During Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film Birdman (or the Unexpected Virture of Ignorance), Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) confronts actor Mike Shriner (Edward Norton) following a disastrous performance of “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” A former superhero actor, Riggan adapts Raymond Carver’s short story to retain his dying relevance. Throughout the confrontation, Mike carries a copy of Labyrinths, a collection of stories written by Jorge Borges arguing a world composed of endless realities transcending time. Borges’ writings offer an appropriate metaphor for this film. Iñárritu employs structural and spatial techniques to convey the fragmentation of Birdman’s multiple realities. Individual characters form realities through identity performance and are echoed through Iñárritu’s cinematography. (The space of Broadway’s famous St. James Theatre then sustains these realities). Birdman’s realities exploit the loss of relevance and how some are driven to madness in order to keep it.
The multiple realities portrayed in Birdman require both development and sustainability. Iñárritu develops these realities through his cinematography, so the structure of the film echoes content. Such manifestation arrives with the drum melody in the film’s first frames. The frenzied beat announces the word fragments forming the credits with no consistent pattern guiding the size or placement of the fragments. Post-modern theory purposes that fragmentation is essential in the breakdown of reality. Breaking down the credits’ language via the drum melody unsettles audiences by deconstructing supposedly simple truths. The staccato solo reverberates the numerous realities that will form, interact, and manipulate in the film. Deconstruction also shatters the fourth wall between the film and its audience. Viewers then establish another reality as omniscient observers, understanding the nature of the film while being vulnerable to its unpredictability.
Following the credits, the film fades to Riggan meditating in midair. Amongst the squalor of his glorious past, a voiceover inquires “why are we here?” His reality composes the primary events of the film, all punctuated by the mystery of his potential superpowers. Inarittu fuels the mystery through his camera– he frames Riggan in wide shots to capture the isolation of those moments when he chooses to wield his superpowers. Before such clues are revealed, a drum melody heightens the ambiguity of mystery. The beat continues throughout the film solely within the frame of Riggan’s mind. Even when the drums from a street band thunder around the St. James Theater, only Riggan is there to listen. Like the credits, each beat announces Riggan’s thought and movement, both echoing personal chaos while demonstrating the fragility of his powers.
Riggan’s desire for control manifests through his superpowers. They blind him from his aging fan base and ever-changing social media opinion. As his life becomes increasingly erratic, so does the violence of his powers. The drums react to his powers as an ironic reminder that control and relevance are illusions. They then assume another meaning, one that manifests the Big Bang, with the cacophonous melody resonating the unpredictable nature of creation. Going back to this first scene, audiences already know the answer to Riggan’s question, and that answer is “it doesn’t matter.” Our understanding of this adds another angle to the audience’s omniscient reality.
Iñárritu also engages continuous shots to develop multiple realities. Continuous shots direct audiences through the times and emotions associated with each reality. The prime example of this technique occurs during an exchange between Mike and Riggan’s daughter Sam (Emma Stone) that ends with them having sex. Inarittu reveals four realities in this scene: the realities of Mike, Sam, Mike and Sam, and a performance. Mike’s reality, constructed from the characters from his Broadway resume, initiates the scene. On the theater rooftop, Sam marks the second reality defined through past drug use. The shot expands as Mike and Sam discuss their fears of relevance, introducing the third reality shared by these characters. The fourth reality finishes the scene with the performance taking place after Mike and Sam have sex. This reality’s uniqueness comes from its existence in the future, yet simultaneous with the character’s embrace. Without breaking the shot, Inarittu captures the intimacy burgeoning in three locations and existing in two different points of time.
Maintaining an unbroken shot forces audiences to absorb the nuances of each reality. Iñárritu creates a visual caesura accentuating timelessness; viewers not only acknowledge these moments, but also experience them. Time fluidity showcases the vulnerability shared between Mike and Sam. These characters share the habit of performance, from Mike posing naked in front of a mirror like a Greek statue to Sam’s white clothing and off-center placement highlighting her spectral presence. The continuous shot leaves little chance to buffer these performances. For two selfish people, the inviting spaced and unbroken flow imposes human connection. Juxtaposing this moment with the performance provides insight into the subservience of time. The notion of time implies barriers, linearity, and concrete design. These realities link together through common themes of performance, illusion, and abstraction moving independent of time. In addition, ending the shot with the theater performance uncovers the similar structure uniting these realities. Combined with the dialogue of this scene, all these realities reverberate the play structure. The stage can exhibit different points of time simultaneously, characters flow in-between moments of significance, and audiences adopt an observer status. Reality then becomes a panorama of individually formed truths, existing on concurrent levels of time and space.
Iñárritu sustains his multiple realities through the space of St. James Theatre. The theater allows these realities to thrive without social barricades. Inarittu visually reduces these obstructions through the shadowy atmosphere of backstage. Darkness cloaks people into silhouettes, paring them down to their most natural form of expression through body language. Blue lighting permeates this darkness, the richness of the color emulating emotions of isolation and reflection. Atmosphere commands audiences to wander through the hallways of St. James and bear themselves amongst the clashing of worlds in the imposed silent intimacy. In these moments, viewers lose their omniscient status to become another piece of the production. Darkness also erases social and gender standing, such as when lead actresses Lesley (Naomi Watts) and Laura (Andrea Riseborough) share a kiss in the dressing room following a moment of despair. The camera closes in on the faces of these characters, shutting out their heteronormative relationships. At one point, Lesley shrinks back in shock, careful not to fall out of the camera. The close space reduces her ability to bolster her performance, but rather let her act on impulse. It is only when her lover Mike barges into the room does the reality dissipate. In the same way a play easily transitions between scenes, so does St. James with its many realities.
However, the implication remains that these realities can only exist within the microcosm of St. James. As Mike confides to Sam: “I only tell the truth out there.” He refers to the stage, but this notion encompasses St. James as a whole. The theater traps individuals within the realities it sustains. Riggan’s reality presents the most tragic case of this trade-off. His quest for relevance depends entirely on the success of the performance. As a result, his existence rarely leaves St. James. He lives on the second floor and conducts major conversations in the stairwells. Journeys outside rarely leave the one-block radius of the theater. In those cases, the scenes take place during the evening, the flashing lights and street performers resonating the somber characteristics of backstage. The camera manifests this claustrophobia by closing him in the center of the frame. Because the outside world mirrors the world of the theater, Riggan cannot escape the trappings of his mind. Consequently, the progression of the film transforms into the very caricature he wanted to transcend.
The subtitle for the film is The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance. How does Iñárritu define this virtue? One definition examines how the characters remain blissful in their constructed realities to the detriment of their sanity. Another definition translates ignorance to our lack if understanding the endless realities existing beyond the confines of time and space. Individual choice and performance develop these realities and have spaces for which to sustain them. Realities connect and separate from each other like the infinite paths of the labyrinth. Though a strange curiosity arises in navigating these realities, they also announce our inevitable fade from their continuum.
We as humans prefer ignorance because understanding bestows upon us the greatest burden of our condition: the knowledge of our own mortality.