It is no surprise to me that Birdman won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2014 as well as other awards. Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarriti has fashioned in Birdman an artful movie set in New York and which superbly captures the dilemma experienced by stage and movie dramatists of today. Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), an aging actor who years before played the superhero Birdman in three Hollywood movies, and who is a latter day Icarus, has Fallen into obscurity and desperately wants “to exist” again by staging a successful play in New York–serious art, not adolescent fantasy–and regain his stature and power. He has created a play based on a Raymond Carver story, and he and his ex-wife, his daughter, and others are sprinting to have it ready for the scheduled opening in a shabby theater. Birdman, a highly original and spellbinding movie, stunning and shocking, with a rich mix of satire, straight realism, sudden surrealism, and fantasy, dramatizes their frantic push. It is a Push writ large.
Thomson thinks about this: Hollywood continues to make dynamic the old comic book superheroes at substantial financial gain; yet such adolescent heroes as Batman, Superman, and Spiderman are merely sensationally trivial, their exploits akin to roller coaster rides and bungee jumping. Riggans-Icarus could not indefinitely fly high in the comic book skies: he eventually fell feather-flocked from those overheated heavens and back to the terrain of the Vale of Tears. Fallen Icarus had outgrown the superheroes and could no longer pretend belief in outlandish fictional physics (though our Icarus still suffers an occasional nostalgia for such in his worst moments Here Below).
But can Fallen Icarus regain his life–make that life bearable–through creating marketable serious art beyond the superhero dreams? Most probably not. Birdman turns on a grand paradox. Not only is superhero storytelling too trivial for genuine art, but there seems to be no room for creating popular true art beyond the superhero frenzy, either in front of cameras or on theater stages. The ahistorical and fickle audience of the day is not only seldom up to authentic art but as usual is locked in the Present, meaning these days it is becoming lost in a stampede into social media. For several ensuing and obvious reasons, funding for serious art is drying up. The foremost theater critic in New York, Tabitha Dickinson, resentful of Thomson’s Hollywood pedigree, sneers at the concept of Thomson’s adaptation of the Carver story, declaring that even before its opening night she has made up her mind to destroy it with a lethal review. Similarly, we never learn the gist of the adapted Carver story. These and other actions in Birdman reinforce the invisibility therein of art itself.
Birdman, then, is art of the paradoxical. It is art dramatizing the fundamental constraints on creating art. This is narrow ground on which to gain purchase for drama. But if Birdman is conceptually simplistic, it is staged and acted with originality and force. For example, Inarriti has filmed Birdman so that much of the action takes place in a single long tracking shot, a technique similar to that used by Hitchcock in Rope, and which creates a special intensity.
There is not a weak performance among the cast, and Edward Norton as Riggan’s lead actor arrests you with his usual fine acting: he is in Birdman a famous actor and an insufferable human being. He delivers a monolog about the dwindling audience for the theater that is hopeless, funny, and nasty. Riggan’s daughter, Sam, helping with the staging of the play, is a lost young woman who often sits perilously on a ledge on the roof of the theater as though she (too) might fall and shows an air of disregard about it. She delivers a scathing and painful monolog to Riggan in which she declares him and his old-white-guy friends to be hopelessly out of step and that no one will care about his play. His ex-wife seems predominantly fearful and dependent, sensing the worst outcomes.
Birdman unsparingly characterizes the challenges to art in our day and its disheartening prospects.
The End is likely to surprise.