Birdman: the Torture of Creative Integrity

Birdman: the Torture of Creative Integrity August 26, 2015

Review of Birdman, Directed by Alejandro Inarritu

Oscars are useful as cultural barometers. They say much about what we think is excellent–and, thus, about ourselves. While the Academy was crowning Alejandro Inarritu’s Birdman Best Picture of 2014, I was watching the film itself, suspecting it was about to win the laurels, wondering what its canonization said of its votaries.

Birdman is a clever parable. It stars Michael Keaton as a washed-up old actor named Riggan who once played a famous superhero–the titular Birdman–and now yearns for artistic validation by directing a prestige play on Broadway. In real life, as we all know, Keaton actually did play Batman in the 1989 and 1992 films: the sense of art imitating life lends a vague air of truthiness to the film.

The film is a technical wonder and a beauty to behold. It was filmed to appear as if it were a single, two-hour shot with no editing–and every scene is staged, blocked, and lit gorgeously. (Here’s an article about how they ensured continuity of lighting and color, most of which I barely understood).

Importantly, the technique is not a mere gimmick: it is integral to what the movie is saying. We’ve been watching edited film for a century, since D.W. Griffith perfected the language and grammar of editing. Birdman almost doesn’t feel like a movie. It is more immersive, more immediate, more real than the movies we are used to watching.

And that’s what Riggan is after. He yearns to create something authentic, fighting against the artificiality, commercialism, and sensationalism of his previous superhero career. The movie embodies the sort of realism Riggan is after–and is, implicitly, director Inarritu’s proposal for what cinema can and should be, stripped of its blockbuster baggage.

Image Source: Wikimedia
Image Source: Wikimedia

(There is some irony in the film’s casting. Ed Norton and Emma Stone play supporting roles: they previously starred as the Hulk and Spider-Man’s girlfriend, respectively. Birdman wouldn’t have been commercially viable without the name recognition they earned in their more popular roles).

The film puts the tension between Riggan’s ache for artistic redemption and his crass superhero past on display quite literally: Birdman haunts Riggan. Riggan hallucinates, hears Birdman’s raspy whisper as a voice in his head, sees him floating or crouching nearby, imagines he has telekinesis.

Riggan, crippled by insecurity and hounded by doubts about his worth, worships an ideal of artistic integrity, and it drives him mad. A New York stage critic pours venom on Riggan and, by extension, every Hollywood blockbuster, action film, superhero comic book sequel, prequel, and reboot:

I hate you and everyone you represent. Entitled, selfish, spoiled children. Blissfully untrained, unversed and unprepared to even attempt real art. Handing each other awards for cartoons and pornography….You’re no actor. You’re a celebrity. Let’s be clear on that.

In revenge, Birdman demands that Riggan just play the system for all it’s worth, take the money and run.

Give the people what they want… old-fashioned apocalyptic porn. You are larger than life, man. You save people from their boring, miserable lives. All you have to do is…

[Riggan snaps fingers, and explosions occur, shooting starts, soldiers get shot, choppers fly and shoot, one gets shot down]

That’s what I’m talking about. Bones rattling! Big, loud, fast! Look at these people, at their eyes… they’re sparkling. They love this. They love blood. They love action. Not this talky, depressing, philosophical bull***.  You’ll glimmer on thousands of screens around the globe. Another blockbuster. You are a god.

I knew the movie would win Best Picture when I heard these dueling bits of dialogue. (The screenplay, albeit suffused in profanity, deserved its Oscar). Riggan wants to be an artist but fears he’s a fake. He wants to inspire and challenge, but can’t get over the suspicion that everyone’s laughing at him. In resignation, or rebellion, he is tempted to use his power to put on a show of sex and violence just for the cash. Riggan is Hollywood. Hollywood could only respond to such a faithful and incisive dramatization of its own soul by either embracing it wholeheartedly or rejecting it in denial.

As a movie about filmmaking, acting, and the stage, Birdman is a little self-indulgent and too niche to be very accessible. But as a movie about the creative process, it has a slightly broader resonance. Riggan tells his daughter that his play has “become a distorted version of myself, hitting my balls with a tiny hammer.” As it happens, I am finishing up my second book and I know exactly what he means. Creating something large and important becomes all-consuming; far too much of my own self is invested with the effort; the book has become an idiosyncratic reflection of myself to an absurd degree; and the process is almost physically painful, thoughts of the book intruding on my mind, unbidden, at all hours, demanding attention. Inarritu has captured something profoundly true of creative labor.

But, I think, only partly true. In the end, Riggan is driven mostly by fear and lust: by a craving  for other’s recognition and validation and praise, and a terror that, without them, his life has no meaning. Perhaps most people (or most men) do approach their work in such a spirit, which explains much about office politics, Americans’ dissatisfaction with their lives, and war. We become slaves to our idols, and sacrifice our families, our lives, and our selves on their altars, as Riggan does, ambiguously, at the end of Birdman. There are no characters in Birdman who embody a different way: working not from fear or lust, but from love—love of the creation we get to steward and love of the neighbors whom we serve. Inarritu ends the movie with a single image—an upturned face—that implies hope. But with no contrast, Birdman was resolutely downbeat, and its ending shot artificial, contrived, and unconvincing.

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