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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



Birdman/The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, Review: The Expected Vice of Knowledge

Birdman/The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, Review: The Expected Vice of Knowledge

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) was known for his superhero role, Birdman, which spawned two sequels. He refused to do the third. Now a-used-to-be-big-star, Riggan is trying hard to make a comeback through drama, by staging Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” He will be co-starring with Lesley (Naomi Watts), who is also a movie star launching her Broadway debut, and Laura (Andrea Riseborough), with whom Riggan is sexually involved. When one bad actor in the cast has an ‘accident’, Lesley’s boyfriend and also an actor, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), comes into the picture to help. Mike is a manipulator. He then puts Riggan in a discomforting situation by showing up, having memorised the script, and demanding it to be rewritten.

Meanwhile, Riggan’s fresh-from-the-rehab daughter Sam (Emma Stone) tries to talk some sense to him, particularly citing that his resistance to the social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, makes him even more of a has-been than he already is. Riggan has to refinance his home and his manager/friend Jake (Zach Galifianakis) juggles around to make the play happen. His estranged wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan) appears, to wish him luck and try to prevail upon him that he must be a god father to Sam. It all now depends on the review the play will get from the New York Times’ drama critic Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan). She wields such influence that a bad review from her would break the play. Soon, personalities, naïveté, quirks, crushes, obsessions, addictions, egos and alter egos, vice and virtue, ignorance and knowledge, emerge and rise, clashing head on, and twirling the characters round, who hit rock bottom and all-time highs in rapid succession.

Birdman was written over a period of two years, by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., Armando Bo. Nicolás told Creative Screenwriting, “We met in New York a couple of times, Mexico, and L.A., and just started with an idea. The first notes that Alejandro gave us were insane. It was just “one shot narration, a comedy about the theater,” so we were excited and confused. For a while we thought about it, and we thought about the main character and his journeys and obsessions. The interesting thing is that of the four us, we’re two directors – Armando and Alejandro – and Alex and I are writers, so we could approach the scene from different aspects. Alejandro did three weeks of rehearsals of every scene with the camera crew.”

Shooting took place in the St. James Theater, New York, and a little bit in the Astoria studios in Queens. It took about 30 days of filming, but they rehearsed for three weeks before that. Every bit of the writing, planning and rehearsing has proven to be worth it for director Alejandro González Iñárittu--the Mexican maverick, who gave us Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel, and Biutiful. One can credit him with inventing a new style, a new genre. The long takes, simulated as a seamless continuation of previous shots, have been marvelously collated. Alongside completely rational characters, he places Riggan, who has Birdman inside him and indulges in fantasy telekinesis. He also engineers an accident to get rid of an actor he does not like. Mike is a man for whom reality is unreal and only the stage is truth. He drinks real gin if it is in the script and cannot even indulge in sex, unless he is turned on by an appreciative audience, on stage. Black comedy is inter-woven so effectively that you blink before you realise that there was a laugh here. Hollywood icons and the comic-book/pornography culture are attacked repeatedly, often daring to name names. Sam and Mike have a serious discussion about her derrière, and when she is convinced his compliment was genuine, she gets attracted towards him.          

Michael Keaton (63, Mr. Mom, Beetlejuice, Batman, Batman Returns, Jackie Brown) throws his image to the wolves and does just about everything that a man conscious about his image should not, included running around in a translucent white brief, sporting haggard and near bald looks and even appearing in close-ups with a regenerated, ungainly nose. It is a complex role, with strong shades of an existential crisis. It is also a great performance. If he was unhappy at getting roles like Batman that required little or no acting, Birdman is an answer to all his prayers. Wonder why he was named Riggan, though. Is it a reference to US President Ronald Reagan, who was an actor of little merit. Zach Galifianakis (Hangover trilogy, Due date, The Campaign), who began as a stand-up comedian, is not the most likely actor to play a lawyer/production manager, but he looks and acts the part. Edward Norton (Primal Fear, American History X, The Incredible Hulk, The Grand Budapest Hotel) conducts his own master class. Reputed to be a difficult actor in real life, Norton comes across as a man really consumed by the world of make believe, but, oddly, when he plays Truth or Dare with Sam, he always chooses truth.

Andrea Riseborough (Brighton Rock, The Long Walk to Finchley, Oblivion, Shadow Dancer) makes a buxom co-actor and sexual interest for Riggan. (“When I met Alejandro on the street corner for a cup of tea and I was praying that he would offer me the job, I told him that I would crawl across hot coals to work with him”). Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone, The Changeling, Green Zone) is subdued to start with, and then she gets blunt, only to come back to good wife persona. Emma Stone (Superbad, The House Bunny, Zombieland, Easy A, Crazy, Stupid, Love) could drown you in those whirlpool eyes and seduce you with one come hither look, even when Stoned. Very often such girls go astray and can be vulnerable to non-conformist overtures, as has been charted in the film. Naomi Watts (King Kong, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Diana, J. Edgar) fits her role very well, including one scene where she finds a woman’s intimacy re-assuring. Lindsay Duncan is painted as a super-bitch, and when she does not exhibit such extreme traits, you wonder why. Wait for the answer. An Indian is shown as a liquor-store owner patronised by Riggan and a taxi driver hurls choice abuses in Gujarati at Riggan for forgetting to pay the fare.

Music by Antonio Sánchez comprises largely of jazz drums, and the source is often shown as a street musician playing. Beats are used time and again to enhance shots and transitions. Birdman is one film where the music is a dominant element.

Watch Birdman and applaud Alejandro González Iñárritu, like you did in Babel, 2006, only more. This is a real large Bird feather in his cap.

Now for two quick denouements.

*There's this joke that goes back to the 20th century. A performer was trying to impress a producer to back his act. The producer was not impressed with any of his ideas. Desperate, the artiste said he would do something that had never been attempted in the history of show-business. Producer said, "I'm listening." And the artiste declared, "I will kill myself on stage. How about that?" Producer, "Not interested." Artiste, "Why? Can there be anything more sensational than an actor killing himself on stage?" Nothing could be more sensational. But how would I handle the demands for 'Encore, Encore?' When you have seen the film, you'll know why I was reminded of this joke.

*There is bound to endless debate on the last shot of the film. What really happens in the end? What does the director want us to believe? I wouldn't tell you even if I knew, because of the ethics of criticism and reviewing. But I can tell you that it is confusing and open to numerous interpretations. Like most film-goers, I do not like being confused and left with an ambivalent ending. But by then, the film had done enough for me to earn a 4-star rating.

Rating: ****


Excerpt from Raymond Carver’s short story, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love: When they were finally out of the woods, we were able to move them out of intensive care, after we could see they were going to make it. I dropped in to see each of them every day, sometimes twice a day if I was up doing other calls anyway. They were both in casts and bandages, head to foot. You know, you’ve seen it in the movies even if you haven’t seen the real thing. But they were bandaged head to foot, man, and I mean head to foot. That’s just the way they looked, just like those phony actors in the movies after some big disaster. But this was the real thing. Their heads were bandaged—they just had eye holes and a place for their mouths and noses. Anna Gates had to have her legs elevated, too. She was worse off than he was, I told you that. Both of them were on intravenous and glucose for a time. Well, Henry Gates was very depressed for the longest while. Even after he found out that his wife was going to pull through and recover, he was still very depressed. Not just about the accident itself, though of course that had gotten to him, as those things will. There you are one minute, you know, everything just dandy, then blam, you’re staring into the abyss. You come back. It’s like a miracle. But it’s left its mark on you. It does that. One day, I was sitting in a chair beside his bed and he described to me, talking slowly, talking through his mouth hole so sometimes I had to get up to his face to hear him, telling me what it looked like to him, what it felt like, when that kid’s car crossed the center line onto his side of the road and kept coming. He said he knew it was all up for them, that was the last look of anything he’d have on this earth. This was it. But he said nothing flew into his mind, his life didn’t pass before his eyes, nothing like that. He said he just felt sorry to not be able to see any more of his Anna, because they’d had this fine life together. That was his only regret. He looked straight ahead, just gripped the wheel and watched the kid’s car coming at them. And there was nothing he could do except say, ‘Anna! Hold on, Anna!’ ”

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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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