It takes you about ten minutes to notice that there are no cuts in Birdman. The camera is a constant, roving presence throughout the movie that has no respect for the few borders that do exist in the movie. It’s in Riggan’s dressing room, on stage, prowls the streets of New York, never settles, never stops. It’s not all one take, of course, and interestingly the joins become a little more apparent in the second half but just like every choice made in the film it’s very deliberate. In fact, much like the music, the camera defines and is defined by the topography of both the movie and Riggan’s emotional health.
First off, the camera is the play. Carver’s sprawling intricate dialogue is feverish to read and even more feverish to perform. Look at the two scenes of the play we actually see, and specifically, the one we see at the start. The dinner table conversation is four people trying to understand something incomprehensible and all pulling in opposite directions. The play, and the movie, are defined not by what they’re aiming for but by how they fall apart and that’s all funnelled down into Riggan’s big speech about the old couple in the ER. It’s a genuinely, and artfully, affecting moment that he nails more with each successive night but the one that you remember is the catastrophic opening preview. Riggan walks into the spotlight, starts in, the music swells and…Mike yells at him for switching out the real gin.
The camerawork here does three impossible things at once; sets up the tricky reality of the play within the film, nails the emotional honesty of the scene and sets up everything about how it will fall apart all without being overt. We see Riggan come on, switch the bottles and start in, we see Mike finish his latest glass and then we forget all about it as the play takes dominance from the movie. Just for a moment, the camera settles down, locked off on Riggan and, just for a moment, we do too. Then chaos reasserts itself and the camera’s off again. It not only captures the fundamental unease at the heart of Carver’s work but also at the heart of the production. The constant, nervy pacing of the camera around each scene echoes the characters, and actors, and actors playing characters, all circling one another looking for ways to connect that don’t hurt or cause them to lose status. It’s camera work as emotional beat, camera work as character note.
It’s also the only time I’ve ever seen camera work used as an expression of a character’s emotional state. Riggan’s state of mind defines the camerawork at several points and is also used to show just how divorced from reality he might be. The first time we see him, apparently levitating is cut in such a way that we never see him land, simply get up. A later telekinetic rampage becomes Riggan hurling things around by hand the moment another character arrives and his final, balletic flight through New York is a deliciously uncertain moment. We see long, locked off shots of him flying through the city and coming in to land at the theatre. He walks in with a newfound purpose and…is pursued a second later by a taxi driver demanding he pay his fare. The film’s ending in particular leaves us to question which is real but the movie plays with reality, and the omnipresent camera as a distorted lens for it, throughout. At one point it’s a substitute for Mike’s POV in a conversation with Sam. At another, Andrea Riseborough’s Laura directly addresses it, and us. Throughout the movie the camera never rests, never stops and never feels like it looks away, even when it does. Its creativity and unease mapped onto a constantly moving, constantly nervous point of view. A two way mirror that lets us see everything at the cost of never once being able to look away.