ingratiate themselves with the world by giving their best in a last-ditch creative act. The soundscape is from one of the few survivors of González Iñárritu’s original crew, Martín Hernández, and is first-rate. The sound mixing deserves an article all to itself and, with our eyes closed, could easily transport us to distant worlds.

Birdman reminds one of Billy Wilder’s classic The Lost Weekend (1945), a melodrama featuring the character Don Birnam (and I don’t think the similarity between this name and Birdman is a coincidence) and in which, like Iñárritu’s film, is narrated in real time. In Wilder’s film, the protagonist attempts by all methods to flee alcoholism and with less luck than Riggan, or perhaps he is luckier.

Because at the end Iñárritu’s movie is ambiguous, out of frame, in the intensely happy expression of his daughter Sam in the hospital where her father is interned, and we do not know the conclusion clearly. Why does the director keep that card up his sleeve? Because Birdman is about a magical world controlled by the artist, like the Toltec prophet Quetzalcóatl, who has no doubt had something to do with the emergence of the sacred Aztec warriors who used garments similar to those used by Birdman, Riggan’s alter ego. It is the world of a magician, of a theater performance, of the film in which all can appear or disappear in an instant, and in this case, out of the frame. And why did warriors have to dress up? It was not a disguise but a transmutation into something else, in something eternal.

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