Monday, February 09, 2015

Strutting and fretting his hour upon the stage – on Michael Keaton and Birdman

There was a time in the early 1990s when I would have called myself a Michael Keaton fan, but looking back now I realise what scant foundation there was for such fandom; Keaton did so few memorable movies. I was very taken by his roles – and his talent for being quirky, enigmatic and an everyman at almost the same time – in Tim Burton's Beetlejuice and the Batman films.*** And there were a few other good parts in movies I barely remember now – Pacific Heights, Clean and Sober. He was solid and dependable and non-self-aggrandising in the Jeff Bridges way, though even Bridges, one of the most inconspicuous of lead actors, wound up with a much higher profile and a larger, more varied body of work.

I also remember really enjoying Keaton’s small part as Dogberry in Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado about Nothing, partly because it seemed so cool that a guy who had been Batman could also do Shakespeare (imagine the reverse, Branagh fighting super-villains in a cape and mask. Doesn’t work, unless you create a hallucinogen-driven genre-bender by throwing in Emma Thompson as Catwoman and Woody Allen as the Riddler). Besides, I was in a phase of fascination with how a certain sort of American actor could perform Shakespeare with raw effectiveness, and Keaton’s Dogberry was a bit like watching Edmond O’Brien’s superb Casca in the 1953 Julius Caesar, or Victor Mature in that beautiful scene in My Darling Clementine where the sharp-shooting Doc Holliday briefly becomes a poet and finishes a Hamlet soliloquy for an old actor.

This has been a long-drawn way of saying that, having possibly not even thought about Michael Keaton for years, I was firmly in his corner, cheering away during every minute of his performance in Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman. He plays Riggan, an actor pushing 60, best known for a superhero role in a blockbuster film years ago; yet we learn later that as a boy, Riggan’s creative aspirations took flight when (a possibly drunk) Raymond Carver scribbled a note on a cocktail napkin for him. And now, all these decades later, he is trying to “atone”, to do something literary and Important by adapting a Carver story for the stage. But is he up to it? Is “relevance” a trap for the unwary? Will the production – with all the backstage insecurities, the addition to the cast of the volatile Mike (Ed Norton), and Riggan’s own personal feathered demon squawking in his ear – explode in his face?

In the year that marks the 25th anniversary of the Tim Burton Batman, there’s an obvious temptation to look at Keaton’s casting here as semi-autobiographical, even as a sort of tribute (though at surface level Birdman seems to be expressing disdain for the big-budget superhero film). But it's also possible to over-stress the connection: I don’t think Keaton was ever caught in the superhero mould the way Christopher Reeve was after the Superman films. Partly because the scenery-chewer in the 1989 Batman was Jack Nicholson’s Joker, and partly because the iconic Batman representation is that of the masked hero with much of his face covered (and usually in nighttime scenes).

Even so, the casting makes Birdman more urgent and poignant, while also giving it a sly sense of humour that it might otherwise have lacked. This is a darkly good Broadway film, oppressive and crepuscular in a way that Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success was (though it isn’t quite as nasty as that 1957 classic). And on another level it is a super behind-the-curtains theatre film too, an All About Eve-like study of the many complicated interrelationships between actors and understudies, directors and critics, those who are reaching for success and those who have been drained by too much of it.

And it is about constant movement – and about going around in circles – in a way that neither of those films was. Emmanuel Lubezki's camera moves with all these characters – following them,  swerving past them to get ahead and then looking back at them cheekily, or just contemplating a corridor for a few seconds before heading down it – through the labyrinths of the green room, the dressing rooms, the other momentary respites of Backstage, and the tunnel-like paths that lead to and from them. And these dizzying long takes are very effective for a claustrophobic, air-deprived setting where people can quickly get old and jaded and tunnel-visioned (Mike tells
Riggan’s daughter Sam he wants to take out her eyes and put them into his own head, so he can look at this world through young, relatively uncorrupted eyes). This main setting is so restrictive, little wonder that a game of “truth or dare” can only be played on an open rooftop, where the sounds of the street temporarily drown out the hypnotic drumbeats that make up much of the film’s “inner space” soundtrack. Or that Riggan’s big moment, the moment of his rebirth, so to speak, comes when he is walking around in the outdoors, in the hurly-burly of Times Square, dressed like a newborn baby. Or that there is such a feeling of liberation in the film’s final shot, which presents the possibility that being a birdman – or a batman – isn’t a fate to be ashamed of, even for a Serious Actor.

P.S. I didn’t study the mechanics of Birdman’s lengthy takes as closely as I would have liked to, but I’m fairly sure that the film has at least one scene where a small shift in time is covered in a continuous, unbroken camera movement, rather than by the conventional cinematic language of a dissolve or cut. (I’m thinking of the sequence where we see Mike making out with Riggan’s daughter behind the scenes, and then the camera glides away from her and down near the stage where Mike is playing a scene with the other actors.) Oddly, the only other such scene I can think of just now is the 360-degree camera movement that bridges 20 years in Yaadon ki Baaraat, with the shot beginning at the feet of a little boy and ending with the man he has grown up into!

*** It’s intriguing to think of Keaton as a sort of proto-Johnny Depp, in terms of being a kindred soul for Tim Burton, a vessel for that director’s off-kilter views of the world: if Beetlejuice had been made 10 years later, there is little doubt who would have played the part. And I don’t find it difficult to imagine Keaton in the lead in Ed Wood.


  1. Also found stylistic shades of A Prairie Home Companion and thematically of Being J Malkovich/Synechdoche in the movie.

    1. Yes, definite shades of the Altman and Being John Malkovich. Still haven't seen Synecdoche sadly...

  2. I don't know if you are aware of this news.

  3. Yep I too thought this was a funny and tongue in cheek take on the melancholia in Synecdoche, New York. I quite enjoyed all the potshots at summer blockbuster Hollywood.


    Always felt Burton's Batman never gets its due in all the Nolan hysteria. Such an exquisitely crafted film and even artistically the ancestor of TDK trilogy. A recent piece:

    1. thanks for the link. Will read the piece with full attention soon, but that's an interesting observation about Burton's film being "less rigidly masculine than I think of superhero movies being now". Especially when you consider that so much self-conscious introspecting and self-conscious vulnerability has crept into superhero films now (at least the Nolan ones) - but there is something superficial and posed about that vulnerability.
      And yes, Nolan hysteria has had some unfortunate results.

  4. Loved the movie, thoroughly enjoyed it.
    The climax when he jumps out of the window and his daughter looks down and looks up smiling was so bloody brilliant, I don't know why but the moment he jumped the first thing that came to my mind was the climax of Aankhon Dekhi where Bauji jumps off a cliff to know what it really feels to fly

    1. Meet: yes, that's a nice connection too. I did this sequel post, btw.

  5. Great Post Jai. Thoroughly enjoyed the movie and had the benefit of watching the movie without having seen any trailers or reviews. I was a fan of the small 10 minutes clips of birdman / space ghost we saw in cartoon network in the nineties and that was my main motivation for watching the movie. So you can imagine my surprise at what was in store.

    Dont have much to add which hasn't already been said or discussed on the net (and yes I have been frantically reading reviews and interpretations of this one). I am now curious enough to dig up other movies of Michael keaton.

    P.S - The theater critic was shown in a negative light with Keatons character perspective in the movie but I agree with every word she said about bloated excesses of superstars who believe they can strut into the theater. Only part I do not agree with her about is the preconceived judgement about the act before even seeing it and I believe in real life, good critics do not do that.