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31 January 2015

Birdman: “Liberation from Illusion” (Film Criticism)

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Warning: Contains Spoilers
I suggest that you read this post only after you watched the film

Probably one of the most obvious readings of Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “Birdman” has something to do with the power of social media such as Twitter and Facebook. These two popular social network services were mentioned in the film but I think focusing on social media may be too limiting.  I think “Birdman” is more about a man’s liberation from illusion and the growing power of capitalism in art, specifically in cinema and theater.

Theater has long been regarded as the highbrow cousin of cinema. The latter is more commercial and populist. Theater, in contrast, is more concerned with artistry while cinema is more about pop culture and mass consumption.  At times, cinema is relegated as the art form of the masses while the theater is for the elite but I think this claim is not entirely accurate. Theater is also not immune to commerce.  

“Birdman” is not simply about commercial cinema versus high art theater; that is just the surface.  The film is about capitalist ideology encroaching in all segments of society. Capitalism is like a predatory bird, which is also the symbol of America. The bird of capitalism has aimed its talons on Broadway, supposedly one of the oldest vanguards of high art, and perhaps one of the last territories of art that has not been fully colonized by pure commerce. However, with musicals like “The Lion King” and “Spiderman,” capitalism may have already taken root on Broadway.  Near the end of the film, we see superhero icons of pop cinema littered a Broadway stage as if staging an all-star musical featuring Iron Man, Spiderman, the Transformers and so on.

The site of battle is Riggan Thomson, brilliantly played by Michael Keaton. Riggan is the cacography of the name Reagan, perhaps to allude to Ronald Reagan, an actor who became the president of America. Riggan is a former movie star who became famous and rich playing a superhero named Birdman. However, Riggan became disillusioned and unsatisfied with his success that he gave up the role.  At the start of the film, Riggan is preparing to stage a play. As the writer, the lead actor and co-producer, he risks his reputation and his wealth for the play.

He constantly hears the voice of Birdman, telling him Birdman's version of truth. Birdman continually attempts to persuade Riggan to give up the play, return to cinema, and reclaim his glory as a box office star.  As he listens to Birdman, Riggan imagines himself possessing superhuman abilities. He is like a god among mortals. As Birdman, Riggan can make things move, explode and so on. Birdman represents commercial movies that some people assume the public wants. As Birdman puts it:

“Give the people what they want, some good ole fashion apocalyptic porn, Birdman, the Phoenix Rises… a billion worldwide, guaranteed! You’re larger than life. You save people from their boring miserable lives…bolts of lightning, big, loud, fast… look at these people, look at their eyes, they’re all sparkling. They love this shit… They love action not this talkie depressing philosophical bullshit…”

When Riggan was young, he wanted to be an actor than a movie star, but his stint as Birdman turned him into a pop icon and a valuable commodity. Ironically, his fame and fortune also made him a bad husband and an absent father. He became a cheater and an alcoholic.  In psychoanalytic terms, he has lost his “authentic self.” Whoever the real Riggan was, he was hidden under the marvelous costume of Birdman. Now old and a has-been, Riggan struggles to reconstitute his shattered psyche and his life, and he truly believes that successfully producing and acting in a Broadway play will give him redemption. Unfortunately, he faces opposition, specifically from acclaimed Broadway actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), who behaves like a man of the art; but in fact, he is more about pomposity than substance. Certainly, Mike can act and he is the darling of critics; however, this is all show because his actions betray his supposed image. In fact, his image is entirely fake. Mike is a walking illusion outside the stage, but on stage, as her co-star and live-in partner Lesley (Naomi Watts) puts it,

“Maybe up here (the stage), you’re Mr. Truth but in the real world where it counts, you’re a fucking fraud!”

As the movie progresses, Riggan seems to be losing. His play is in chaos, and he is unable to control his actors, his family and an influential critic threatens to shut down his play. He also discovers that his daughter Sam is now romantically involved with Mike, which in itself is symbolic. I will get into that later. On top of this, his producer is more focused on producing a commercially successful play than anything else. 

Eventually, the voice of Birdman in Riggan’s head becomes more powerful, and Birdman’s tirade becomes more forceful. In the beginning, Birdman was just a voice, but as Riggan’s will weakens, Birdman regains his body. He becomes fully formed as he walks behind Riggan on the street. This is Riggan’s last temptation. He is the cinematic Christ being tempted by the devil, to be precise, capitalism’s bird of prey. Will Riggan take the bait?

Bottom line, “Birdman” may be read as a narrative about self-exorcism, getting rid of the false beliefs from one’s psyche. Often times, the power of money and fame (or ideology) cut us off from our true selves. That is not to say that our “true self” is already made. I think our “authentic self” is a work in progress but the trappings of wealth, fame and the need for public validation steer us away from our journey to self-discovery. 

Riggan wants to free himself from the clutches of Birdman and all the things that the superhero symbolizes. To accomplish this task, Riggan must symbolically kill Birdman. Philosopher and occasional film critic Slavoj Žižek explained this symbolic self-inflicted violence:

“You should have the outburst of violence and you should direct it at yourself but in a very specific way, at what in yourself chains you, ties you to the ruling ideology”
(Taken from “Pervert's Guide to Ideology,” written by Slavoj Žižek and directed by Sophie Fiennes, 2012)

This symbolic violent suicide is also employed in Martin Scorsese’ “Taxi Driver” and David Fincher’s “Fight Club,” Two films about a person’s liberation from capitalist ideology.

The ending of “Birdman” may confuse viewers. Towards the end of the film, Riggan is physically transformed. He almost does not recognize himself. The voice of Birdman has ceased to exist and he may eventually reunite with his estranged wife, but his producer still woos him with the possibility of becoming a commercial success once again, but Riggan’s wife protests. Riggan is faced with a choice once more. Which side will he choose?   Perhaps Riggan has truly exorcised the predatory bird out from his psyche, but the rest of the world still plays the bird’s game.

Interestingly, Riggan’s daughter was the last person to see him and this shifts the point of view of the narrative to Sam. Earlier in the film, only Riggan sees his delusion. He struggles to differentiate fantasy from reality. In the end of the movie, Sam looks up from the window to hint to the viewers that Riggan has flown like a bird.

Sam is an important character because she is the voice of reality. She tells Riggan the brutal truth, his mortality, his value, man's ego and the place of humanity in the bigger context. Sam’s lines below may be the summation of the film’s take on the real world:

“You are doing a play that was based on a book that was written sixty years ago for a thousand rich old white people whose only real concern is where they’re gonna have their cake and coffee when it’s over… Let’s face it dad! You are not doing this for the sake of art. You are doing this because you want to feel relevant again. Well, guess what! There is an entire world out there where people fight to be relevant every single day, and you act like it doesn’t exist… Who the fuck are you?! You hate bloggers. You mock Twitter. You don’t even have a Facebook page! You’re the one who doesn’t exist. 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. You don’t. It’s not important. Okay! You’re not important! Get used to it!”


Sam also seduces Mike because Mike, the theater actor, values prestige over popularity but he is as disillusioned as Riggan. Mike's obsession with prestige is no different from Birdman's desire for popularity. Mike claims that "Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige" but both share the same family name.

Sam is usually seen sitting on a ledge. That is her symbolic position: the end point of ideology. She challenges man to jump to nothingness. Nothingness is not like the abyss but the place where ideology cannot stand and this is the place where we begin to know true freedom. Therefore, it is safe to assume that Riggan has finally regained his true freedom because Sam has seen her flying. However, we the viewers do not see this crucial scene because we are still mesmerized by the illusion that commercial cinema provides, and all the illusory relevance that Twitter and Facebook make us believe we possess. Well, we don't!

P.S.
A reader asked me about the kiss between Lesley (Naomi Watts) and Laura (Andrea Riseborough). I will add my explanations later. Please wait for it.

RELATED POST
American Sniper: "Ideology and the Incomplete Narrative"

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