BIRDMAN is more than a movie about art, it is a movie about humanity. I've long believed that our greatest traits are our empathy, our creativity and our curiosity. BIRDMAN nails all three while managing to be a technical masterpiece. It is a daring, intellectually provoking film about our need to be recognized and our need to share ourselves with one another.
Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) represents our creative instincts. He is a man conflicted by his desire to be important, torn between a world in which he was recognized by others and a world in which he hopes to be recognized as himself. He is Birdman but he is also Riggan. His former self haunts him in voiceover and in sequences which can only be expressed as fantastical realism. Riggan sees Birdman as an other self. Everyone else sees Riggan as Birdman. He isn't sure he can tell the difference.
If Riggan is our collective need to express ourselves as creative, autonomic persons, then Birdman is our desire for attention in whichever form it will come. Birdman is validation, even in a perverted form. Birdman is glory, fame, passion. Riggan is authenticity, empathy, soulfulness. Opposite Riggan is Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a hollow man whose only reality is the stage. But what of Shiner's hollowness? Shiner doesn't live for the stage, he lives the stage. He is his characters. His personality is only who he determines it to be once in a role. Backstage, he is reduced to his animalistic impulses, panting after his women like a dog in heat, given grace only with a lighted cigarette and musings on his youth. He strikes up a relationship of sorts with Riggan's daughter, Sam (Emma Stone) but what kind of relationship is it? They are not friends, they are not really lovers, although they share passion, and they are not mentor-mentee to each other. Is Sam Shiner's saviour or is Shiner a light to Sam? Ironic that Sam, a recovering drug user finds a confidant in Shiner, an addict of a different kind, one addicted to his other selves.
Beside Shiner is Lesley (Naomi Watts) who is making her Broadway debut. Leslie is our insecurities, our nervous ticks, our demons rearing their heads to devour our passions. Leslie is not confident like Shiner, nor does she think she is a great artist like Riggan. She is an insecure child, struggling to walk in a race where everyone else can run. Contrasted to her counterparts, she is unable to express herself yet and likely will never really come unto her own. We can tell. She's good, but maybe not great, or at least that is how she sees herself, and we know that as long as she feels that way, she will be right.
Last but not least is Jake (Zach Galifianakis), Riggan's lawyer and trusted friend. He is the guiding light to Riggan's self-destructive idealism. Jake keeps Riggan grounded but also provides him with wings to fly. Without Jake, there is no Riggan. Without Riggan, Jake is merely a good management program. The two compliment each other well, opposite to the dichotomy between Riggan and Birdman. Jake is able to see the good in Riggan and promote it, while also sanding the edges to his rough character flaws without cutting too deeply.
Although BIRDMAN has been called a movie about movies, it is really a movie about relationships. Riggan and Sam, Sam and Mike, Riggan and Mike, Riggan and Jake, Mike and Leslie, Riggan and Leslie, Riggan and his ex-wife, Sylvia (Amy Ryan), Riggan and the audience, Mike and the audience and of course, Riggan and Birdman. Each relationship stands in clear contrast to the others, all providing a mosaic that reflects back humanity's relationship with itself. To make art is to be human, to be human is to make art. Not all art is of course performed in front of people. The most profound performances are the ones we put on every day for the people in our lives.
BIRDMAN asks the question, "Who are we?" Who is Riggan, the writer/actor/director or Birdman? Are they even the same person? Who is Mike? Is Mike anyone? Is Sam a daughter, a lover, an addict? Everyone is someone else to someone else to someone else. Everyone is part of the bigger picture. In BIRDMAN, the bigger picture is Riggan's play. In life, aren't we all a part of someone's play?
All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts.
- As You Like It
BIRDMAN doesn't wax poetically forever, in fact, it spends very little time at all discussing the nature of itself. Instead, it focuses on Riggan's personality. In a key scene, Riggan confronts Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan), an esteemed critic who promises to kill his play because she despises fake actors who pretend to make art for audience approval. How can she hate his play if she hasn't even seen it, Riggan demands. It doesn't matter, she will destroy it anyway. This is not BIRDMAN being self-referencial and turning criticism back on the critics who make to be the experts on art but have never themselves made any. This is BIRDMAN capturing the essence of performance, or of any art. We are quick to judge other people's work, quick to make demands, edits. We are certain that we are, deep inside, better than everyone else. We can detect inauthenticity as quickly as a dog can smell food, yet we prolong contributing ourselves to the collection. We procrastinate, sitting in bars scrawling on papers to deconstruct and demonize the artists we have decided we don't agree with, even when we don't even know what they are doing.
But BIRDMAN remains optimistic about criticism, after all. In another key scene, Sam calls out Riggan on his insecurity, his reluctance to embrace criticism. You're not important, she yells. Sam knows exactly what Riggan's greatest fear is, the fear that keeps following him around, his past haunting him, demanding that he go back to a role he despises but will make him rich, popular and yes, important. The irony is that Riggan is doing exactly what Sam says he isn't. He is making art. He is breaking away from his falseness and embracing his true identity. This confrontation between father and daughter, between the old and the new, paralleled by separating the analogue (who goes to the theatre anymore?) from the digital ("You don't even have a Facebook page") is what hammers home BIRDMAN's message - art does not exist in a vacuum.
When Riggan is alone, he is capable of supernatural powers. He can create, but he chooses primarily to destroy. His powers only manifest in frustration or anger except for one scene in which he uses them to simultaneously escape and celebrate. Nobody else seems to notice this. The movie makes no mention of it. Riggan's powers are not some psychological examination of his psyche, nor are they a fantastical element to the movie. They are simply a part of Riggan that no one can see but him, perhaps they are a metaphor for the creativity within Riggan that anyone has yet to truly discover.
In perhaps the most recognized scene from the trailers, really the only one that makes sense outside the context of the movie, Riggan runs through the streets of New York in only his underwear. Naked, Riggan is seen by thousands but only recognized as Birdman. When he finally ends up back in the preview rehearsal he is supposed to be at, he is forced to improvise the scene without his clothes and without any props. Here he must reveal his full self before he is ready and the audience isn't sure how to respond at first. How can anyone? When faced with the necessity of putting ourselves on full display, we have only two choices: cower away and lose our chance, or press on and lose what we think is our seriousness. The preview doesn't go as Riggan planned, but it gets Riggan the attention he wanted. So, was it successful or not?
By the final performance of the play within the movie, Riggan is stripped of all falseness. He makes a decision that will impact himself and everyone around him in the most profound way, a decision based fully on his fears, but also hinting at his true nature. Unable to hide from himself any further, he commits himself to the play entirely. He shares everything with his audience and in turn they applaud him. However, in giving himself entirely over to his art, Riggan nearly loses himself, and this is the final twist of BIRDMAN and indeed, the last blow that all performances have in store for us. They will eventually cost us everything.
Is it worth it? To make art is to be human, to be human is to make art. We are inextricably connected to each other through our capacity to empathize with each other and to create and share ourselves. Riggan is us. Birdman is us. Mike is us. Leslie is us. Sam is us. Jake is us. Lindsey is us. Humanity cannot exist in a vacuum. It must be shared in order to be experienced, whether on the stage or in the movies, on paper or in conversation, in sex or in love. Perhaps it is simply two people on a rooftop, not with one telling the other not to jump, but with one telling the other the futility in jumping.
BIRDMAN won the Oscar for Best Picture, a move sparking a lot of arguments that Hollywood is only interested in promoting itself. Sure, but BIRDMAN is not about Hollywood any more than IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE is about alcoholism. It is about the virtues of creativity and the wonders of being human, good, bad or hopelessly enigmatic.
In the end, Riggan finds something of himself in a marriage of Riggan the theatre success and Riggan the movie star, shown in a final scene that combines realism with fantasy and appears at first glance to be an ambiguous tease. After reflection however, it is clear what the ending means. Only upon embracing his dual nature does Riggan find a new identity, one unrecognizable to others, yet truthful to his soul. While everyone else is in a panic, it is Sam who truly sees him. As his daughter, she is the recipient of his art, his final audience. To see ourselves in our audience and to simultaneously be seen by them is to see ourselves for who we are. What can be more human than that?