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Existentialism Revisited

Birdman
Existentialism Revisited

By Drew Trotter

 

Alejandro Iñárritu does not make movies about trivialities. Biutiful, Babel, and 21 Grams to name just a few of his triumphs deal with subjects like the ambiguities of terrorism, the psychological dance some people enter into with death, the isolating and alienating characteristics of the modern city. Birdman, this year’s Academy Award winner for Best Picture and three other Oscars, is no exception.

In Birdman he has chosen to explore the nature of celebrity, particularly the celebrity of his own industry. Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) is a former super-hero actor, known as Birdman. Thompson played the character in three movies, but eschewed playing in Birdman 4 because he wanted to be something more, a respected actor who was known for craft, not for special effects. As the film begins, Thompson is preparing to go into a table read for a Broadway play he is financing, directing and starring in called “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. This performance will free him from what has now become the twenty-year burden of being recognized on the street as Birdman. It will purchase admiration, not from his fans, but from his peers and his own conscience.

But Thompson’s conscience is a complicated matter. In the opening shot of him alone in his briefs in his dressing room, he appears to be meditating, yoga-like before leaving the room to go to the table read. But then the viewer notices he is not sitting on anything, but hovering in the air. Thompson talks to his alter-ego (also Keaton dressed as Birdman hovering over his shoulder like the proverbial medieval demon) throughout the film and is portrayed as having superpowers—calling down destructive fire from heaven, flying above the streets of New York, moving objects on his dresser with his mind—though it is almost impossible sometimes to distinguish these actions from the state of his mind. He also carries a load of guilt about his daughter Samantha, played by Emma Stone, who works for him on the set of the play and carries on a running, angry exchange with him, questioning his motives and generally running him and the play down. The burden of putting on a Broadway play would be enough, but these two pressures added to it are creating what one might call an “existential crisis” for Riggan Thompson.

And “existential” is the right word, because the film is set in the classic philosophical framework of existentialism. Boyhood, the movie that many felt competed with Birdman for the Best Picture Oscar, displayed one of the clearest portrayals of existentialism I have ever seen, but Boyhood cheats because its relentlessly laid-back tone ignores the central problem of classic existentialism: death. In Birdman, on the other hand, references to death, particularly suicide, abound, as Thompson struggles with his celebrity, the emptiness of his power, his own hubris, the effect he is having on others.

I have written about the existentialism of Birdman in other places, but the movie is more fully a critique of celebrity and its pervasive influence in the entertainment industry. Iñárritu goes back and forth between the comic and the deadly serious in his portrayal. Taking on both the movies and the theatre, biting satire dominates from the craziness of Riggan Thompson, to the wonderful arrogance and lack of integrity of Edward Norton’s character, aptly named Mike Shiner, to the pathetic self-doubt and ambition of Lesley (Naomi Watts), to the completely sold-out commercialism of Jake, the lawyer/producer, played by Zach Galifianakis. The only normal person in the entire film is unrelated to “the business,” Riggan’s wife Sylvia, played beautifully by Amy Ryan.

Supported by thoughtful, dedicated performances by every actor in the film, acting is crucified as a profession ridden with hypocritical, shallow, ambitious and guilt-ridden people. The New York Times critic, again ironically played by the Tony award winning stage actor Lindsay Duncan, declares before even seeing the play that she will demolish it because of who Riggan is; their conversation, which takes place in a bar just down the street from the theater, alone is worth the price of the ticket. In Birdman every department of the entertainment business is populated by characters who deceitfully claw and scratch their way over each other in pursuit of fame.

Except Riggan, and, in the end, his daughter Samantha. Perhaps the ending of the movie, which is impossible to describe here without ruining the film for those who have not yet seen it, is a statement of hope for those who at least battle their demons. Perhaps not. In any case Birdman cannot be read without giving due respect to its view of the world as being in a perpetual, existential crisis over the hopelessness and superficiality of every dimension of life.

There is so much more to say about this amazing film, but we don’t have the space. The choice to shoot most of the movie in long, hand-held camera takes required much of the actors and the crew, but they pass the test astonishingly well. There is not a single technical slip in any scene that I could see, and there were so many complex scenes that this amount of precision amazes. Not surprisingly, the four Academy Awards that it won were for Picture, Direction, Screenplay and Cinematography; that it was not even nominated for Editing is a crime.

Birdman will handsomely reward a close viewing and a long discussion afterwards. Try it.

 

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