I saw Birdman this week. Halfway through the movie, I thought, “Sad-dad guilt? Muted colors? Ghostly figures and secrets? Mental illness as the crux of a failed relationship? This feels a lot like Biutiful.” And then, of course, when the film ended, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s name floated onto the screen, and I felt both affirmed and also really, really pretentious.
I’m glad I hadn’t done any research beforehand, because Iñárritu’s films, in my very limited experience, are best taken in without preconceived notions. It’s most exciting to watch a film like Birdman or Biutiful while wondering at every step, “Is this guy going to be okay? How not-okay are we talking here? Murderer not okay? Suicide not okay?”
In both films, Iñárritu defines madness as a person’s inability to make sense of external stimuli, which results in hallucinations, nightmares, or some magical-realistic blend of the two. As both films progress, the otherworldly images experienced only by the protagonist begin to seep into film’s surrounding reality, and the line between real and imagined is blurred. Also in both films, the male protagonist’s daughter either inherits her father’s madness in the final moments of the film, or else comes to understand it in a simple, but jarring, way.
Bitiful follows the mental decay of a divorced father as he manages his two day jobs: procuring work for illegal immigrants in Barcelona and talking to recently dead ghosts. It’s one of the most depressing and fascinating movies I’ve ever seen. Birdman follows the mental decay of another divorced father as he attempts to direct and star in a play based on Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. He’s also tormented by the imagined voice of a superhero he played in blockbuster films at the beginning of his career. It’s tonally chaotic and fascinating.
Every new plot development in Biutiful feels like a revelation; the audience watches the protagonist’s complicated life unfurl like a time lapse flower. In contrast, Birdman sets the viewer up for a theatrical plot-turn (there is literally a Chekhov’s gun in the first act that goes off in the third), and its plot ties itself into knots that feel good under the skin. Most of the film’s opening is presented in long, uncut shots in which the camera pans through the back corridors and dark corners in a Broadway theatre. There are many secret rooms and guilty conversations in Birdman, so many that the few scenes depicting an open space (the play’s audience, Michael Keaton in Times Square, and the final scene) are a huge relief from the claustrophobia.
Is madness only a terror for the person experiencing hallucinations? How are their loved ones effected? Iñárritu treats the romantic and paternal relationships of his protagonists with great care. Although they are not perfect fathers or husbands, they are capable, in an obsessive, guilty sense, of empathy for their families. Tragically, both characters are unable to manifest their love in a functional, healthy way, and their families are forever linked to a system of guilt. “How have I failed you?” is the question asked in both films by the protagonist. Unfortunately, these characters are unable to evolve into asking a following question, like, “how can I fix this?” or “What do you need?”
Birdman employs a dark humor that isn’t present in Biutiful, and this keeps the film from feeling pretentious: casting both Zach Galafinakis and Edward Norton as manic supporting characters coiled to attack and undercutting some of the mise-en-scene with explanations organic to the environment. allowed Alejandro González Iñárritu to assure us that, yes, some of the imagery is heavy-handed. It’s a film set in New York theatre, so of course it is.
In one scene, Michael Keaton’s protagonist reels drunkenly through the streets to the sound of a man screaming the “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy from Macbeth. Just as the soliloquy wraps, we actually see the disheveled man in the street who’s been calling out at Keaton all along, attempting to guerilla-audition for his Carver play. It’s a wink-wink moment. I’m still not sure how I feel about it.
Both films, after I watched them, had me thinking about the depiction of mental illness (I’ll call it ‘”madness” for argument’s sake, to avoid attempting to diagnose any fictional characters with something specific) in thrillers, horror films and dramas. In horror films and thrillers, madness tends to serve as a film’s internal driving force. The audience is supposed to feel chilled and disturbed by a protagonist’s mind slipping away from them. We see what they see, and we wonder alongside them whether their hallucinations or paranoid suspicions are reasonable. Notable examples of this genre include cult films like Pi, B-movie pulpy projects like The Game, classics like The Shining and more recent films Black Swan and Shutter Island.
Cue some actors from those films looking at something in horror:
In dramas, madness can define a protagonist as a tragic character. They are unable to reach through the opaque curtain that surrounds them, and the audience roots for them to succeed, regardless of this fact.
Madness often operates in a drama as background fodder, coloring, or as a returning but not relentless theme. That’s the beauty in Birdman, specifically: Michael Keaton is able to experiment and fluctuate in his performance. At times, his eyes are clear with anger. In other scenes, his face goes blank and he allows the world to whirl around him. We see the characters in his life who are able to temporarily coax him closer to reality: his ex-wife, his assistant, and, in some cases, his daughter. The voice of Birdman, and the thumping, theatrical hallucinations and delusions of grandeur, are only allowed to blossom into life when Keaton finds himself alone.
Birdman is a story about ego: Keaton’s Riggan Thompson is only able to interact with others on his terms, and the film’s minor characters act in direct opposition to or in direct support of Riggan Thompson’s objectives. His daughter attributes her really tame, mostly off-screen misbehavior (sex with iffy guys, smoking pot, drinking??) to her father’s absence in her childhood, and the cast and crew of Thompson’s play buzz around him at all times, trying to coddle and pump him up. In contrast, Javier Bardem is the only perpetrator of action in Biutiful. Tragedies unrelated to his declining health and ability to talk with ghosts persist, although he attempts at every turn to better the lives of the people around him. If Birdman is about ego, Biutiful is about empathy. Both, although different in their central focus, illustrate a father’s winding and thumping narrative. Both undulate with guilt and the repeated question, “do I have a handle on what’s happening to me?”
More lyrical films depicting a protagonist’s madness include Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Aviator, Pan’s Labyrinth and Donnie Darko. If one considers how madness unfolds in this films like a dreamscape, through the use of bright colors and light, darker films with a realistic color palette like Biutiful and Birdman are thrown into relief. Here madness is still an insular, terrifying experience, but the goal of the protagonists is to reach through their personal darkness to make connections with others.