Birdman and Heidegger's crisis of identity: A Film Doctor discussion

The Film Doctor and his wife sit on opposite sides of the dining table one cold winter evening in South Carolina. Dr. B eats a dark chocolate with sea salt caramel. She just came back from a local college baseball game. I was just reading Ibsen's Hedda Gabler. We both watched Alexandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Birdman last night, and we both thought it was excellent. Dr. B finds that it has weighed heavily on her mind, even enough to wake her up in the middle of the night, as her head fills with theories about what it means. I was mostly impressed with the acting and the film's snarky (but slightly hypocritical) treatment of superhero movies. Who knew that Ed Norton could adapt the swagger of a young Sean Penn? By the by, spoiler alert! We both get some decaf coffee, and the theorizing begins:

Dr. B: Okay.

FDr: Shoot.

Dr. B: The movie literalizes the metaphoric split between being true to yourself as a dramatic actor and the selling out to Hollywood celebrity lifestyle, so the Birdman character seeks ascendency in Riggan's (Michael Keaton's) psyche to try to convince him to return to his movie star self. Riggan hides from everyone else this inner voice of Birdman which suggest schizophrenia, and he hides his telekinetic powers from everyone around him as well.  I don't know if that telekinetic stuff is part of the magical realism of the movie or if it's supposed to be real within the movie's universe.

FDr: That's just what I disliked about the movie. The telekinetic powers, fun as they are, put Birdman on the same level as the superhero films that the movie mocks.

Dr. B: It's important because part of what Riggan has to do. His quest is not to be relevant as his daughter Sam (Emma Stone) loudly suggests to him, but rather to be able to admit to people that he's capable of being vulnerable. He has a weird relationship with his ex-wife and his ex-girlfriend, because he won't risk showing people what he can do. Probably his most honest relationship is with his lawyer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) who at least understands his search to show what he can do is important.  Riggan reveals himself in the play he directs and acts in. His whole identity, his whole self-worth, is wrapped up in the risk of the play.  The telekinesis is a metaphor for his real talent as a dramatist, an actor, and as a person who is insightful into the human condition. Even when he tells Jake that he drops a light on a bad actor's head on purpose, no one believes him because Riggan hides everything from everyone. When he's sleeping on the stoop, that demonstrates how alone he is. Everybody's afraid to reveal that vulnerability. That's the facade the daughter Sam adopts too.

FDr: I mostly saw the film as a great way to showcase the actor's talents, and I liked the idea of one long pseudo-continuous shot. The film takes risks, and it maintains a level of intensity that seems earned because of the desperation of everyone involved.

Annoyed at my lengthy typing, Dr. B starts looking at a Belk catalog of Valentine-themed jewelry.

Dr. B: Some of the themes of the movie are imbedded in the themes of the Raymond Carver story (also the name of Riggan's adapted play) entitled "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," which concerns a person extremely alienated from everyone around him. That's the end result of what happens when you refuse to make a leap of faith and risk failure by trusting others. So, take the metaphor of his levitating....

Fdr: I saw all that floating and flying around as a kind of cheesy effort at transcendence such as one finds in the Talking Heads' song "And She Was."

Dr. B: It's more than that. Like the telekinesis, levitating is something that he trusts when he's by himself. He doesn't trust that he can jump off a building, so he levitates over the floor. If you translate that to his working life, he won't take a risk unless he knows its safe. So he literally has to risk annihilation to prove to himself that his talents are real. That's my main thesis right there. When he steps off the ledge, he's working without a net. He does this in front of his daughter Sam at the end of the movie.

Fdr: She just left the room.

Dr. B:  Riggan knew she would come back and see him fly. She wouldn't have let him do it otherwise. He wanted her to see the talent first. It reminds me of the end of the book Station Eleven when the people of the future can see lights in the distance from a tower, showing the eminent return of civilization. The world is going to be okay. That's how I felt at the end of Birdman. I couldn't imagine how it could end positively, but it does because Riggan finally knows that he can do it.

FDr: But people in real life cannot fly.

Dr. B: That's the magical realism touch. It's all a metaphor. Birdman mixes the real with the imaginary so well, the verisimilitude is not necessary at this point. For instance, I'm not sure if the drummer is real or in his head.

FDr: I understand that the drummer is a meta-cinematic device like the guy (Seu Jorge) who plays soundtrack David Bowie songs on the guitar for Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.

Dr. B: It's also reminiscent of the stage directions for Tennessee Williams' plays where the music becomes a character in the play. It's discordant, not melodious.

FDr: Williams used that music as an expressionist device to show Blanche's inner turmoil or the symbolism of Laura's impossible crush on Jim.

Dr. B: That drum solo is designed to show the discordant functioning of Riggan's thoughts. I like the way Keaton played that character as both blank and tightly complex. He's so unreadable, and yet open.

FDr: One could also say that the pounding drums indicate Riggan's midlife crisis, the lack of time he feels to put everything right. Also, the movie might drag without the staccato beat to offset the lulling pseudo-single shot technique.

Dr. B: I also think the whole labyrinthine theater, the hallways and doors, reflects Riggan's inner world. The fact that he has to get locked out shows how he hasn't mastered his self.

FDr: So, the film depicts an almost ritualistic stripping away of Riggan's psychological defenses that he's built up over the years.

Dr. B: (still looking at the catalog) Ed Norton's character Mike is there for contrast, because he can give it all up onstage. As he says, he's fully himself on stage, but he's absolute false in regular life. He's reached a place, unlike Riggan, where he's champion of the drama. He's only good at the real when he's fake.

FDr: That reminds me of the paradoxes of Inherent Vice. These Oscar-worthy films keep twisting every point they make into its opposite.

Dr. B: In some ways, Riggan has to go beyond the realness of the theater. The play is not just the play but a means for him to make himself vulnerable to everybody. He's trying to work out a relationship with his daughter. So, ultimately, the play only works when he no longer cares anymore. He can only be vulnerable when it no longer matters. It goes back Heidegger.

The Film Doctor groans.

Dr. B: One of Heidegger's points is that you can only understand your act of being when you fully acknowledge your lack of being, i.e. death. It's only when Riggan can semi-commit suicide on stage that he can fully break through as a great artist. It's not the act of doing it so much as committing himself to do it. Much of the time, he's thinking of his death, but it's only a phony Hollywood demise. Even the play he's putting on is about death, but it's only when he commits to walking onstage with a loaded gun that's when he's fully recognizing his not being. That's when he becomes fully himself.

FDr: Yet he lives. If he died, the end of the movie wouldn't work as well. I found the fact that he shot himself in the nose to be farcically funny.

Dr. B: There are moments of humor in the film that seem bizarre.

FDr: That may be the movie's saving grace (aside from its bravura technique), that it doesn't mind making fun of itself even amidst all of these serious crises of artistic identity.

Dr. B: Mostly, Birdman just made me want to go New York.

FDr: I agree. Let's go.

Risking it all, they leave on the Northbound Amtrak train that evening. 


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