“They had no song. Their calls were harsh and ugly. But their soaring was like an endless silent singing. What else had they to do? They were sea falcons now; there was nothing to keep them to the land. Foul poison burned within them like a burrowing fuse. Their life was lonely death, and would not be renewed. All they could do was take their glory to the sky. They were the last of their race.” – J. A. Baker, The Peregrine
* * *
In the mid-1960s, pesticides were ravaging the bird populations of England. Stemming from observations along the eastern coast around this time, J. A. Baker’s haunting and lyrical book The Peregrine depicts the author documenting through journal entries the movements of the titular bird over ten months. Baker laments the peregrine’s endangerment, and his narrator constantly elegizes the bird’s raw, natural beauty. Haunted by the environmental destruction he witnesses and enthralled by the natural dramas he silently documents, Baker’s observations all have a sense of inevitability and aimlessness. Baker is fascinated by the notion that all beautiful things have destruction built into them: renewal is impossible for these doomed birds, but promise seems to manifest from their fragility. His peregrine is king of the domain, master of death, yet dying all the time. A new life, one free of this destruction, seems always on the verge of the bird’s grasp. Yet the peregrine is not a phoenix, but a comet: appearing bright in its beauty before it burns out into oblivion.
* * *
Riggan Thompson desperately wants to be reborn. When we first meet him, he is apparently meditating, floating ethereally above the ground in his dressing room at a Broadway theatre. Yet in this stillness, Thompson (played by Michael Keaton) finds no rest, as he is haunted by an apparently internal monologue that laments his fall from grace: “How did we end up here?” the voice snarls, “this place is horrible. Smells like balls. We don’t belong in this shithole.”1 As we soon learn, Thompson is a former comic book movie star, famous for having played the superhero Birdman in three blockbuster films.2 The voice seems to be that of the titular Birdman, which at times appears to be a piece of Thompson’s psyche (reciting his secret thoughts and desires), at other times a manifestation of mental illness.
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a film about possibilities, but also the stupidity of believing in possibilities. It is a film about what happens when you thrash against the past: you either succumb to its determinations or you liberate yourself from its narrative. Perhaps you do both at once. Rebirth is not only possible in the film’s universe, it is the driving engine of meaning: all things (performance, relationships, art) matter because they can reinvent themselves as new configurations of the past. Stories matter because they are transmutable, because others hear them: once they become irrelevant, they can morph into new stories and new noises, or they fail to find new ears and fall silent.
Five years after its release, Birdman feels strangely incongruous with the world we currently occupy. With Avengers: Endgame reigning, by the summer of 2019, as the highest-grossing film of all time, Birdman’s handwringing over the meaning of superhero movies – as the predominant cultural mythos, as entertainment, as money making machine – seems quaint in a culture where those questions have now seemingly been settled. Moreover, the film’s interest in rebirth and the slipperiness of meaning is all the more paradoxical considering the critical and award acclaim it inspired upon its release and its apparently negligible impact on the cinema that has followed. Yet it is perhaps best understood as an indictment of the very praise thrust upon it, a black comedy looking intently at an audience only willing to appreciate its own shock value. More simply put, Birdman seems to know that it will be forgotten.
* * *
The plot of Birdman concerns Thompson’s attempt to stage a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk about Love.” The play is his bid for prestige and artistic acceptance, adapting a beloved literary work for the stage after years of working only in commercial Hollywood properties.3 The shadow of Hollywood – or, more importantly, the encroaching age of superhero movies – haunts Thompson as he tries to recast a role. (Indeed, he laments Jeremy Renner’s casting in The Avengers: “They put him in a cape too?”) More than being a man stuck in the past, Thompson was a man before his time, a superhero movie star before superhero movies were the biggest things on earth. And now that past is constantly warring with his artistic impulses, as his Birdman voice constantly beckons him back to the commercial possibilities and artistic fulfillment of this new superhero renaissance, growling “these people don’t know what you’re capable of. . . .” More than anything else, he wants to be heard, as he fears that he has become insignificant: that his artistry may be limited to the popcorn entertainments he made in the past.
As his daughter, recovering drug addict Sam (Emma Stone), serves to remind him, Thompson still belongs to another age: his play is an old-school bid for prestige, attempting to adapt a dead white male author’s work to the Broadway stage, itself one of the oldest institutions in American drama. To him, this is his chance “to finally do some work that actually means something,” but to Sam, it’s just another vanity project, her father’s desperate attempt to try to make sense of a world that has passed him by. After he catches her smoking pot, she blows up at his attempt to justify his work as artistically important: “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. You’re not important. Get used to it.”
In the insular world of Broadway, where Thompson is perceived as an outsider, it seems that he is not important, regardless of what he might accomplish. Theatre critic Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan) threatens to close his play no matter what she sees, because he is an interloper, or as Edward Norton’s Mike Shiner accuses, a “dilettante.” And so, night after night, Thompson stares down an increasingly bleak future, where his play is forgotten, the last shred of his credibility destroyed, and his unruly actors mocking him until the play inevitably closes. When we get glimpses of the greater world, the world beyond the St. James Theatre where the film is set, they come through screens: footage of Robert Downey Jr. on the red carpet celebrating the financial success of the early Marvel Cinematic Universe, the talk shows discussing Thompson’s near-naked dash through Times Square after getting locked out of the theatre. “This is power,” Sam tells him, showing him the number of views and re-tweets his Times Square stunt has earned him. Yet the impact of his viral moment doesn’t register with his old understanding of fame, nor does it change how badly he needs to sway Dickinson’s opinion, which we are told is the entire key to the play’s success.
The film’s much-discussed “one shot” approach strands us inside of Thompson’s perspective. The world is only as he understands it: a constant movement forward, a hastening drumbeat toward a climatic conclusion, wherein he is reborn, or extinguished. The film’s most distinctive elements – its relative lack of film cuts, its mesmerizing drum score by Antonio Sánchez – are those that lock us deeper into the exhausting rhythm of Riggan Thompson’s world, a world with its own drama and perspective, fears and frustrations. It is the rhythm of a good story, but it is the story Thompson tells himself. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s direction is kinetic yet inescapable, and the film’s momentum heightens Thompson’s creeping sense of dread.
Late in the film, after being told by the theatre critic that she plans to close his play with a predetermined negative review, Riggan walks out into the New York night and toward a liquor store, strangely lit with thousands of tiny colored chili peppers. An actor on the street bellows the famous monologue from Shakespeare’s Macbeth as he clings to the construction scaffolding:
“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
As Thompson looks toward him, the man finishes his monologue and steps into the light of an illuminated coil: “Where you going, man? Is that too much? I was just trying to give you a range . . . it’s a little too much, I can tell. . . .” The profundity of the line is both undercut and reinforced: the poor player struts and frets his hour upon the stage and begs the superhero for a chance to work. There is true desperation in the actor’s plight, yet no meaning, as he yearns for the great words to elevate him away from his life.
The film’s allusion to Macbeth is significant, in that the speech underlines the futility of Riggan’s bid for true artistic meaning while the film also winks at its own pretension by quoting Shakespeare in lieu of providing original artistic substance. Macbeth is both true “art” in the most classical sense and simultaneously performative: a bid for Birdman to be taken as seriously as Riggan takes his own play. This is borne out the following morning, as the street actor’s desperate performance of Shakespeare pushes Riggan into artistic nihilism, and his hungover face begins to seem receptive at his Birdman voice’s goading: “give the people what they want, some good old-fashioned apocalyptic porn! Birdman: The Phoenix Rises. . . . A billion worldwide, guaranteed . . . that’s what I’m talking about! Bones rattling. Big. Loud. Fast. Look at these people, look at their eyes, they’re all sparkling! They love this shit, they love blood, they love action, not this talky depressing philosophical bullshit.” Birdman encourages Riggan to emit a bird-like squawk, a battle cry for his animalistic drive to be heard. Meanwhile, the manifestation of Birdman does battle with armies and massive mechanical birds, as the film swerves briefly into a slew of special effects and pyrotechnics with explosions and gunfire: sound and thundering fury, an empty cacophony that signifies nothing.
* * *
“I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone’s heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.”
– Raymond Carver, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”
Because he is so desperate for new beginnings, to rise again as something new, Thompson constantly seeks extermination, too. Late in the film, he confesses to his ex-wife (Amy Ryan) that during their marriage he attempted suicide by walking into the ocean after cheating on her, only to be foiled by jellyfish. “You said it was a sunburn,” she replies. Thompson’s suicidal impulses are constantly associated with performance, epic gestures of annihilation that he attempts to imbue with artistic meaning. At one point, he stands on the ledge of a building, preparing to jump. “Is this for real or is it for a film?” a woman asks from another rooftop. “A film!” he shouts back.4 Before he tries to jump, he asks for a music cue, as the score swells to soundtrack his grand gesture: to plummet, or perhaps take flight.
At the opening night of his play, Thompson unites his twin impulses for the self-destructive and the theatrical. Carrying a real, loaded gun for his character’s suicide scene, he abandons the melodrama of his earlier stage performances in favor of gritty realism. He emits a strained chuckle, repeats “I don’t exist,” and points his gun at the audience before turning it on himself and pulling the trigger. Following the gunshot and a gasp, the audience is rapt in a brief second of silence. The film lingers in this silence, savoring Thompson’s brief moment of genuine shock and artistic triumph, before the audience bursts into thunderous applause while the theatre critic rushes out up the aisle.
At the conclusion of the film, his family, the audience, and the critic all seem to have finally given Thompson what he always wanted: a critical rebirth, affirmation of his artistry, and a beloved public persona. Riggan Thompson shot the nose off his face, ripping off the extended beak of his Birdman persona, whether intentionally or unintentionally.5 Moreover, his stunt follows his naked Times Square dash to also become a viral phenomenon. “They’re lighting candles for him in Central Park. . . . I’ve been reborn brother, and I can see the future. . . .” Thompson’s manager gloats, imagining the commercial opportunism and book deals that will come: “This is what you wanted, isn’t it?”
The Carver epigraph that begins the film asks, “And did you get what/you wanted from this life, even so?” And in the final scene, Thompson seems to achieve the rebirth he desires through ignorance, whether a failed suicide attempt or a savvy stunt of “ultra-realism” (as the theatre critic deems his unwitting triumph). Yet in his human moment, the final thing he desires is not the love of his daughter or ex-wife, it is not to feel beloved upon this earth. Instead, he looks up and sees the birds in the sky, free of the opinions of others and the meaning that the world demands of them – and Thompson climbs out of the window.
The catastrophe of endings is that they enforce meaning upon stories; they force us to choose the way in which we must understand what came before. Before the film enters the extended shot that composes the bulk of its runtime, Iñárritu shows the image of a comet streaking across a night sky, and dead jellyfish, washed up upon the beach. Following Thompson’s gunshot – and the audience’s human noise before entering into an applause born of shock and wonderment at some real and supposedly final thing – Iñárritu returns us to the comet, and the reminder of Thompson’s first attempted ending, along with a nightmare-esque montage of Times Square entertainers. For in the end, his rebirth is hollow: a shock-filled rejection of his movie superpowers in favor of viral think pieces, coupled with an accidental scrape with the depth of true feeling. And so he takes to the sky, to emulate the birds. And so he runs from the real love of his family and the critical adulation of his work toward the uncertainty and freedom of the comet, hurtling toward earth. As his daughter Sam searches for him in his hospital room in the film’s famous final shot, she peers out the window, looking downwards before gazing up to the sky with a wide-eyed smile.6 She is able to acknowledge the reality of the act, while also glimpsing his imagined flight skyward, thrilled at his final transformation into Birdman: adored by millions and utterly free. And so Riggan clings to his dreams for flight, fully transforming into the inhuman abstraction of Birdman, unaware that his meaning is not in the heroic flight, but in the silent plunge toward Earth.
* * *
All images are screenshots from the film’s DVD.
- In his first major leading role in years, Keaton sought a career resurgence and artistic renaissance through his role in Birdman. He achieved great success, including an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, and he would star in another Best Picture winner, Spotlight, the following year. [↩]
- From Keaton on down, the film revels in the potent meta-comedy of its own casting. The irony pervades the major cast, nearly all of whom had roles in superhero films in the past: notably, Edward Norton’s role as the Incredible Hulk and Emma Stone’s role as Gwen Stacy in the misbegotten Amazing Spiderman films. And of course, Keaton himself was most famous as Tim Burton’s Batman. [↩]
- In another self-referential accident, Birdman itself was critically lauded, winning four Academy Awards including Best Picture. [↩]
- “You people are full of shit,” the woman replies. [↩]
- In the Raymond Carver story that Thompson’s play adapts, the character that attempts suicide is unsuccessful: “He shot himself in the mouth. But he bungled that too. Poor Ed.” In another irony, Thompson’s bandaged face resembles the mask of Birdman. [↩]
- There is much discussion about whether the film’s final scene is a dream sequence, or some other manifestation of Riggan’s desires following his suicide onstage. In some sense, the literal reality of the scene is irrelevant, given the highly symbolic and dreamlike nature of the film as a whole. [↩]