‘And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?’
‘And what did you want?’
‘To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on earth.’ (Late Fragment, Raymond Carver)
Birdman used to be Riggan Thomson’s superhero role that earned him fame and riches, and which he gave up to pursue theatre or less pretentious art, as he says. He is shown to be at the dawn of his career and struggling with the financial and directorial difficulties of his adaption of Raymond Carver’s play for Broadway. The movie showcases the three days before the opening night of the play, and through these days it covers all the themes that keep pestering each and every single one of us at various moments of our life.
Birdman touches upon the timeless themes of the struggle of an artist, the desire to be remembered, the power and role media criticism plays in the shaping of mass opinion about any work of art, and finally (but not obviously), about the hubristic pride that drives all of us to achieve something big. Birdman makes for a thought-provoking, deep and fast-paced show (the movie has only a single, continuous camera shot) with many touching and bitter moments that are only too familiar, making it very relatable, sometimes comic, and definitely worth watching more than once.
The camera follows every character in the movie, from the brash, rebellious and (yet) tender Sam, to the super-realistic and talented actor Mike Shiner who has sacrificed his entire self for the stage, to the underestimated and disrespected Lesley – and through their interactions with each other, highlights Birdman’s basic themes in a very humanistic and experiential manner, infused as it is with the complex emotions of worthlessness, fury, jealousy, humiliation, selfishness and many others, making it incredibly real and even jarring.
The movie is famous not only for its single camera shot, which is a brilliant and courageous move, but also its magical realism, a genre of writing wherein the fantastical and the real coalesce to form an accurate picture of both the material reality and of the inner consciousness of people or a person as shaped by the outer world. Which brings us to the title of the film – Birdman, which is the name of a superhero with wings and the power to move objects as he pleases. It is fantastical, and the Birdman functions in the movie as Riggan’s alter-ego, guiding him by giving him tough love. It also guides us as an audience, and highlights the underlying themes of the movie.
One other theme that is traversed by the movie quite violently is that of art and its criticism. The ‘old bat’ critic from The Times is shown to be hollow, using only her opinions and labels to frame a work of art without analysing the technique and structure used, and ultimately coming off as fickle, reactionary and unfair despite her knowledge. Yet she possesses great power, and so does the social media landscape, which Riggan Thomson rejects. One scene suddenly explodes with dragons, bombs and helicopters as a direct attack on the critics and audience alike in rejecting ‘depressing, philosophical shit’ like this particular movie (though it is not shit of course), and here, Alejandro González Iñárritu [the director] comes across as rather defensive, not only about this movie, but also his previous ones such as Babel and Biutiful, which were not great hits, nor did they win over all the critics. Therefore, the diatribe against those who form the opinions is clearly one-sided, and Iñárritu seems to grudgingly recognize that no matter how great an artist thinks his work is, ultimately, the audience (and the critics who guide it), is king.
There are times when Birdman seems to try a tad too hard, and becomes slightly pedantic, cryptic and dense. The movie opens with the blazing comet. It is a puzzle, and we are baffled. Then there is a shot of the dead jellyfish washed ashore. And immediately after is a back-shot of a man levitating wearing only underpants in a shoddy room; and the movie begins with a philosophical diatribe against life itself. But what of the comet, and the jellyfish?
And it is here that, ironically, the audience might actually need a critic’s help. Only the ones affluent with Greek mythology would have figured out the reference to Icarus with relation to the comet: the man with the wax wings, who flew too close to the sun because he was over-ambitious, and fell to his death (the jellyfish remains a mystery). And it is only with this reference that one can decode the underlying theme of the movie – that of hubris. These aspects of the movie might make it critically acclaimed, but they also make it a bit inaccessible to common public who might not mind a philosophical movie, but lack the knowledge to understand it completely. And who knows, with this code, people can interpret this movie in many different manners. Riggan too flies in the movie, but does he fall to his death, or does he make it? Is it a reaffirmation of hubris or an attempt to deflate it? It is up to individual interpretation, and these references can greatly help. Thus the end of the movie is ambiguous, but ambiguity can be handled by the audiences – it is the fact that they may miss out on cryptic codes in the course of the movie, may not be able to connect the dots, which may perhaps lead them to a different interpretation. There is a complexity in the movie that can lead to the audience losing patience. Thus, at times, Birdman comes across as almost elitist.
Yet, even simplistically, the movie is thought-provoking and definitely one that people will discuss after they leave the cinema hall. Birdman, like Riggan Thomson, did not want to be forgotten, but remembered, like all creative art. And Alejandro González Iñárritu seems to want the verdict to rest with the audience, and not the critics (though, strangely enough, we might just need their help).
By Anany Tiwari