At the Birdman panel at New York Comic Con on Friday, Michael Keaton said that when he was approached about the movie, he was told that they couldn't describe the film to him. And, he said, having done it, he understands why: "Even now, I' know m not sure what happened." That is pretty much how I felt after seeing the first 10 minutes.
Birdman, as described by Keaton "in a nutshell," is about a former superhero actor who wants to mount a play in New York based on a Raymond Carver short story. He goes to New York and has a breakdown.
The film opens with Keaton's character, Riggan, meditating and sitting crosslegged on a stool. And as the voiceover of Keaton's alter ego (the Birdman) washes over us, the stool vanishes and Riggan appears to be floating in the air. That's the only hint we get in the first ten minutes that what we see isn't real and is only what Riggan thinks is happening. From here on out, when Riggan turns off a TV with his mind or moves a vase of flowers that way, it's all in the same long-take, no-quick-cuts look as the rest of the film. It looks like reality. Dingy reality.
Also beautiful is that, when we hear Riggan's alter ego speaking to him, a giant Birdman poster is visible over his shoulder. It's Willam Dafoe as the Green Goblin level insanity we're seeing here.
I knew that this film was going to be ridiculous as I realized that Zach Galifianakis is playing the straight man in this film. Keaton is unspooling quickly in what we saw, furious at one actor's awful performance. And then, cartoon style, a light falls from the rigging right onto his head.
Riggan tells Galifianakis' Brandon that he made it happen, eliciting the usual "Are you high?" response.
Not only does the first ten minutes set up, quickly and effectively, Riggan's breakdown and its nature, it sets up the commentary on blockbusters and their effect on actors. After the light falling incident, this exchange occurs:
Riggan: Get Woody Harrelson.
Brandon: He's doing the next Hunger Games
Riggan: Michael Fassbender
Brandon: He's doing the prequel to the X-Men prequel.
Riggan: Jeremy Renner ... Hurt Locker, he was nominated for the —
Brandon: He's an Avenger.
And if that wasn't a clear enough statement, it's followed by Riggan seeing a piece on Robert Downey Jr.'s recent career on his TV. Which he then turns off with his mind powers. Maybe.
That's when the Birdman starts talking again, saying that all these guys are having great careers when they don't have half Riggan's talent and if only they knew what he could do... and that's when the vase of flowers starts moving. Maybe.
What ended it was the interview (and hit to reporters of all kinds) clip we've seen already.
It was so trippy. I felt off-balance throughout, anchored only by the moments that landed hard, like the pause that followed right after the light fell on that guy's head. The whole thing is aided by a soundtrack that is an extended jazz percussion riff, frenetic and tremulous.
The same thing I said about being anchored by hard hits was echoed in the other clip we saw, where Riggan fucks with Edward Norton's Mike's head, telling him a twisted tale of childhood abuse and then saying it wasn't true, he was just acting. And then, when they argue, Riggan decks Mike. Really hard. And just like the light falling brought a welcome pause to the frenetic pace, so did the punch. Leaving me slightly distressed that violence was how we were getting breathing room.
I just want to add that what little we saw of Emma Stone as Riggan's daughter was great: she was exactly as exasperated and pissed at her father as a daughter serving as an assistant should be. Keaton said in the panel that he wished she really was his daughter and that director Alejandro González Iñárritu pushed her very hard in a scene where she just explodes at him and goes off.
On hand to talk about the film were Edward Norton and Michael Keaton, who were reluctant to explain a lot about the film, explaining that it kind of had to be seen. They heaped praise on Iñárritu, the cinematographer, and their co-stars. Norton said of just the filming process, which involved a lot of rehearsal and practical effects, "I think it does it a disservice if we unpack it too much before people get to see it. Because I think it's important just to experience it. I think film schools will be deconstructing it for a long time to come."
As for Keaton, he said, "It's not like anything you've ever seen before. No, I mean literally it's not like anything you've ever seen before." After what we saw, I believe it.