Barry Jenkins was born and raised in Miami, Florida. He studied film at Florida State University. His first feature film, Medicine For Melancholy, was acquired and released by IFC Films and nominated for four Gotham and Independent Spirit Awards. Moonlight, his second feature, won countless awards, including the Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay (for Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney) and Best Supporting Actor (for Mahershala Ali).
In Babel, there’s a 10-minute sequence that confirms the astounding talent of Alejandro G. Iñárritu. Chronicling the angst of a deaf teenager, it covers the simpler moments of disaffected youth — cutting class, imbibing in public spaces, stumbling onto a rollicking dance floor — but does so with a controlled aesthetic meted out in layered, advancing waves. As I watched it back in 2006 under the high-altitude daze of the Telluride Film Festival, the procession of sound and images resembled a gang of discordant chords coalescing into a sweeping hum. It’s one of the most astounding moments I’ve ever experienced in a cinema.
For better or worse, such aesthetic flair has come to rule the rubric through which Iñárritu’s work is viewed. That he is a craftsman of the highest order is unquestioned. What lies beyond that craft, however, has remained less clear. Is he a visual zealot with a proclivity for the darker aspects of human nature and pyrotechnic story mechanics? Or perhaps the world’s most talented cynic, equipped with the handheld camera to prove it? Depending on when and where you enter his work, some version of all those things might arguably be true.
With Birdman, his new film starring Michael Keaton as a facsimile of Michael Keaton making an attempt at Broadway, Iñárritu steps beyond the burden of his previous work and sets a new path that radically shifts his oeuvre. While the range of his prodigious talent is on full display (augmented by the virtuosity of Emmanuel Lubezki’s roving eye), Iñárritu goes further here than in his previous films, laying out his heart front and center and unflinchingly presenting his voice. This is the work of a director revealing himself, where previously such vulnerability was masked by his considerable skill. It is also a comedy, which… wait, what?
The story: Riggan Thomson (Keaton) is a former Hollywood superstar searching for fulfillment. Having satisfied his studio franchise contract with three Birdman films a decade and some change ago, he’s passed on various reboots in search of more serious work and has slowly, inevitably wound up as a man whom moviegoers refer to in the past tense. Riggan was somebody, though he’s not sure that this somebody ever was him. In an effort to mitigate this mid-life crisis and not wind up like Farrah Fawcett (who died the same day as Michael Jackson, a fact that no one remembers and which Riggan is mildly obsessed with), he writes, directs, funds and stars in his own Broadway show, an ambitious adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. While doing so, the voices in his head manifest themselves in the form of a very vocal ego.
In a vacuum, this is the kind of meta premise a mind like Charlie Kaufman’s would have a field day with. Iñárritu, however, has other plans. Working with the aforementioned Lubezki, he takes this very high concept idea and uses the visual dexterity he’s honed over the past two decades to create a perfect balance between fantasy and reality. Unfolding as a series of one-ers, Birdman is a procession of scenes stitched together with cunning and movie magic. And while it would be simplest to allude to Iñárritu’s brotherhood with Cuarón and Lubezki and attribute such formalism to the ground broken on Cuarón’s Gravity, it would be wiser to view the chambers of this film’s making as a whole and recognize the ways in which the story’s setting weds itself so wonderfully to the film’s form.
The infinitude of time as conveyed in Birdman’s unbroken stream of visuals is its most prescient conceit; were this a drama about radio or cinema, it would not work. However, on the stage, an art form in which there is no barrier between performer and audience, where the performance — like life — unfolds without edits in a fluid stream of happenings (and non-happenings), there is nothing but now, no state of being but on. After the fourth, the fifth night of a show, time becomes gelatinous. By the twelfth, it blurs.
Iñárritu and his co-conspirators embrace this fully and make it the visual grounding for a film that could not take place in a more visually restrictive setting. Whereas this director’s previous films have used the long end of the lens — wide open shutters and crashing zooms that brought the audience uncomfortably close to the subjects of films like Amores Perros and Biutiful — Birdman takes the Iñárritu path less traveled; it opens the audience’s field of view and presents it without obstruction. I would wager that less than 10 percent of this film was shot on a lens longer than 35mm. And that despite shooting mostly in the inner chambers and dimly lit corridors of the St. James Theater, the aperture is rarely if ever wide open. Much like the film’s edit-less gaze, the clarity of focus and wide focal-lengths play to the same aspirations of verisimilitude in the director’s previous work but, in my opinion, with much more forthright results. And while it may border on redundant to have such thematics embedded so thoroughly throughout — An actor and a critic disagree about purity! Michael Keaton’s character is both the star and director, both himself and Iñárritu at once! — isn’t the honesty of that intention a thing worth lauding?
Birdman is cinema as an open wound, oozing and seething with an emotional ambition that matches and occasionally outstrips its formal audacity. To watch it unfold — as I have more than once now — is to witness a filmmaker recognizing the boundaries of his work and pushing far beyond them. It is Iñárritu’s most personal film, a reckoning with self both vulnerable and severe. And there’s real joy here; pure, messy and striking. When Riggan finally cedes to his ego and takes flight, one can feel Iñárritu’s immense relief at expressing himself in this uncompromised form, mimicking the relief of his main man. Bathed in Lubezki’s golden tones and floating atop a sublime Rachmaninoff pairing, this fleeting moment of superhero hocus-pocus carries profound emotion: middle-aged men like Riggan get to fly in movies with obscene regularity. And yet… we’ve never seen them fly quite like this.
The same must be said of Iñárritu. Birdman is a glorious achievement.