November 30, 2010 / Theology
This essay is neither for nor against Glenn Beck. The philosopher Michel Foucault warns us …
July 13, 2015
Birdman doesn’t shy from eccentricity. Indulging a comic side largely absent in earlier work like Babel and Biutiful, director Alejandro González Iñáritu has created a world in which characters strut through Times Square in their underwear and order tanning beds delivered to their dressing rooms. The auteur’s tendency toward magical realism results in a liberal display of telekinetic powers and an enormous, mechanical, screeching, one-eyed vulture descending on New York City. A man flies through the city streets in his overcoat. Birdman’s not afraid to be weird, and it was far enough off the beaten path that many hadn’t seen it by the time it won the Academy Award for best picture (not since 2009’s Hurt Locker has the distinction gone to such a low-grossing production).
However, amidst that eccentricity and whimsy is a very universal, pedestrian problem. A man needs validation. Our restless hero wants to fly again. Birdman is about human aspiration enduring the roar of self-doubt, to risk over-reduction, wherein the means of endurance are found in our circumstances. It is about the nitpicking particulars of everyday existence—and the knowledge that truth and validation are discovered through those particulars, not apart from them. As it turns out, the film’s eccentric tendencies prefigure the myriad distractions from that knowledge.
Riggan Thomson is exhausted. He’s a divorced, single-parent, washed-up, typecast celebrity striving to legitimate himself with his best attempt at high-brow art: a Raymond Carver adaptation for the stage. And the show must go on, despite losing one of its leading men to a falling light fixture the night before the first preview, despite Riggan’s girlfriend (one of the actresses) revealing an unexpected pregnancy, despite the already-mounting criticism of Riggan—whose only claim to fame is a blockbuster comic book role. Iñáritu is intent on the audience bearing this same exhaustion. The film seemingly unfolds without cuts (they are in there, but you have to be watching for them) and days pass while a character walks the twisting backstage hallways, ushering viewers from big event to big event. No breathing allowed, in other words. Only the biggest moments of the tale make it on screen, and they seem to have missed out on the luxury of editing. When Riggan’s daughter explodes in a weary tirade against his self-obsession, we hear all of it, beginning to end, the camera locked in a close-up on her face. As long as there is no escape for Riggan Thomson, there will be no escape for the audience. We aren’t even spared his fantasies. In this way, viewers are drawn into the onslaught too, granting each scene an immediacy and invasion. The trappings of Riggan’s life become our own for the two-hour running time.
Throughout the film, the grave voice of Birdman himself rings in Riggan’s ears. We’re bigger than this, the Birdman says. Look at what they’ve done to us, he says. Birdman, an unknowable mixture of Riggan’s misgivings and his lusts, is suggesting that Riggan’s discomfort arises not from the logistics of managing a Broadway play and a dysfunctional family but from the things themselves, painting them as frivolous, minute, banal. The contest, then, is between Riggan’s id-like Birdman and a petty, unappreciative environment. If only he could leave.
Birdman doesn’t offer much in the way of actual suggestions, only a retreat inward for self-aggrandizing. Riggan is usually smart enough to know better, but he is too weak to refuse Birdman’s tempting invitation for an occasional departure into the detached fantasy comic-book world where Riggan has the control and power necessary to feel meaningful. This detachment is obviously prefigured in a superhero gifted with flight but also more poignantly in the film’s opening: the actor stuck in his dingy, cramped dressing room but aloft, meditating, levitating above it all. This place is horrible, Birdman says.
So the question becomes: What is Riggan’s escape route? Where will he find meaning and validation amid his imposing circumstances, circumstances the audience feels pressing in on themselves? Forty minutes in, he confesses, “This my career. This is my chance to finally do some work that actually means something.” But unless something gives, that chance won’t pay out.
Riggan has chosen a wonderful vehicle for his current lot in life (probably unwittingly—see the film’s subtitle, “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance”). “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” the Carver story adapted for Riggan’s stage, is a story about finding evidence for the transcendent at a kitchen table. The story is, simply, a recorded conversation between two suburban couples. They get onto the topic of love and stumble through anecdotes, trying their best to put a finger on what precisely love might be, ultimately touching on everything from age-worn affection in an elderly couple to heartsick suicide. We can imagine that Riggan found some resonance in the tale, even if he didn’t quite know why. We might also imagine that the resonance rests in its plight—a group of people fumbling for the magnificent from the trappings of normative suburbia. Carver’s stories are known for just this sort of maneuver. He writes about the mundane as if on principle, which is precisely why creative writing students study his work. Carver can draw transcendence out of anything: a baker’s shop, a late-night television special, cat food, et cetera.
In Carver’s story, there is a striking lack of central conflict or plot, in the traditional sense. The story, as with many of his others, seems content to adopt the smaller conflicts inherent in middle-class life. Marriages haven’t gone according to plan. Minor misunderstandings exist between the couples. Folks can’t express themselves properly. Following the characters in “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” isn’t unlike following Riggan. They appear at the edge of some discovery about love or life, but the onward rush of life, a collection of minor problems, keeps the discovery out of reach.
The story takes place on a night that one couple has joined another at their home for a suburban dinner party. A character named Mel does most of the talking, monopolizing the airspace with his amateur postulations on love and death. Alcohol (which Mel hasn’t shied from) erodes the characters’ inhibitions until their conversation becomes significant instead of routine. They begin to ask profound questions on the nature of life. When the sun sets on their gathering and the story closes, the reader has a sense that they’ve reached truth—that something important was finally said. Riggan could use such a night.
However, as rehearsals go on and an upstaging actor demands Riggan’s attention, the artistic move from mundane to magical that is present in Carver’s original work drowns in the bustle. Until the film’s final moments, whenever an opportunity for Riggan to face his problems arises, he escapes into rage or just literally escapes, taking a walk through town toward a liquor store. Birdman, the ego-boosting superhero, is winning as long as Riggan takes wing at the first sign of trouble.
This is not to say that Iñáritu vilifies Riggan. Riggan is self-aware enough to maintain viewer sympathy. He is his own chief critic, having adopted the views of his daughter, his rival actor, and his capital C newspaper critics. Not ten minutes into the film, Riggan turns in his dressing room toward the couch where different members of the press have appeared in hopes of prying him open and publicizing his personal drama. The journalists magically appear on the sofa. Again, as with Birdman himself, the audience is left unsure of their true presence. Might they just be Riggan’s manifest insecurities? The first such critic to speak, a smug intellectual, drops this line:
Why does somebody go from playing the lead in a comic book franchise to adapting Raymond Carver for the stage? I mean, as you’re probably aware, Barthes said, “The cultural work done in the past by gods and epic sagas is now done by laundry detergent commercials and comic strip characters.” It’s a big leap you’ve taken.
The suggestion is, of course, that Raymond Carver adaptations don’t carry the same weight as comic book heroes in 2015. The quoted Roland Barthes line appears in Mythologies, wherein he argues that pop culture and traditional systems of mythology share the same practical impact on the cultural mind. Under such a conclusion, Birdman—the suit-wearing, crime-fighting tough guy—is given divine significance, and the tongue-in-cheek “big leap” that the journalist suggests is a fall from power.
Riggan has lost his celebrity status and therefore his control and influence. Sam, his daughter, tries to reclaim his power under the new measures of celebrity: Twitter and Instagram. However, at every turn, Riggan refuses it, assured that the power, the transcendence, the validation he wants can’t come from comic books or social media status.
Just as the audience might be fed up— Iñáritu’s appetite for weariness running too far, maybe—Riggan finds his answer.
On the play’s opening night, and subsequently the film’s climax (and the climax it must be, if Riggan’s self-worth is to be won or lost with his work), Riggan is appropriately tasked with playing a man who’s been cheated on and had everything he loved taken from him. He’s rehearsed this scene several times. Viewers have seen three iterations of the scene by this point in the film. It is almost redundant by this point: he walks out with a gun, catches his wife with another man, and commits suicide. But this time something is different. His final line, “I don’t exist, I’m not even here,” sounds epiphanic.
At this point, that line has perpetually come off as contrived and acted (Keaton’s ability to play “half-bad acting” so convincingly is one of the many reasons for the film’s success). Finally, however, because he is too tired, angry, or both, Riggan seems to say it from his soul: “I don’t exist.” It obviously expresses apathy toward his own image, something he’s not been able to ignore until this point in the film. The sentiment is anticipated right before he goes on stage when, confessing to his caring ex-wife, he mourns the fact that he videotaped his daughter’s birth: “I wasn’t even present in my own life, and now I don’t have it and I’m never gonna have it.” It’s also something he hears from his daughter earlier: “You’re doing this because you’re scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don’t matter. And you know what? You’re right.” So when he walks on stage and says it, he knows it. He believes it.
And what happens? Riggan pulls the trigger. The play is a hit. The pretentious critic seated on the second row writes a raving review despite her previous intentions to ruin a perceived vapid celebrity.
It is precisely Riggan’s abandonment that ends up validating him. See again the subtitle: “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance.” He unwittingly lands on art and truth—what Constantin Stanislavski might call “unconscious creativeness.” He is ignorant of himself—his need of attention and outside validation. Therefore, he can finally produce something worthwhile. It’s certainly what happens in the Carver story. Where do the bourgeoisie couples look for truth? To anecdotes. To stories that aren’t their own.
Although the film’s exhausting onslaught of environment and circumstance would suggest that Riggan’s only hope is escape, as the Carver story and Barthes quote might hint, transcendence bubbles up out of the particulars. At one of his low points, Riggan leaps from a building and takes flight around Manhattan, but where does he land? At the theater, with his work, with his family. Once the retired Birdman abandons his attempt at flight, his art and, in turn, his life are lifted beyond anything the preoccupied, insecure, and self-focused Riggan could have achieved. When Riggan is tempted to indulge fantasy, his surroundings redeem him. His daughter opens up. His ex-wife hears him out. His floundering play proves cathartic. Where he thought salvation meant detachment, he found it meant intimation. It meant involvement.
 Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu (Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2014).
 Carver, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (New York, NY: Knopf, 1981), https://beta.prx.org/stories/42401.
 Barthes, Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers (London, UK: Paladin, 1972).
 See Stanislavski, An Actor Prepares, trans. Elizabeth Reynolds Hapgood (New York, NY: Theatre Arts Books, 2003), https://lucian.uchicago.edu/blogs/praxestheory/files/2010/02/An-Actor-Prepares-Ch-31.pdf.
Michael Grubb is finishing his MFA in fiction at Sewanee, the University of the South, while working as a high school English teacher. He lives with his wife in Knoxville, Tennessee.