DISCUSSION OF IGNORANCE AND RELEVANCY: COMMENTARY ON BIRDMAN

by Guest Blogger

Jason Minear

  Riggan Thomas (Michael Keaton) and his alter-ego Birdman

Riggan Thomas (Michael Keaton) and his alter-ego Birdman

Oh, come on people, don't be so pathetic. Stop looking at the world through your cellphone screens. Have a real experience! Does anybody give a shit about truth other than me? – Mike Shiner (played by Edward Norton)

Virtue - Noun:  Morally good behavior or character, the good result that comes from something

Ignorance -  Noun: A lack of knowledge, understanding, or education

Good art provokes conversation.  And there is plenty here. After watching Birdman, or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, this weekend; I was curious as to what others thought of the ending and the recurring themes of the film.

  Riggan (Keaton) on a "stroll" through Times Square in his tidy whities

Riggan (Keaton) on a "stroll" through Times Square in his tidy whities

MAJOR SPOILER ALERT BELOW

The Ending: So what do we know about the ending? Riggan Thompson is indeed dead. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s decision to use a one shot filming technique is critical in making this determination. The only break from the one shot happens after Riggan shoots himself on stage. The scene cuts to the burning comet, the on stage parade of marching band mixed with superheroes – (Spiderman on Broadway be damned?) , and the jellyfish on the beach – the proverbial life flashing before your eyes.  Cut to Riggan in the hospital.  

The one shot take represents life – unedited and ever moving forward. The break from the one shot reinforces that Riggan has given in to his mental illness, wanting to make a statement of relevancy to the theatre critic; and thus commits suicide in front of the audience.  

We have to end it on our own terms... with a grand gesture. Flames. Sacrifice. Icarus. You can do it. - Birdman

It is at this point where Inarritu rather intentionally, I would argue, inserts the hospital ending for a variety of reasons.

The ending is a convention of Innaritu to only satisfy and appease us, the audience. It is us – the audience - that can’t embrace the realism of an ending where Riggan commits suicide. We need to have the happy ending – the feel good Hollywood ending.  The ending where the superhero triumphs. It’s as much as part of the commentary on us that is threaded throughout the film.  

And oh..since when do hospital windows open?

Is it us the audience that has the unexpected virtue of ignorance? With such commentary throughout about art, truth, and relevancy; why should we remain unscathed?

Riggan reconciles with his wife, gets the artistic accolades that he has longed for, gets a brand new unscarred slightly swollen nose over the course of 12 hours, tells his Birdman persona to F off,  and finally gets the common ground with his daughter and gains her admiration.

  Riggan in hospital with "new nose"

Riggan in hospital with "new nose"

That's what you always do. You confuse love for admiration. – Sylvia (played by Amy Ryan)

Riggan is no better of a father or husband than he was the day prior. 

And let's face it, Dad, it's not for the sake of art. It's because you want to feel relevant again. Well, there's a whole world out there where people fight to be relevant every day. And you act like it doesn't even exist! Things are happening in a place that you willfully ignore, a place that has already forgotten you. I mean, who are you? You hate bloggers. You make fun of 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. You're not important. Get used to it. – Sam (played by Emma Stone)

  Riggan's daughter Sam (Emma Stone)

Riggan's daughter Sam (Emma Stone)

Ego - Noun:  the self especially as contrasted with another self or the world. The one of the three divisions of the psyche in psychoanalytic theory that serves as the organized conscious mediator between the person and reality especially by functioning both in the perception of and adaptation to reality.

What is it to be relevant today? As we become more engrossed with social media, and our pavlovian response to likes and retweets, and the ultimate end game of going viral; what are we truly saying about our character? Using Mike as an example, can we only experience truth when there is an audience today? Using Sam as an example, can we only experience relevance by the number of our twitter followers or views? If we can’t share it on social media did it even happen at all?  Innaritu plants the seeds for the discussion throughout the movie. 

  Mike (Edward Norton)

Mike (Edward Norton)

  Keaton and Norton square off over inadequacies in  Birdman

Keaton and Norton square off over inadequacies in Birdman

Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige – Mike Shriner

Innaritu does an amazing job of using the same motifs that he is criticizing to better fuel the fire.  

Relevancy of the Superhero and its domination of today’s pop culture: Why 2 titles? Which do you prefer – the super hero reference or the ambiguous artsy name?

People, they love blood. They love action. Not this talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit - Birdman

We are constantly challenged throughout the film that the increase of the blockbuster comic book/super hero film is taking away from true art. But Innaritu continuously has us in a tug of a war using the same super hero references to his success to create his satire.

Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is the most expensive Broadway production in history, and also once held the box office record for Broadway sales in one week, taking in $2.9 million over nine performances - Wikipedia

The first scene in Birdman is an obvious nod to the most powerful super hero of all time, Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen.  Additionally, Innaritu is identifying his work with a work that set out to reflect current angst and to deconstruct and draw satire on the super hero genre. Watchmen is largely viewed as one of the greatest graphic novels of all time. It has a similar structure by featuring a story within a story structure (Tales of the Black Freighter) comparable to the play (Things We Talk About When We Talk About Love) within the film.

  Dr. Jonathan Osterman aka Doctor Manhattan (Billy Crudup/Greg Pitt)

Dr. Jonathan Osterman aka Doctor Manhattan (Billy Crudup/Greg Pitt)

Additionally, strong comparisons can be made between Birdman and Watchmen’s Night Owl – both which have their roots in Batman.

Although much of the intention has been around the Keaton backstory of playing Batman, both Ed Norton (the Hulk) and Emma Stone (Gwen Stacey in the Amazing Spiderman) have had their history with underperforming super hero reboots.

Riggan: Just find me an actor. A good actor. Give me Woody Harrelson. 
 

Jake: He's doing the next Hunger Games. 
 

Riggan: Michael Fassbender? 
 

Jake: He's doing the prequel to the X-Men prequel. 
 

Riggan: How about Jeremy Renner? 
 

Jake: Who? 
 

Riggan: Jeremy Renner. He was nominated. He was the Hurt Locker guy. 
 

Jake: Oh, okay. He's an Avenger. 
 

Riggan: Fuck, they put him in a cape too?

Ironically, all of the mentioned actors are doing super hero/blockbuster movies, and here comes the Hulk/Norton (similarly to Keaton) to join the cast. However, Norton to his credit has nominations for Primal Fear and American History X. Robert Downey Jr. (Oscar nominations for Chaplin and Tropic Thunder) is then reviled on TV. Riggan then discusses sharing a flight with George Clooney (from the worst Batman movie ever). Keaton had the better Batman, but Clooney’s recent lifetime achievement award, best supporting actor Oscar, best producer Oscar, cuff links and great chin feed Riggan’s self-doubt. It is Riggan’s ego that needs to do something relevant. And although, Innaritu takes shots at the genre; the majority of actors that have worked in the space have maintained a balance between their blockbusters and “relevant” work. Keaton has fared the worst from a career standpoint despite being the actor that ushered in the real, dark depiction of the super hero.  

“And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so? I did. And what did you want? To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.” – Raymond Carver

Lastly– with all the seeds planted about self, relevance, ego, etc. – what views are being presented about women?  Innaritu’s blatant misogyny is the most disturbing piece of the film. And although other topics are painted with broad strokes, women are little more than sex objects or mean calculating individuals. Whether noticed for their asses, requested to play with a man’s balls, share a vagina, or participate in a gratuitous lesbian scene that goes nowhere; this aspect adds a shallowness to the film as  a whole and not just from the males that are playing out on screen. I can only assume that Mr. Innaritu was getting popcorn when Black Widow was being such a bad ass – Alejandro, dude?

Right, Wrong or Indifferent; Birdman get us to think. One cannot watch it and be apathetic. The technical mastery is evident. It’s easy to enjoy and appreciate the film. But at the end of the day, how does it make you feel? Will you take your head out of your phone? How do you define relevance?