Before I begin, I must warn you. SPOILERS lie ahead.
The movie stars Michael Keaton as Riggan Thomson, a washed up actor famous for playing Birdman, a fictional super hero from the early 90s. He is also followed around by his own personal demon, an uncontested id composed of an uncanny fusion of Batman and Beetlejuice, Also, Thomson may or may not possess telekinetic powers. Emma Stone plays his daughter, Edward Norton supposedly brilliant but uncontrollable actor. Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts and Amy Ryan also appear, and all of the acting is pretty great, but that’s not necessarily the most striking thing about the film.
So, except for the first few shots and a few shots later on, the entire film is made to appear as one continuous shot. That’s almost two hours of a single, continuous shot.
Just for comparison, Michael Bay’s Tranformers movies have an Average Shot Length of 3 to 3.5 seconds (meaning the film jumps to a new shot about every three seconds). Inception had an ASL of 3.1. In general though, modern Hollywood films tend to have ASLs of around 5 seconds (while European films do tend to have slightly longer shots on average). Gravity, also shot by Birdman’s cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, has an ASL of about 45 seconds. The closest is Hitchcock’s Rope, which did essentially the same thing as Birdman, splicing together 10 shots so that it could appear as a single take, but it is an 80 minute movie.*
I’m not saying this makes the film any better. In fact, it surprisingly makes it a little hard to watch at times. It’s interesting that performing closure, or connecting disparates shots spliced together, is perhaps easier than being forced to watch the camera move around the room. Like a comic, modern cinema depends on our ability to put the scenes together ourselves, to fill in the scene breaks with our own internal camera panning. And those split-second breaks actually give your brain a split-second chance to relax and not take in more and more visual information. This sense of inescapability, of being stuck in a single scene, is compounded by the set, a series of winding narrow, poorly lit backstage corridors and cramped little changing rooms. And these scenes aren’t like Hitchcock’s Rope or Tarantino’s longer scenes in Reservoir Dogs; the final product could have been much more like a play itself but the camera is much more intimate, not to mention mobile, weaving around and right up to the actors’ faces in tight claustrophobic shots. Besides, even plays end shots, using the curtain as a gutter between scenes. Part of the appeal of Thomson's escape to flight is that it feels like an escape - he moves from an almost subterranean setting to flying around. The music helps too, shifting at this moment from the nearly atonal rattling clattering of drums to an exuberant orchestra.
Though of course, it isn’t actually all one shot.
Even if there weren’t certain moments where the screen goes black, or the time-lapsed shots of the sky were real, we are shown moments of obvious manipulation. The camera cannot possibly zoom through the railings of the balcony and follow the characters through the scene. Thomson’s very first scene shows him hovering over the floor, and most of his hallucinatory telekinetic hissy-fits involve computer animated flingings. He also uh, flies around for a while after a giant mechanical bird attacks a SWAT team. And so in effect, by supposedly including less artifice (less shot-to-shot editing), the film calls attention to its own inauthenticity.
Which is sort of what the film is all about; even moments of supposed sincerity are suspect, like Thomson’s obviously rehearsed little story about Raymond Carver showing up at a school play, or Norton’s on-stage tantrum about how nothing on the set was real. No crap man, it’s a set. Norton's character continually bounces back and forth between an egotistical jackass one moment and offering legitimate criticisms the next, coming on to Emma Stone’s character one scene and acting the responsible adult in the next. We are constantly shown masks, notably the phantom’s mask from Phantom of the Opera which is recreated in the final scene as the white bandages put over Thomson’s ruined face. Birdman’s claim is that Tomson’s true self is just that - a masked figure. And so Thomson plays the part of a sane person. Even when he tries to reveal himself to his ex-wife, she refuses to listen. The film even recreates one of the more famous stereotypical nightmare scenarios: finding yourself naked in front of a crowd. This would normally be a moment of utter vulnerability, but we are shown over and over again that physical appearances are pretty meaningless. Even stripped of all his clothes, no one else can see the specter of Birdman looming over his shoulder. Hell, in the final scene his very face has been altered. And during the surreal Checkhovian climax, it is not actors onstage, but regular people dressed up in uniforms and costumes, implying that they are actors just as much as the actors-by-trade.
And why Raymond Carver? Well his stories are all about self-delusion, about people building themselves up and putting on suburban masks. So it’s ironic that Thomson would use this to mask his own masked figure. It’s possible that he actually wishes for the mundane problems of Carver’s characters.
Yes its a little gimmicky, and Edward Norton’s character sort of disappears two thirds into the movie and I would have shaved off a few minutes of Michael Keaton’s ecstatic flight scene. But man, the movie is funny as all get-out, and some of the scenes are just transcendent. Scratch that, most of the scenes are transcendent. It seems like I’ve barely scratched the surface of what I really want to say about this film. I highly recommend it.
*For more information about this stuff, check out this great article.