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Leveling-up on Fame

Updated on February 3, 2015
Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton, left) and Mike (Edward Norton, right) have a backstage stand off in "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).
Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton, left) and Mike (Edward Norton, right) have a backstage stand off in "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). | Source

Written on 11/19/2014, film first viewed by author on 11/14/2014

There are most definitely different levels of fame, especially in our modern world. With YouTube, Vimeo, and a plethora of social media outlets, Andy Warhol’s “Fifteen Minutes of Fame” prophecy seems to have come true. This author still hears his friends coining the phrase “Facebook famous”. What that does that actually mean? One person gets twenty “likes” on a comment, and that’s famous by their standards, but then the other person gets one hundred five “likes” on their comment. And, if one is considered attractive and makes a “selfy” photo post, they may get more “likes” than they bargained for from people they may not even know (and may not want to know in some cases). However, as stated, those are only friends (and none of them are celebrities… yet). Twitter and Instagram take the concept of “following” celebrities into a whole new ballpark. Of course, celebrities get to control how much exposure they receive through their official pages and accounts. It could be argued that, while anybody can potentially see and hear anything about anybody on the World Wide Web, there is more freedom for celebrities to post only what they want to share, rather than being harassed by the paparazzi and reporters.

Today, if a celebrity does not have a social media identity, they may get overlooked, left in the dust. It is almost as if it may not be enough these days to get stalked by cameramen hiding in bushes. That is exactly what happens to Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), the perfectly flawed and relatable protagonist in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). Riggan is a wash-up, a has-been actor who is trying to make a stunning return in a Broadway play he writes, directs, and stars in. When a hack of an actor suffers what seems to be an accident during rehearsals, Riggan must turn to Mike (Edward Norton), a younger, hipper, artistic method actor, to step in and save the show. Meanwhile, Riggan is having rollercoaster relationships with his assistant/daughter Sam (Emma Stone) and lawyer/friend Jake (Zach Galifianakis).

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Within the ensemble cast (cheekily playing mostly an ensemble cast), Riggan battles with the complexities of human nature, both in the realms of reality and surrealism. As Mike tries to bring “the truth” into the theatre, Riggan also tries to literally find the truth in the theater. He is trying to find his true self, not only as an actor and artist, but as a person. He has failed as a mainstream personality, he has failed as a husband, and appears to be heading towards failure as a father. Riggan struggles within himself, as most modern people do, between being true in a career and true in a personal life.

What happens in the preparation for the opening night of the play is paralleled by is going on behind the stage in “real life”. The camera work and editing is so (and really so) crucial to how this film translates the message of “reality in art”. As anyone will instantly notice, the majority of the film looks like one, long take. Even though time goes on and characters eventually end up in different places, there is not one, single, easily noticeable cut within the main narrative. A scene just doesn’t stop; it leads to the next instance, not just in dialogue cues or editing, but in the continuous move of the camera, or a very tricky special effect. The result is a unique way of viewing a narrative film. It is as if the audience is either a. watching the lives of a group of people in real time, or b. watching an intimate, live stage performance on screen (as in, subtracting the extreme wide shots and panning full shots of a “televised play”). Even if it’s more of a psychological way of looking at it, people often watch films and think “ah, there’s a cut, so the film has “stopped” for a nanosecond, and then it continues to another shot or scene where it will eventually “stop” again”. Of course, the countering argument would be that “the curtain must be dropped or the lights turned off to change a scene in live theatre”, and therefore, the stage has “edits” of its own. However, most people don’t see it that way, because they know people are changing the scenery and wardrobe behind the curtain, so they have a feeling of the theatre as always moving, exactly like what is seen in Birdman. Life never stops after curtain call.

Every character in Birdman seems to have the same, if not similar, through line. Each one of them wants to mean something, to have people see them in a spotlight of some kind and actually give a damn. As Sam puts it, people struggle to remain relevant. There is commentary here about how, in the older days, people really had to work hard at something, excel at it, and be constantly in the public eye to gain a “celebrity status”. The whole public eye part is still applicable, but anyone with a camera and a computer can become a celebrity. The trick is to keep coming back, and stay in the new spotlight. Though it might be easier to get noticed, competition is higher than ever as a result of that very fact. It is like sacrificing one’s self to the Great God of Attention-grabbing, and just as Riggan Thomas will step towards that blood-stained alter, one must always ask themselves: “how far dare I go to get what I feel I deserve?”

View the trailer for "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

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