Birdman: Riggan and Mike – a Comparison

Birdman: Riggan and Mike – a Comparison


Howard Adelman

In Birdman, Riggan and Mike share some characteristics. But a myriad of others push them into opposite poles. The connection as well as the differences are responsible for the doubleness of the action that propels the drama, a doubleness that forms the heart and core of the universe. I begin by mentioning two fundamental characteristics they share in common. Both men are hollow and lack any spiritual core. And both men are totally self-centred. But first a side trip into T.S Eliot, the source of the phrase “hollow men” in most modern literary and other artistic references.

The phrase comes from T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Hollow Men”, though that is actually not the title of the poem. It is called, “Mistah Kurtz – he dead.” The phrase is not even the sub-title which is “A Penny for the Old Guy”. The popular title comes from the opening stanza:

We are the hollow men

We are the stuffed men

Leaning together

Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!

Our dried voices, when

We whisper together

Are quiet and meaningless

As wind in dry grass

Or rats’ feet over broken glass

In our dry cellar

Hollow men lean against one another and hold one another up. Not one can stand on his own two feet. Like the tin man in The Wizard of Oz, they have straw for brains. In Birdman, they recognize their own sad state. Further, when they speak – which is rare since they most often shout – their voices are dry, quiet and as meaningless as wind in dry grass, or, more gruesomely, as the sound of rats’ feet over broken glass in a dry cellar. Their voices, even when shrill, always grate and leave only the sound of emptiness behind.

This depiction echoes that of Macbeth in William Shakespeare’s play (Act 5, Scene 5) as his plans, like Riggan’s, self-destruct all around him. The description is about what makes good and bad theatre. The latter is always “A Tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Macbeth’s speech has probably been memorized by every school child in the Western world.

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day

To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.!Out,Out, brief candle!

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,
Signifying nothing.

The speeches of both Riggan and Mike are full of sound and fury, brilliant fireworks that signify nothing. Hence, Birdman is a tale told by an idiot savant with great creative inventiveness but without any significance. This is what I wrote sixty years ago about T.S. Eliot’s post 1925 poetry, especially the most famous of all his poems, “The Wasteland” in an essay in 1956 for my second year English class when I was a premed student at the University of Toronto. I called Eliot a brilliant poetic craftsman, but, even according to his own criteria in his critical essays, he was not a poet because a poet was always a communicator concerned with reaching a public and telling or alluding to a great truth. Eliot did not nearly live up to his own criteria. Shakespeare, by contrast, could depict both bad theatre and terrible conduct in real life and on the stage. But he believed in people and believed in love, Eliot was full of contempt that he filtered into his blatant anti-Semitism. In the essay, I attempted to connect his poetic techniques in his later poetry, his literary criticism and his anti-Semitism.

For a student who, on my first assignment in first year, received the worst mark in my English class (16 out of 100 – luckily it did not count toward my final mark), I received an A++ for that essay on Eliot in an era when awarding an A grade was rare. I have always been very proud of that mark, but much prouder of the professor and the institution that awarded it. The professor was an obvious lover of T.S. Eliot as a poet and, I am sure, did not agree with a word I wrote. Yet he gave me that mark.

All this is not as irrelevant as it might first appear. For not only is Birdman mainly a story about hollow men who need and prop one another up in spite of their rivalry and mutual; antagonism and contempt for one another, but the writers and directors are, like Eliot, absolutely brilliant at writing and crafting a movie, but the movie, like Riggan’s pretentious dramatic production itself, is not art. Most importantly, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo all seem to recognize that about their own film.

Their two main characters are certainly hollow men but have the added characteristic of both being self-centred, that is, totally preoccupied with their own personal concerns and careers. To be hollow is one thing. To be determined to fill that hollowness oneself with whatever craft one has acquired, but without a soul, allows for the hollowness to be dramatically expressed. For each, there are very different expressions of hollowness. Let me simply list the different characteristics without any elaboration.

Riggan                                                                Mike

Not talented as an actor                                      Extremely talented as an actor

A has-been                                                          A current Broadway star

Pursuit of fame and visibility                                Pursuit of artistic excellence

Fame through self-embarrassment                     No inhibitions whatsoever

Running through Times Square in underwear

Ironically, is a celebrity only                                Totally careless about personal reputation

Claims to risk all but, in fact, has nothing           Great method actor precisely because he is

really to risk                                                       willing to risk everything once on stage

A devotee of magical realism                             A devotee of tough and gritty realism

A maximalist                                                       A minimalist

An artisan                                                          An artist

Impossibility of suppressing the banal               Resists the banal for artistic greatness                      The cleverness of magic                                   The brilliance of art

Poor communicator                                           Articulate in the extreme

Easily intimidated                                              Cannot be intimidated

Weak ego                                                         Strong ego

Powerful id (Birdman)                                       No id, except for artifice

Powerful superego (Sam)                                 No superego

Full of self-pity                                                  Pitiless

Calamity Jane                                                   Indestructible, more than the comic book hero

No sense of truth                                              Verisimilitude to the real the be-all and end-all

Not ultimately vain                                            Is only vain

So we have two hollow self-centred men dependent on one another but with polar opposite personalities. Riggan may inadvertently produce a “new art” and Mike will continue to reinvent himself as an artist with each stage performance, but, in both cases, it will be a product of emptiness. But what is wrong with that? After all, Nietzsche’s ȕbermensch is characterized by constantly overcoming his old self and re-inventing himself anew. In the movie, the audience feels, and is meant to feel, more pity and empathy for the pratfalls of Riggan than for the monstrous ego of a conniving Mike, but it is Riggan who is perhaps the more dangerous hollow man, an observation not included in the movie. (See tomorrow’s blog.).

In a sense, we are all hollow men made up of atoms that in turn consist of more fundamental particles, up and down quarks and anti-quarks, leptons – electrons, muons and taus and their complimentary neutrinos – and anti-leptons. There are also four forces – gravity which exerts itself on all particles, electromagnetism, the strong force and the weak force. But what holds everything together, what gives shape to matter and form to the otherwise almost complete hollowness, is the Higgs boson particle produced when two gluons collide. The loop of virtual quarks formed in that collision holds everything together. Higgs boson carries the strong force. The difference between being just a hollow man and a human with form and shape is that there is something there, however ephemeral and, in spite of occupying no space at all. That ephemeral virtual non-spatial entity holds it together.

Eliot in the second stanza of his poem “The Hollow Men” envisioned shape without form when there cannot be shape without form. Eliot envisioned force that was paralyzed, an oxymoron if there ever was one, just as there can never be gesture without motion. These paradoxical and impossible combinations are but imaginative exercises in a world which Eliot envisioned as having totally exploded, for there was nothing to hold anything together. In Birdman, there is no dark night of the soul, because, though the night is entirely black comedy, there is no soul. To repeat, there was nothing to hold anything together.

Though Birdman goes through stages – beginning with death’s dream kingdom and with the bulk of the movie focused on death’s twilight – the movie ends as Riggan leaves through the hospital window into death’s other kingdom. For there is limbo then hell, but no redemption.

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a whimper.

The movie drifts downward from determination and resistance of Riggan to both the voices of his id and of his superego. Riggan is then forced to submit to Mike’s much superior artifice. Though these characters provide the double side of drama in a movie about performance, the film as a whole lacks this doubling dialectic. For there is no redemption, not even a possible one. The movie is driven only by a thirst for fame but never for a thirst for divine love. There is bathos and irony, mocking juxtapositions and a few hilarious scenes, but, in the end, Riggan disappears out the window and we are left with the pathos of mental and spiritual exhaustion.

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