Scenes from Birdman

Scenes from Birdman

by

Howard Adelman

In one terrific scene from Birdman, Riggan sees Sam in a dressing room and asks her why she is there so late. She offers a non-committal account and then Riggan smells pot and flies into a rage. “You can’t do this to me,” he tells Sam. Sam responds: “To you! Everything revolves around you. That is why you are such a lousy father. Further, you do not recognize you are a has-been. You don’t exist.” This is the same language that the part played by Riggan in the play within the movie uses in the last scene before he shoots himself. Everyone knows you are a has-been because you hate bloggers, you make fun of Twitter and you do not even have a Facebook page. For Sam is a contemporary for whom existence is equated with exposure and presence on the internet. Ironically, she is the one who pursues invisibility with the same effort her father seeks visibility. Then when she suddenly realizes that she has hit her father below the belt where he can really feel the criticism, she becomes contrite, but is unable to really say anything. Riggan stays behind sulking, picks up the stub of her joint, starts smoking it, only to burn his fingers.

But Riggan does go viral – when his image is caught as he runs through Times Square in his underwear. As a result, he received over 200,000 hits in the first hour and the twitter account Sam sets up for him, within its first hour, gets Riggan 80,000 followers.

You know Raymond Carver is central to Riggan’s character, not only because he has adapted one of his short stories, but because Riggan carries a note that Carver sent him when he appeared in a high school play in Syracuse that said, “That was a terrific performance”. That was when Riggan knew he wanted to be an actor and he kept the note in his wallet ever since. Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), his co-star and rival in amending the script, offering changes to the direction and otherwise messing with the preview performance (a similar theme and inversion of roles can be seen in the terrific play, Venus in Fur), derides and dismisses the note and states authoritatively that Carver, a known alcoholic, was drunk when he wrote the note on a cocktail napkin.

The note appears once again when Riggan shows it to Tabitha Dickson (Lindsay Duncan), the New York Times critic. The Carver note reaches its end when it is left on the bar counter after Riggan confronts Tabitha, who, as we are repeatedly told, has the power to close the show with her 500 words. Tabitha insists she holds the Sword of Damocles over the success of the show. Mike had already challenged her and acknowledged that she can and will pan him, but he does not bow before her but insists she will only do it when he turns in a bad performance. Tabitha is presented as the stereotype of the actor’s view of the critic – mean-spirited, vengeful, totally subjective and cynical.

Riggan says to her, “You risk nothing. I have risked my reputation, my money and my whole career.” She replies that she will kill the play for she resents him as a Hollywood interloper who played comic book characters. He cannot act but comes with fame and fortune onto her turf, but without any artistic credentials. And he takes the space and air away from much more worthy artistic endeavours. This is not just Broadway versus Hollywood. This is an elitist versus the ordinary Joe, which Riggan in some sense is in spite of his celebrity. He is just trying to earn respect. Her name, Tabitha, cannot be associated with its Hebrew meaning of a gazelle, but with an old TV series about a witch. Except, she is a callous and evil witch of the worst order who has decided to pan the play and kill it without ever seeing it. As she announces to him, “I am going to destroy your play.”

Riggan stands up to her threat with his words, but seems to admit defeat with his actions, beginning with leaving the note behind. Presumably, he has surrendered to the voices, including that of the Birdman inside him, who insists he is a celebrity only and not an actor. However, it is also here that the movie rings false and turns into a farce rather than simply a black comedy. For there is no such critic. It is a projection of a stereotypical actor’s insecurities. Critics, like every writer and performing artist, risks his or her reputation with every word they write. They may have once been playwrights themselves. They understand the effort and the tension in creating a work of art and putting it out for the public – and other critics – to view and appraise. And like the actor, all a critic can do is be as honest with himself and his experience of the work of art as he can be. The theme of confusing love with admiration is hackneyed. The ironic mirroring is overplayed – as with the reference to getting an actor to substitute for Ralph only to learn that he is earning great money with The Avenger franchise. His inner Birdman haunts him: “We are the real heroes. We had it all and gave it away. We surrendered the keys to the kingdom. These usurpers don’t have what you have wasted and thrown away. These people don’t know what you are capable of.”

There is another satirical scene with stereotypes when a number of journalists are interviewing Riggan. One is a pompous pedant who constantly refers to and cites the views of the literary critic, Roland Barthes. Another, from the opposite end of the spectrum, is only interested in gossip and whether Riggan has or has not injected himself with semen. This scene at least has the benefit of the theatre of the absurd, especially when the Chinese or Japanese journalists learn that they are interviewing the famous Birdman, wake up from their dumb stupor, and are suddenly delighted and highly excited.

Just as the reference to semen is an indirect way of highlighting Riggan’s efforts to recover his youth and reputation, the reference to Barthes’ theories also offer an ironic reflective note. For Barthes insisted that language in a play, a movie or a novel was not supposed to represent reality, even when it was written in gritty realistic language. Writing signifies but does not represent and mirror reality. So although the journalist is a boring pedant, there is a real question of what the role of the realism in the script is supposed to impart. What is the ideology behind it, or is this movie a post-modernist expression in which the viewer is permitted to read into the movie his or her ideology of choice. The semiology, not semenology, of the movie, the numerous underwear scenes and certainly the atonal drumming that enters and leaves throughout the film until the drummer actually appears on the streets of New York and, eventually, even in the back hall of the theatre. There is an arbitrariness and playfulness to it all. For Barthes, the two – realism and semiology of props, characters, situations, arbitrariness etc. – do not have to cohere. They can be juxtaposed and, in the dance of the dialectic, play off one another. I believe this is what the movie tries to do.

And that dance is most evidently played out in the dialectical wrestling between Riggan and Mike, between Michael Keaton and Ed Norton. Mike has not been able to get it up for six months with Laura (Naomi Watts), the female lead and his mistress. The scene is adumbrated when Mike asks Lesley to play with his balls, but when they are on stage he takes it one enormous step further. He has an enormous hard-on and, in the name of realism, he wants to have real sex on stage when they are in bed. As Mike later confesses to Sam, it is only on stage that he is real; in life he is a lout and a fraud. So the irony is that he can only be true to himself when he is an Other. In real life, he is impotent.

Mike is the hyper-realist when the only thing real is artifice. He cannot stand plastic bananas used as props – in homage to Barthes. He cannot stand that Riggan uses a pistol in the penultimate scene that looks like a toy gun. Verisimilitude on stage demands reality. There has to be real gin in his drink. And as he makes this declaration in the preview, the cupboards fall down and fragile phony structure of the stage set collapses just as the play in so-called reality will fall apart even when it earns extraordinary plaudits from the critics.

But the show must go on – whether Riggan inadvertently ends up in his underwear or Lesley expresses her fears that she is undeserving of Broadway. So Riggan must soothe her, tell her she is beautiful and great in front of his mistress to whom he has never uttered a compliment of that kind in three years. Over and over again the movie returns to Riggan’s inadequacies – his relative shortcomings as a person, but absolute incompetence as an actor. By contrast, Mike is brilliant as an actor but absolutely incompetent as a person.

He, like Carver, is the real minimalist and Riggan is only an idolater. When he “auditions” for the part, he criticizes Riggan for writing four lines when one will do and when actually, a simple “Fuck you” would be even better. Ignore self-consciousness is his credo. Just sink yourself into the part. But he can only sink himself into the part of a lover with Sam when she goads him on first on the roof and then on the fly loft when they get it off while the other actors on stage are asking rhetorically, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Mike, who repeatedly insists that you should just get into it, just try, when it comes to acting, has heretofore been a total failure when it comes to performing outside the theatre.

The black comedy has some standard tropes, as when Lesley is telling Mike what a snoop and voyeur Sam is just when she is behind the rack of clothes listening to the conversation. When Sam reveals her presence, Lesley goes into a rage at Mike for humiliating her and Mike shoots back, “You make it so easy.” In this case, a staple of broad farce is turned on its head into black comedy.

The subtitle of the movie is “The unexpected virtue of ignorance” which is also the headline of the front page of the newspaper, or, at least, of the arts section, lauding the play in superlative terms. Is the movie declaring the appraisals ignorant whether they pan or praise a dramatic performance? Is the movie commenting on the irony that while it is Mike who reveres absolute realism, it is Riggan who gets praised for an inadvertent mammoth transformative force in the level of realist art? Or does the title subtitle suggest something different again, that the virtue of the ignorance of the audience is what is unexpected by the performers, for it is only in their ignorance blind to the insecurities and conflict of egos that take place behind the proscenium, that allows them to be caught up in the artifice and illusion of both theatre and movies. Or does the subtitle ambiguously refer to all three?

At the beginning of the movie, the voice of Birdman – he will later actually appear – haunts Riggan and asks how did we end up here in this backstage rathole excuse for a dressing room that smells like balls. Birdman takes his stand. “We do not belong in this shithole.” Riggan insists he does not and is intent on proving it through art, not through financial success. And that is the central motif of the movie that shunts all relationships and certainly love to the margins. If his inner Birdman is Riggan’s id and passion for success, Sam, his daughter, is his superego.

Is the movie a satire of crass ambition or of superhero movies with special effects – the helicopters, giant black birds and explosions near the end? Or is a stiletto aimed at theatre and movie critics? Or is the movie perhaps a satire of the pomposity of even philosophical concerns – including of himself, Alejandro González Iñárritu when he directed Biutiful? It may target all of these. In that sense, there may be too much of enough already. For this movie is a hectic, frenetic, splenetic twisted inversion playing realism off artifice, honesty versus craft, and all in the most claustrophobic settings for everything packed into the movie. The hero of the movie is a man who wants to be vain but is not and cannot be, even though that is his greatest ambition which, ironically, he does achieve, but totally inadvertently.

If one loves postmodernism, if one adores identities that continually fracture into divisions, if one loves following the trace through repetition – always emphasized by the drumming – if one is attracted to hyperrealism posing as magical realism, then this movie is for you. But if you like progress in a play instead of sinking in quicksand, if you care for characters who are present rather than one’s known for their absence, if you want performances by people with an identity instead of a split personality, if you want a movie to have a singularity of meaning instead of settling constantly into ambiguity, if you want to be emotionally transfixed and transformed instead of enjoying an epistemic experience, then other choices might be preferable that this overloaded script by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo. But I am sure Hollywood, whether in the Golden Globes or with the Oscars, will fall over itself in love with this movie, for these big egos, who live in a bubble of their own making, love nothing better than to see a reflection of themselves no matter how critical.

Dinelaris said “a few different approaches” were considered, including finishes that felt satirical or dramatic, before the writers settled on what made the final script…”We’re not going to sit around and explain the ending. I guess my thing is, if you can silence the voice of mediocrity, then what is possible? [That] is good enough for me,” Dinelaris said. “But we thought if we answered that question at the end, it would seem very, very small. Is he famous because he shot himself? That’s small. Is he still miserable? That’s small. Everything seemed small.”

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