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Is All the World Really a Stage in ‘Birdman’?

Is Birdman's metacommentary the theatre within cinema that it appears to be?

The connection between theater and cinema dates back to the early days of the film medium. One of the first cinema pioneers, Georges Méliès, who radically changed the direction of the new medium, narrated stories by means of ‘picturesque tableaux’ that recalled the static aspect of the theater stage. The influential French film critic and theorist André Bazin reminds us that theatrical traditions and repertoires have exercised enormous influence on cinema and particularly on a specific category of films, including slapstick comedies and Hollywood musicals, which are deemed to be cinematic.

Susan Sontag rightly points out that theater is one of the key arts that feeds into the cinema, while a number of influential films including The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), and Carl Dreyer’s masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) were initially dismissed as too ‘theatrical’. One also needs to point out that key theater theorists and practitioners such as Vsevolod Meyerhold, Bertolt Brecht, Antonin Artaud, Constantin Stanislavski, and Lee Strasberg have significantly inspired filmmakers and film movements across the globe. But to cut a long story short: Aristotle’s point that narrative is the soul of the drama applies equally to cinema.

Cinema’s employment of a theater performance within the film narrative is also a key formal trope that one can identify in numerous films. Jacques Rivette in Paris Belongs to Us (1960), John Cassavetes in Opening Night (1977) and Theo Angelopoulos in The Travelling Players (1975) employed a frame story of a theater performance to deal with aspects of reality that extended beyond the film narrative.

In Rivette’s case the characters’ rehearsals of the Shakespearian play turns into a metacommentary on the social, political and intellectual asphyxiation experienced by the post-war French youth. In John Cassavetes’ Opening Night , the frame theater story functions as a reflection on art and reality, something which is enhanced by the fact that the couple in the frame story are played by Cassavetes and his wife Gena Rowlands, who are meant to be former lovers in the main narrative too. Finally, in The Travelling Players, the story revolves around a troupe of actors travelling through the turbulent years of Greek modernity 1939-1952. They try to perform a bucolic play, Golfo, but their performances are constantly interrupted by the real, that is, Greek history, e.g., the Axis invasion, and the Greek Civil War that followed World War II.

We can thus see how the trope of the theater within film narrative tends to have extra-textual resonances, and it has been used as a means of commenting either on the boundaries between art and social reality, performance and reality, and/or art and history. This is also the case in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest film, Birdman.

The film follows Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a has-been Hollywood actor who became famous in the past for playing a superhero named Birdman. He is trying to make a career come-back by putting on Raymond Carver’s play, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, in which he also plays the lead character. Thomson’s inner and outer realities are constantly intermingled, since the voice of Birdman appears out of the blue and criticizes his artistic pathway.

One of the important extra-textual aspects here is the fact that Michael Keaton played Batmanin Tim Burton’s successful screen adaptation of the superhero comic into the screen (let me also add that for the author of this article, Burton’s Batman films are the only ones that have brilliantly captured the dark side of the comic superhero and remain, up until now, examples of populist masterpieces). Like Thomson, Keaton also experienced an (undeserved) career downside following the Batman films; Thomson refused to continue performing in sequels of the Birdman films, while Keaton also refused to play in Batman Forever (1995), due to the fact that Burton decided not to direct it.

We can thus see that the film draws on the exploration of the limits between reality and fiction. This is also reinforced by means of a series of formal elements that are reminiscent of modernist experiments seen in the works of Alfred Döblin, Peter Weiss, and Kurt Vonnegut. Indicative in this respect is the constant intrusion of the real, either in the main or in the frame story. For example, at some point, Thomson has one of his interior monologue moments and we get to hear the extra-diegetic music. We assume that it describes his inner turbulence, and he is the only one who can hear it. As he walks out of the theatre building, we get to see a drummer performing on the streets only to realize that the music is diegetic and not some inner soundtrack; or is it perhaps both?

The intrusion of the real is more evident in the frame story; that is, the theatre play. In one of the first previews of Carver’s play, Mike Shiner (played brilliantly by Edward Norton) makes a debacle out of the performance due to his drunkenness. His real self, that is the actor, outweighs his fictional character, and this leads to the cancellation of the show. Later on, another disaster is prevented in the last minute. Mike again gets a real hard-on while performing a sex-scene with his partner (Naomi Watts) in the play, who is also his partner in real life, and to her distress he attempts to have ‘real’ sex with her while on stage. Finally, in the opening night Thomson uses a real gun to shoot himself in the nose in the play’s final scene. He receives a standing ovation and one can discern the confusion in the audience’s eyes. Is that real or fake? they seem to wonder.

But hold on a second. The intrusion of the real in the film is only an intrusion of the diegetic real in the frame story. Herein lies the difference between the two media. No matter how trite and tautological it sounds, there is a perverse aspect in the theater that has to do with the fact that the actor is present and the duality of her/his identity can lead to productive misunderstandings. Once I attended a performance of Sarah Cane’s Crave, in which the actors completely confused the lines to the point that the director had to step in and explain that the show had to be cancelled. For ten minutes or more the majority of the spectators thought that this was another Pirandellian trick, typical of many experimental theater groups. It was hard for them to deal with this authentic intervention of real life into a fictional setting.

The most fascinating aspect of the theater is the fact that the audience witnesses flesh-and-blood people impersonating other characters. While this presence does not apply to film narratives, Bazin reminds us that there is a different type of perverse presence in cinema. The screen acts as a mirror ‘with a delayed reflection’, it has its own reality, which can be attributed to ‘artificial proximity’.

What is Birdman‘s metacommentary, then? Does the film argue in favor of a radicalization of narrative analogous to Angelopoulos’ and Cassavetes’ experiments mentioned earlier? The answer is no. If the theater frame story in Birdman plays a self-reflexive role, this is nothing but a manifestation of Hollywood’s need to return back to its narrative roots. Though the film relies on modernist tropes, these are not employed to negate classicism, but to make us think of the importance of viewing stories in which characters are flesh-and-blood people, who work, drink, love, fuck, smoke, and are also vulnerable.

If Hollywood was ever good at something, this was its ability to tell powerful stories and to produce monumental visuals that endure in the lapse of time. Who can, for instance, forget the last image of the depression-era classic drama Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), or Larry Rhodes (Andy Griffith) screaming from his balcony in the last scene of A Face in the Crowd (1957), or the last visual of Sidney Lumet’s masterpiece The Pawnbroker (1964), or the funeral scenes in Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill (1983)?

As experimental theatre cannot exist without the classical one, or off-Broadway does not mean anything without Broadway, so art cinema cannot exist without a good popular counter-example. The question is: when was the last time that Hollywood produced such enduring visuals like the abovementioned ones? I leave the answer to you. All I know is that the image of Thomson removing the bandages from his wounded nose and looking at himself in the mirror will stay with me forever.

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