Tuesday, February 24, 2015
I was inspired to see Birdman from my Facebook feed after seeing this descriptor: "Birdman WTF?" Up until that point it was just another heavily hyped Hollywood movie. The hype in this case was the usual promotional stuff combined with the tension of whether or not Micheal Keaton would be selected as best actor in a leading role. I had seen most of his previous stuff and there were glimmers of my idea of greatness as an actor but always a lot of personality. My choices were to see it at a theatre or try to stream it. The only available streaming option was a place I had never used before that required the purchase of their coded streaming device and payment on their Internet site. After taking care of the technical details, I was ready to roll with little time to spare. I would see the final scene about an hour before the best picture was announced on the Academy Awards on Sunday night. The full title of the film is Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance.
Spoiler alert at this point. Although it is difficult to give away the ending because it is largely interpretive, I am going to discuss all of the key details that will clearly alienate and anger a few. So don't read this if you have to see a pristine and not previously described film. I don't see any way around it. The opening scene sets the tone for the film and the tone taps into what are typically considered the negative emotions - anxiety, anger, depression, and disgust. Unlike most films there is nothing to protect you from this level of discomfort. Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is in a dingy room, seated in a lotus position but suspended in the air about 3 feet off the floor. He questions himself about how he could have possibly ended up in this situation. A voice answers him and about a minute later he gets an incoming call on his laptop computer. The call is from his daughter and as the camera pans to the computer, the viewer realizes from all of the light bulbs around his mirror that this is a dressing room for an actor. He steps out of the lotus and walks to his dressing table to answer the call.
I knew from the outset that I was going to like this film. Unless this was an actual superhero film, the scene demonstrates the stream of consciousness of this character. What he may be consciously aware of and what he is not consciously aware of. We get some insights into his conflicts and defenses. It is common to hear a discussion about alter ego or clash of egos as though these are all clear separate entities. I prefer this presentation to the actor looking at the camera and telling the audience what is happening.
The plot develops fairly rapidly from there and the viewer pieces together the facts that Riggan was a previous star of three superhero movies. He is divorced and still in an emotional relationship with his ex-wife Sylvia. He is opening a play on Broadway and is under a lot of pressure financially and professionally to succeed. He is more clearly defined in the relationships with the rest of the cast, his ex-wife, his daughter, and a hostile critic who at one points assures him that her review is going to close his play after opening night. He and his daughter Sam (Emma Stone) have a relationship that is hostile at times. We learn that Sam has a substance use problem and has completed treatment when Riggan confronts her about smoking marijuana. She lashes out with a diatribe that suggests his struggle to remain relevant is meaningless and he should just accept that fact like the rest of humanity. Riggan has several additional confrontations with that dilemma over the course of the film with his fellow actor Mike Shiner (Ed Norton) and theatre critic Tabitha Dickson (Lindsay Duncan). The confrontations with Mike seem to highlight the fact that he is a rising star and Riggan is a has-been. In the case of Ms. Dickson she brings in the bias that Riggan is just a movie star and that is not the same level of art as a Broadway actor. The final confrontation with the critic leads to the emotional upheaval that results in the penultimate scene.
Throughout the film, we hear the dialogue between Riggan and a grandiose and self-centered Birdman. At times we see the Birdman character in full costume. In scenes where Riggan is angry he uses telekinesis to throw common objects against the wall and in one scene essentially trashes a room. In another scene he flies effortlessly above the New York traffic for several miles until returning to the front of the theater. The camera stays on Riggan wherever he is in the scene and the presence and absence of the other actors depends on his trajectory.
What can be made of all of these supernatural occurrences in a movie that is not about a superhero? I saw these events as narcissistic defenses against his growing vulnerability and an ultimate horror of aging - meaninglessness. What better way to fight back than to be able to crush your enemies or provide immediate proof of your potency? What better proof than to fly effortlessly above them? Who hasn't had those familiar fantasies of unlimited wealth, power, or ability? The ultimate way to deny dependence on the highly flawed opinions of others is to become an island unto yourself. There is nobody left to marginalize you if you are living at that level. As I was typing this, I also had the thought that blogging may be a lower level defense against this same existential crisis. Is blogging an attempt to type your way out of meaninglessness and anonymity? If it is - what are you prepared to do to appear to be unique? What does it mean when there are tens of millions of bloggers out there generating parallel streams of information and minimal productive dialogue? This kind of crisis can be explored at multiple levels.
Some of the folks in my Facebook feed ask the question: "Does the film glamorize suicide?" I don't think so. Suicide is after all part of the final act of the play that Riggan is trying to present. There is enough ambiguity about the choice of the weapon and what actually happened to question the issue of suicide at all. It is very difficult to survive the suggested suicide attempt even if the weapon was shooting blanks. Most suicidal people pointing guns at themselves are highly ambivalent. In survivors the gun often "just went off" rather than being fired on a volitional basis. In the narrative with Riggan in the hospital, the description of what he is alleged to have done also seems unlikely when he peels off the bandages and inspects the damage in the mirror. Even considering that scene as a suicide attempt, the critical question becomes, is it the prelude to another suicide attempt or something else? The attitude of the film critic and the theatre goers seems to have turned around completely on the basis of the suicide attempt. They are praising the play and Riggan's business partner Jake (Zach Galifianakis) suggests that the play will be running a long time in multiple venues. He is suddenly and unexpectedly - a Broadway success.
Riggan's last act seems to be the most confusing. He is in the hospital room where he is being cared for following the suicide attempt. After he takes off the bandages, the walks to the window and stands on the ledge. He jumps. Sam comes into the room and goes to the window. She naturally looks down and does not react, but then looks up into the sky and smiles. Riggan is clearly not dead at this point. His daughter is finally able to see that he is able to soar, in fact he always was able to - not as the result of conscious planned activity, but the combination of his collective unconscious and the less than ideal relationships he made in the Broadway debut. In doing this Riggan demonstrates that he can engage the universal struggle through life and come out the other side unscathed and even temporarily transcendent. In the scene where he says: "I can't do it anymore", I have lost count of the number of times I said the very same thing to myself contemplating some unsolvable crisis at work. I was ready to walk away and in one case I did walk away. In those situations where there is no clear path forward there is a lot to be said for throwing yourself into the breech and seeing what happens, hence the alternate title. It turns out that the illusion of certainty is not enough to live on - at least for some of us.
That's my interpretation and I'm sticking to it. I did not read any detailed reviews before writing mine. I did not go back and try to read a copy of the script, so this in entirely from memory and therefore I may have missed a lot and hopefully not embellished much. The beauty of art is that many interpretations are possible and that the experience of the viewer is very important.
I found myself closely identified with Riggan Thomson in this film because his struggles are my struggles and I am just as ignorant. I happened across some scathing comments on sites where I tried to stream the video. With a film of this nature, I do not find that surprising. In my experience there will be people who can identify with Riggan's struggles at every step of the way and many others who can not. There will be people who are very aware of their daydreams, fantasies and defenses and others who are not. A lot of people go through life experiencing it as a linear exercise in conscious decision making where all of life's major decisions are conscious choices and others do not.
These are some of the dimensions that may make this an enjoyable film.
George Dawson, MD, DFAPA