Birdman: Riggan, Mike and Adolf Eichmann

Birdman: Riggan, Mike and Adolf Eichmann


Howard Adelman

In a previous blog I spoke of doubleness and the dramatic tension between Riggan and Mike as the core of the tension in the movie, Birdman. The film has been nominated for nine Oscars this year. The form, theme, cinematography, soundtrack, characters are so at odds with a movie that thirty years ago won Oscars for best movie, best direction and five other Oscars – Out of Africa that we watched again last evening. I quote from the 1937 memoir by the Danish Isak Dinesen (the pseudonym of Karen Blixen) upon which the movie was based.

“Two homogenous units will never be capable of forming a whole… Man and woman become one… A hook and an eye are a Unity, a fastening, but with two hooks you can do nothing. A right-hand glove with its contrast the left-hand glove makes a whole, a pair of gloves; but two right-hand gloves you throw away.”

Before I return to the movie of thirty years ago, I want to introduce a third character, one from real life. I know you will be puzzled by the inclusion of Adolf Eichmann when discussing a Hollywood film that, on the surface, has absolutely no connection with an organizer of mass murder, but I beg your forbearance as I develop my theme. I am currently completing the reading of Eichmann Before Jerusalem by Bettina Stangneth, a German philosopher who has written a brilliant work of scholarship. It is a heavy tome at 579 pages, 155 of them endnotes. Don’t worry, I do not intend to review the book in this blog, even though it is a tour de force and hopefully will win a number of additional scholarly prizes now that it has been translated into English. It has already won the German NDR award for best non-fiction book. The reviewer of the English translation will require a far greater scholarly acquaintance with the field than I will ever have.

It is rare to read a philosopher who wrote her PhD thesis on Kant’s concept of radical evil and ever since has been researching a theory of the lie, but who has also become a scholar on anti-Semitism and the National Socialist philosophy. It is rarer yet for that scholar to produce such a brilliant case study of a personality who embodied radical evil. Stangneth, as I do, belongs to a school of philosophy that believes that philosophers have to sink into the mire of the empirical to undertake proper philosophical work.

One of the virtues of the book is the grace but thoroughness with which she totally buries Hannah Arendt’s portrait of Adolph Eichmann as an expression of the banality of evil, not only by the thoroughness of her research and the skill of her analysis, but by clearly showing that Arendt was duped by Adolf Eichmann’s deliberately cultivated deceptive self-portrait in the courtroom in Jerusalem. Though Stangneth lauds Arendt for her courage and the conviction of her clarity in portraiture, though Arendt knew far too little, and for her meticulous work, Stangneth overwhelmingly demonstrates that, “even someone of average intelligence can induce a highly intelligent person to defeat herself with her own weapon: her desire to see her expectations fulfilled.” An ability at self-critique is still the ultimate virtue of a first class philosopher and Hannah Arendt ultimately fails that test.

Stangweth demonstrates definitively that Eichmann was a man of vaulting ambition who did not inadvertently become a member of the SD as he proclaimed, but wanted with a desperate passion to enjoy the respect from others because of his membership in the SD [the SD stood for Sicherheitsdienst or Security Service in Nazi Germany and was distinct from the Gestapo). For his deepest desire was to experience the deep dread he could then inspire in others.

Eichmann was not the epitome of the bureaucrat who followed rules and kept meticulous records. He was disorganized and often tardy. More importantly, he believed in smashing conventional bureaucracy in the name of both a higher ideal, National Socialism, but also to set in place a system that was speedy and more effective by not following inherited rules. He was Mr. Fixit when it came to invention for extermination. He coined the phrase, “Final Solution”. Nevertheless, though not a bureaucrat in the ordinary Weberian sense, he meticulously kept records of denunciation files as he wrote, with his crude and simplistic ideology, anti-Semitic screeds. Unlike either Riggan or Mike in the Birdman, he sought to exude faceless power (akin to a Gestapo man in a long leather coat with his face in the shadows) rather than the desire for facial recognition of both Riggan and Mike, each in very different ways.

Not that Eichmann disdained recognition; he craved it, but for his name rather than his face. Riggan and Mike wanted recognition, the former for his face that had previously been hidden behind a bird costume, and the latter for his body of work as an actor. All three wanted and craved a reputation, but Eichmann for one that inspired fear while Riggan wanted respect and Mike wanted recognition for brilliant artistry. But all three were poseurs, Mike deliberately, for that was his art, Riggan to cover up his lack of artistic skills, and Eichmann to project power and status (hence, the black SS uniform and the riding crop) as well as erudition. For he was brilliant at convincing others that he was an authority on both Judaism and Zionism and that he had mastered both Yiddish and Hebrew when he only learned a smattering of each, but just enough about all four to deceive others.

“A glance at the modest means with which Eichmann managed to present himself as a perfect Hebraist, even to his colleagues, teaches us something about his use of role-playing and image-making. Eichmann spoke no Hebrew and only a little Yiddish.”

Riggan, Mike and Eichmann were not shy, were not retiring, and did not want to be subordinate to anyone else. Each wanted a place in history, a very different place for each, but a lofty position nevertheless. Riggan wanted to achieve fame and recognition out of costume. Eichmann wanted fame in costume. In contrast to both, Mike achieved fame by baring all. He did not even wear underwear when he had to change in the fitting room. The biggest difference between Riggan and both Mike and Eichmann is that Riggan was always uncertain and full of self-doubt. In contrast, both Mike and Eichmann were convinced that they had been chosen for greatness. Eichmann wanted fame as the exterminator of the Jews. Mike sought fame as the exterminator of himself. Riggan wanted fame for being an actor rather than a comic book character in costume.

All three men were known for barking orders. As the leaders of the Jewish communities that met with Eichmann attested, he “attacked them energetically, shouting and screaming and threatened to send them to a concentration camp.” He was no self-effacing bureaucrat who simply followed orders. None of these three men were capable of simply following orders. They were all artificers in their very different ways, obsessed with invention, primarily of themselves, though only Eichmann conceived of himself as the manservant of death who carried the sickle obsessed with the extermination of Jews. While he accused Jewish leaders of portraying him as the bloodhound who wanted to kill the Jews, he collected those reviews as if he were a director of plays taking great pride in both that reputation and his achievements. Riggan’a orders, unlike those of Mike and Eichmann, though he barked as loud as the others, were just as often ignored, Eichmann and Mike barked orders that were always obeyed, but Mike, unlike Eichmann, rarely obeyed orders given to him. For Mike could not tolerate constraints.

Pride. Ambition. Self-aggrandizement. Arrogance. Role-players. Image-makers. These descriptors characterize all three. But Riggan and Mike are Lilliputians compared to Eichmann who boasted, “Nobody else was such a household name in Jewish political life at home and abroad as little old me.” Paradoxically, a contradiction of which he was totally unaware, Eichmann was determined to exterminate that very polity in which his greatest fame was to be found. But the key is not the polity on which he focused his obsession with extermination, but his obsession with his reputation and the need for an image and public performance to sustain and enhance his role on the stage of world history. All three were united in an inability to hide in the shadows, an inability that would lead to Eichmann’s identification, kidnapping, trial and eventual execution.

What is often overlooked is how the audience is complicit in the deceit. Look at the raves Riggan’s play received from both the audience and critics in the film, Birdman – though it is clear that the play is a dramatic mess. The plaudits were for technique, for the ultra-realism of actually shooting himself at the end. The movie incorporates the laugh-line of The Producers, who, in contrast to Riggan, were intent on, rather than bumbling toward, failure. The production was a smash success. In every case, not just in theatre but in real life, deception can only succeed in partnership with the mindblindness of an audience. Even Eichmann’s Jewish victims helped enlarge the symbolism of his name as that name became more than that of an individual person, but was projected onto every jack-booted leather-coated Gestapo agent his victims ever encountered.

People who have experienced suffering, humiliation, and loss do not want to have been the victims of someone mediocre: that a mere nobody has power over us is even more unbearable than the idea that someone has power over us. This mechanism blocks our view of the perpetrator. It gives more power to the dynamic of symbol creation and strengthens the sphere of power by limiting our capacity for making clear judgments.”

Hence the story of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Hence the diatribe in the Torah against idolatry as the worst sin. Hence, false memories and projection of the deceived. This was true of even an intellectual as smart as Hannah Arendt. So why fault the audience who went crazy over the play Riggan wrote, directed and acted in? Why fault the audience who watch Birdman or those who nominated it for awards and will eventually cascade the movie with honours?

Am I putting down my wife and children who so loved the film? Not at all. They were taken in, as the vast majority of people are, by the artifice of technique and deception, by the magic of the movies, by brilliant and sparkling dialogue, by inventive and skilled cinematography and, most of all, by inspired acting and role-playing. Our great love of precisely those elements also help to deceive us about everyday life and of history. For artistry for its own sake, the preference for technique at the expense of substance, invention divorced from creation, is just magic.

Isn’t this an assertion of arrogance? Not at all. It is merely pointing out, what Mike was passionate about pointing out, that we all are small, meaningless and naked ultimately as we play our roles in time, and even more pitiful when we play a role obsessed with standing out and above history. These are but acts of enormous vanity. While we exert enormous efforts at playing a role that will raise us to greatness, that will give our life meaning, it is just as important, if not more so, to be always aware of how small we are and how fleeting and ephemeral fame is. Further, if fame is only to be gained by stepping over the bodies of others, better to bury fame.

Eichmann at the pinnacle of his success as an exterminator of the Jews is only a Mike turned inside out and directed outward at the Other. After the war, as he hid out in Germany and in Argentina, as he made plans to re-appear on the public stage, Eichmann did return to the world public stage, not as he envisioned it, but in a courtroom in Jerusalem where he was required to play his greatest role, that of a faceless bureaucrat that is only a cog in a murder machine that was the precise obverse of his performance in history. In the courtroom, he had his ideal critic as he played his new role for the most intellectually significant drama critic at the time, Hannah Arendt, who was totally taken in by his performance, proving what a superior thespian he really was.

Eichmann had to play the humble and pitiful actor rather than the costumed hero of his greatest fame, and though he clearly, in retrospect, bungled the writing, the directing and the performance itself, he nevertheless succeeded in earning an even greater status in history than he ever imagined by playing the role of self-diminution in a so-called banal murder machine. Eichmann desired and dreamt of being Birdman, soaring like an eagle, and not reducing himself to ordinariness, humiliating himself in his own eyes, but, paradoxically that inversion won him a role in history far beyond any that he imagined, as the purveyor of banal evil.

Mike and Riggan are hollow men. By bombarding the image of Eichmann with electrons in a super-collider, each is revealed as infinitesimally small positive and negative quarks, as the two very different faces of a monstrous Adolf Eichmann. Miniscule characters are magnified and revealed when we can see Riggan and Mike writ large as Adolf Eichmann. Even more important, the absence of the Higgs boson particle allows them to disintegrate before our very eyes. This can best be illustrated by sitting Birdman side-by-side Out of Africa, the star-studded Oscar-winner of thirty-years ago.

It would be hard to find two films as radically different as Birdman and Out of Africa. Birdman is set in the small cluttered dressing rooms, narrow corridors and small theatrical stage of a Broadway theatre. Out of Africa is as expansive as Birdman is claustrophobic. Set on the open veld at the foot of the Ngong hills in Kenya southwest of Nairobi, Out of Africa juxtaposes nature and the artifices of civilization, primitive Masai warriors and herders with ex-pat aristocrats largely from Britain, hunters with farmers, and the role of the Kikuyu workers and Somali Muslim house servants caught between these radically different periods in human history. There is NO nature in Birdman, not even human nature; it is all artifice, brilliant artifice, but artifice all the same.

The pace of Out of Africa is languorous while that of Birdman is frenetic. The sound track of each is radically different. The Music of Out of Africa combined traditional tribal music from Kenya and orchestral works by classic composers (Mozart’s “Clarinet Concerto” for example) with a brilliant original score by John Barry that communicated the transition from the tension between a tribal world and a feudal aristocratic order into the modernism of the twentieth century. In Birdman, sound designer Martín Hernández enhanced tension with Antonio Sánchez’ atonal “jazz” playing. Percussion had been taken full circle from the beat of the Masai warriors as they run across the Serengeti to a regular beat, through the background percussiveness of a European orchestra, back to drumming that paces a rapid transition into modernity.

In Birdman, instead of providing a steady beat for the warriors, the beat is very irregular and varied, tuned to reflect the subtext of each scene in the movie rather than set a constant pace for the performance. The drumming stops and starts, resuming at a very different pace to enhance the erratic performances of the characters. Instead of crisp, clear tones, the fractured and broken drumming signals disfunction, irregularity, tension and disintegration. The veld may have been relatively dry in the Serengeti, but was never emotionally dry. The drums in Birdman reflected the dirty realism of the Carver stories brought to a radically new pitch sometimes bordering on and other times breaching the insane.

In Out of Africa, the main tension is between a female and a male, initially between Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep) and her philandering aristocratic husband, Baron Bror Blixen (Klaus Maria Brandauer) and then between Karen Blixen and Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford), a man who refuses to be owned or possessed, but who deeply connects with the immediate other in imitation of the Masai way. He is as direct and honest as the Baron is deceiving and a reprobate. Whether, between the Baroness and the Baron, or in her love affair with Denys, the differences are clearly there, but, in each case, the love that unites them is clear. This is also evident in Karen’s connection with her Somali overseer, Farah (Malick Bowens).

In Birdman, we have a tension between male and male, not as in a boxing moving as a test of strength and skill, nor as in a buddy movie as a test of contrasting characters, but as a competition between two different forms of fabrication with radically different intentions and goa,ls. What we never have is love. What we never have is the injunction of E.M. Forster to “Only Connect” What we cannot find in director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s script and direction is a Higgs boson particle.

Scenes from Birdman

Scenes from Birdman


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.”

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.