Sunday, January 15, 2017
Birdman (Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.
There are a lot of feathers flying in this Best Picture Oscar winner (sorry, I couldn’t help myself). The 2014 Alejandro G. Iñάrritu movie takes on a number of themes: commercialism versus artistic achievement; the role of critics; the lives of actors; illusion versus reality in film and theater.
Let’s start out with the title of the motion picture (we’ll get to the parenthetical subtitle later). It’s sounds similar to the superheroes in other movies. The main character here is Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton). He used to be the star of the Birdman films, but walked away after three outings. Movies that feature Batman, Superman, Iron Man, Spiderman, etc., have a dichotomy in their names. They are part “man” (or in the case of Wonder Woman, part female), and part something that makes them special, something that allows them to overcome the limitations of others. For audiences, they provide a vicarious escape from everyday living and the possibility of vicariously becoming something greater than themselves. Major Hollywood studios have cultivated this desire for escapism into the only enterprise they are willing to bankroll, at the exclusion of films that explore the actual plight of everyday people. Iñάrritu’s movie makes several references to this “selling out” to solely produce diversion.
Riggan is trying to break away from his fantasy past to produce a serious play on Broadway, and is looking for an actor to fill a role. But, he can’t get Woody Harrelson because he is doing The Hunger Games, Michael Fassbinder is committed to “the prequel to the X-Men prequel,” and Jeremy Renner, who was in the realistically gritty The Hurt Locker, is now working as an Avenger. At one point Riggan despairs of being forgotten for giving up the superhero life to the point that if he was on a plane with George Clooney, and it crashed, the press wouldn’t even mention his name. The reference of course is that even Clooney played Batman once. But, the bigger inside joke is that Keaton himself walked away from playing Batman, and the actor in Birdman who plays Mike Shiner, Edward Norton, was The Incredible Hulk. As Riggan says, it seems like Hollywood has put everybody “in a cape.” As the voice of Birdman in Riggan’s head reminds him, people love entertainment that is “Big, loud, fast!” As Birdman, he was able to “save people from boring, miserable lives.” Birdman says the audience members “love action. Not this talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit,” that Riggan is presenting on stage.
So, Hollywood is a target here, and the way it typecasts actors in the audience’s mind makes it difficult for Riggan to do serious work. But, Iñάrritu also ridicules the elitism of the New York theater community. Shiner is an extreme method actor who will do anything on the stage if it promotes, for what is for him, a truthful experience, even if it ignores artistic discipline or taste, such as drinking real gin or engaging in actual sex during the performance. He dismisses fame derived from commercial projects when he says, “Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige.” His prejudice is that he believes that people become famous only by compromising their artistic standards.
The nastier attack is against the theater critic, Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan), whose sole New York Times review carries so much power that it will make or break a play. Riggan meets her in a bar and she arrogantly tells him that she is going to kill his play without having even seen it yet. She has an artistic bigotry toward him for coming from low brow Hollywood and presuming to attempt something serious on Broadway. She says, “I hate you and everyone you represent. Entitled spoiled, selfish children. Blissfully untrained, unversed, and unprepared to even attempt real art…Well this is the theater and you don’t get to write, direct, and act in your own propaganda piece without going through me first.” She assumes he is not an actor, only a “celebrity.” Riggan grabs the review she is writing, and says that she is just using stock terms without really analyzing what she saw. He accuses her of being a lazy writer. He says, “There’s nothing here about technique! There’s nothing in here about structure! There’s nothing in here about intentions! It’s just a bunch of crappy opinions, backed up by even crappier comparisons.” Riggan says as a critic, “You risk nothing!” It is the artist that has put his heart and soul into his work. As he says, “This play cost me everything.” Actually, it is Shiner, in an earlier meeting who delivers the most damning line to Tabitha, when he says, “A man becomes a critic when he cannot be an artist, the same way a man becomes an informer when he cannot be a soldier.” Based on that statement, the critic, out of anger springing from artistic inadequacy, actually becomes a traitor, betraying those truly committed to the creative process by judging a work without compassion.
The beginning of the film presents a quote from writer Raymond Carver. The words are on his tombstone, and in them Carver asks himself what he wanted out of life. The response is “To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on earth.” This line especially pertains to actors, who usually admit to being insecure and entering show business to compensate and gain validation. Riggan is adapting a story by Carver entitled "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." As was stated above, Riggan stresses over whether he will be forgotten after he has died, that the fans’ devotion will have disappeared after taking off the superhero costume. This falling from the show business heavens may be why the first image of the film is one of a spacecraft plummeting from the sky toward the ground. His own daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), diminishes him by saying that he is producing a play that is out of date, just like him, and that his work, and even Riggan himself, are “unimportant.” He wants to do a play about the human condition, represented by the “man” part of Birdman, but the “bird” part feeds his ego, encouraging the desire to soar above others. The superhero character aspect of himself says to Riggan, “You are larger than life.” His alter ego tells him that he should return to the movie franchise because he will gross a billion dollars. He says Riggan isn’t bound by human restrictions, that “gravity doesn’t even apply” to him. His Birdman persona tells Riggan he is not only a superhero, but should be called “a god.” His ex-wife, Sylvia (Amy Ryan), tells him that he may be working in a play about love, but he doesn’t understand the emotion because he confuses “love for admiration.” Love is a complex feeling which means caring for and accepting someone despite flaws. Admiration is less intimate, and may only refer to one’s work. The actor in Riggan can’t seem to make the distinction, and assumes that if others admire his work they will love him. With this attitude, he will always find himself lacking satisfaction. But, he is not the only one who expresses the actor’s propensity for insecurity. One of the actresses in the play, Lesley (Naomi Watts), asks “Why don’t I have any self-respect?” To which another actress, Laura (Andrea Riseborough) responds, “You’re an actress, honey.”
This insecurity is mirrored toward the end when Riggan says, “I’m nothing. I’m not even here.” In the play, Six Characters in Search of an Author, the premise is that actors are indefinite, mutable entities, whereas the characters they play are clearly defined, something to get a fix on, reliable. Lesley tells her boyfriend, Shiner, that on stage, he is Mr. Truth, but in real life, he is a fraud, nothing to bank on. He is able to have an actual erection playing his character, but is impotent with her in their relationship. Thus, he also suffers from a lack of self-confidence outside of the work process.
But, Shiner’s demanding “truth” on stage brings up the main theme of the movie, which is artistic illusion versus reality. Plays and movies deal with these two states by presenting the illusion of reality. Artists present their vision on a sliding scale between these two poles. Some paintings are almost photographic in the depictions of their subjects, while others are impressionistic or abstract. Plays cannot provide the verisimilitude of movies because of the confinements of the theater environment. But, some are more grounded in their depiction of the world than those that bring in elements of say, farce, and the breaking of the “fourth wall.” The same can be said for movies. In any event, there is always a pretending, a suspension of disbelief, which one may call “the unexpected virtue of ignorance.” When we follow a story, we allow ourselves as the audience to be ignorant of the fact that we are watching a fiction, and that allows us to participate in that world of make believe. In Birdman, Iñάrritu offers us a contemplation of what happens when we lose sight of the distinction between illusion and reality. The first shot of Riggan is of him hovering in midair in his dressing room. He believes, at times, that he can do this, because part of himself thinks he really is Birdman. While alone, it appears that he can turn a TV on and off with his fingers and make things fly through the air. But, when his lawyer and partner, Jake (Zach Galifianakis), enters his dressing room, we see him using his hands to hurl objects. He wants to deny that fantasy part of his mind, wants to remove the movie poster of himself in the costume, and has sacrificed his career to do a down-to-earth play about love. But, even the play is not “real,” which is emphasized by the falling of a spotlight onto one of the actors, emphasizing how different actual reality is compared to a dramatic presentation.
Shiner is the toast of New York City theatergoers because of his devotion to presenting “reality” on the stage. He gets a tanning bed to emphasize the redneck quality of his character, for example. He is not happy with the gun that Riggan uses for the final scene, because it doesn’t look like a real one (a foreshadowing remark). He uses real gin in the play, not caring about the intoxicating effects it will produce. He tells Lesley that he wants to really have sex with her in the scene leading up to the ending of the play, unconcerned about the inappropriateness of the suggestion. Shiner takes the idea of method acting, which is supposed to be based on using real life experiences, to the extreme of actually creating those experiences on stage. In essence, he is undermining the craft of acting by eliminating that part of it which recreates life in order to present an illusion that resembles reality in order to comment on it.
Iñάrritu’s directing style constantly reminds us that we are not watching reality. The apparently one-shot technique of the film is an illusion, since the story moves from night into day, and from periods of time offstage and onstage which could not occur if the story was done in real time. The jarring percussionist soundtrack does not blend into the background, reminding us of how a movie adds sounds that are not found in everyday life. We even see the drummer in one scene, emphasizing the artifice of what we are viewing and hearing. At one point, Riggan enters the theater from the street and says to cut the music, drawing our attention to the fact that we are watching a movie, not a presentation of actual events.
But, the film comments on our current world that does not appreciate that gradation between extreme make-believe and verisimilitude in art. Today’s audiences go from one extreme to the other, preferring the total escapism of the superhero genre, or reality television (which is not “reality’ since it creates contrived, extreme situations peopled with non-actors). Since everyone records everything to be presented online, people associate the viewing screen now with actual occurrences, and seem to prefer even non-documentary films to be based on “true events” to be palatable. Fictitious stories can, thus, lose validation as a way of revealing understanding into the human condition.
This movie shows the opposing desires for escapism and reality in Riggan himself. In the earlier scene where Sam pronounces her father’s irrelevance to the modern world, she berates him for his scorn of Twitter and Facebook, and says that it is online where the young people of today are vying for importance, which translates to visibility and attention, hoping for the social media stardom that movie actors used to have a corner on. When Riggan locks himself out of the theater in his underwear briefs and must wander around Times Square to return to the play, pedestrians use their cell phones to record him. His daughter informs him that one of the videos has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times. She tells him that today, that is “power,” implying that his play is not.
Riggan finally combines the two aspects sought by today’s audiences in his play when he uses a real gun at the performance and shoots himself in his face, damaging his nose. (Earlier, when he locks himself out of the theater, he starts the scene using his hand in the form of a gun, which, if the audience is trusted to use its imagination, can be accepted as a weapon). Afterwards, at the hospital, the bandage over his face makes him look like he is wearing the headpiece to his Birdman outfit, thus suggesting the joining of his superhero character with actual bloodshed. The critic who threatened to kill his play, now praises Riggan’s performance, declaring that he has created a new art form, dubbing it “superrealism,” merging the superhero aspects and reality TV into one form of entertainment. Earlier, he flies around the Broadway area, and we hear a passerby ask if this is a movie. The mere question suggests the merging of reality and illusion to the point where they are indistinguishable today.
At the end of the film, Riggan opens the hospital room window and jumps out. His daughter enters the empty room, sees the window open, and looks out. First, she looks down, but then gazes skyward, and starts to smile. The joke is on us. Iñάrritu does not give us a definite answer because the audience now shares his daughter’s perception, and possibly that of the rest of the population at large that is unable to see where the real and the illusion diverge. Maybe, if we can accept “fake” news as real, and begin to believe the deceptions of our leaders, then perhaps we can even believe that superheroes actually exist.
The next film is Shadow of a Doubt.