Birdman, or, The Unexpected Ignorance of Jimmy Fallon

In a publicity interview for Birdman, Ed Norton relates an instruction he received from the director Alejandro González Iñárritu: he shouldn’t try and play an artist, but create the sense of midlife malaise that could be felt by someone any profession. Birdman certainly works as a general fable, but it highlights a very pointed paradox currently at the centre of celebrity culture and cinema: do we want actors to be superheroes, who offer us an escape route from our anxieties, or do we feel more comfort in tracking their every movement through social media, and thinking that they are just like one of us? This is just the starting point for many debates which the film prompts regarding how identity is sculpted.

Since Christopher Nolan tore up the rulebook  and then painted the shreds deep black in his reboot of the Batman franchise, superhero  films have, at their best, examined the post- 9/11 climate astutely and thrown up difficult moral quandaries. In the main though, franchises are, by definition, based upon following a person or group of people who have been marked for greatness in some way, and then facilitating the (significantly sized) audience’s sympathies towards them. Alongside this, we have Jimmy Fallon as ringmaster to a showbiz circus where celebrities are encouraged to talk about the times that they did Normal Things, or coerced into doing Activities. The world wants to see Riggan Thompson reprise his role as Birdman, but they also want him to see him parade through Times Square in his underwear. How can two such opposing views coexist? It’s an intriguing question, and Birdman wants us to carefully consider the possible answer.

Emmanuel Lubezki continues his Midas touch in this film, with his distinctive use of Steadicam and long takes central to the thematic package of the picture. The camera has to follow something, so it follows the characters. The viewer becomes a voyeur, because none of the characters in the film have any intimate space to retreat into with the camera always following them.

"A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing" © Fox Searchlight 2014.

“A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing” © Fox Searchlight 2014.

There is one shot in this film where that is suspended, and the viewer is instead forced to glimpse down an empty corridor for approximately ten seconds (it may be even shorter than that, but it felt like an eternity in the cinema). It creates an incongruously static space, as you are forced to consider just how many extended glimpses you have had of the characters on screen. In the deep field of the frame is something – I couldn’t make out exactly what – going on, but it’s tantalisingly too far out of sight to be perceived. It suggests hidden mysteries along the lines of Thompson’s possible supernatural powers, and also forces the viewer to try and engage their mind to think about what is happening, rather than having a succession of images imprinted upon their mind. Hidden in there is a comment on the sheer amount of information that is available to people in digital spaces, particularly as so much bandwidth is taken up by social media avatars. That one shot was one of the most understated yet powerful I’ve ever seen in a film, and the tension it created within the room is a testament to the experience of watching films with dozens of strangers, rather than on your own through Netflix.

The presence of the superhero in popular culture has helped bring to light the ‘hero syndrome’, whereby an individual deliberately commits acts, such as arson, so that they can become famous for saving people’s lives from the tragic event that they instigate. There are peripheral instances of this in the film aligned in parallel; the meteor that he summons with a click of his fingers during a flight of fantasy, and the stage light which he makes fall on the original actor whom Edward Norton’s character replaces.

Shiner is in his underwear here, foreshadowing Harrison's undressing. © Fox Searchlight 2014

Shiner is in his underwear here, foreshadowing Thompson’s undressing. © Fox Searchlight 2014

Here then, the superhero ideal is undercut with a subtle comment from Iñárritu: namely, that superheroes are only judged on a relative basis to the non-super. Thompson’s attempts to become an auteur/superhero hybrid require the manipulation and neglect of others, particularly his daughter. He does not ascend from a static base, but applies pressure downwards. The quest to obtain constructive powers necessitates destructive relationships with those around him. Another parallel in the film serves to highlight Thompson’s decline (rather than ascent): he is late to the first rehearsal shown in the film with all the bravado of a Hollywood export to Broadway, but his delay during the final preview is due to him having to endure being stripped naked in every sense on Times Square.

jimmy just like us

It’s Jimmy Fallon! He blew a date with Nicole Kidman! Like that time you blew a date with that girl! Crazy! © NBC Universal 2015.

All characters in the film are trapped within the web of showbusiness. The lines between their performances and their true selves are blurred to the point of personal veracity being completely unreliable. Almost every character lies. The principle of acting is transposed onto day-to-day life, as the intrusion into public lives dictated by social media is shown to be an auction-house for personas, instead of a reliable barometer for personalities. Here’s where Jimmy Fallon comes in. The guests on his show seem to be giving an account of themselves that is much more genuine than other chat shows, but it is still a question of persona, whether at work or play. The film posits that people exist with an arsenal of different personalities ready to be deployed on the right occasion. This split of personas, or constant reinforcement of performance, is rendered on screen by the technique of only showing a character’s reflection on screen as they talk to someone – the viewer can only see the reflected image, not the person actually speaking. The supposedly intimate space of the dressing room still leads to dispersion of identity.

Thompson’s life story, of trying to be a superhero on the Hollywood set and the Broadway stage (important to realise that his attempts to import his vision onto the Broadway stage is a form of self-indulgent heroism in its own right) leads him to have a fractious relationship with his family, particularly his daughter, played sensitively by Emma Stone. As well as the strange expectations of transcendence and groundedness which we desire from public figures (applicable to politics as well – Barack Obama is, or was to predominantly European commentators, a beacon of idealistic change but also a guy familiar with the streets) ,

I mean it was made by a street artist with stencils, for god's sake. 'Hope', Shepard Fairey, 2008.

I mean it was made by a street artist with stencils, for god’s sake. ‘Hope’, Shepard Fairey, 2008.

a superhero culture creates a debate that applies to life more generally. What is the currency of relationships? Are they formed from epic acts, or more banal interactions that exist largely to fill a vacuum? With Thompson’s daughter, the complete absence of the latter confirms that it is more important.

Keaton and Stone's distant relationship is a refreshing antidote to patronising cliche. © Fox Searchlight 2014.

Keaton and Stone’s distant relationship is a refreshing antidote to patronising cliche. © Fox Searchlight 2014.

I have no discernable performing talent. I don’t act, I can’t play a musical instrument, and if my dancing could be summarised in one word, it would be ‘unnecessary’. Yet since the age of 14 I have harboured a fantasy that I will get up on a stage and perform something so intensely powerful and moving in front of all the people I know – in the curious way they can be organised together in a dream – that will completely overwhelm them, lay forward my personality in a super-comprehensible way and perhaps summarise what the whole world is about too. This is not how life works. Life is forged from miniature interactions. A friendship is composed of simply being there when the going is good, even if the conversation remains skipping along the surface. The last shot in the film will undoubtedly go down in cinema history as a head-scratcher for generations to come, but my feeling is that Sam is not looking at her father in flight, but rather the birds shown earlier in the scene; as someone who was left in the residual heat of her father’s Icarean trail, she is more appreciative of the small-scale wonders.  Dedicating yourself to mammoth artistic projects often divorces you from human society, which is paradoxically the inspiration and audience for such a project. Think about Carver’s manifold title – are the ‘we’ who talk about love and the ‘we’ who experience it one and the same? Can the artist be part of both groups?

Sam Harrison's threats of suicide are yet another parallel the film sets up - a suggestion that for all of the role play at work, it gravitates towards particular types.

Sam Thompson’s threats of suicide are yet another parallel the film sets up – a suggestion that for all of the role play at work, it gravitates towards particular types.

Staying on this theme, Antonio Sanchez’s soundtrack is constantly teasing the viewer who is expectant for some regular rhythm to emerge, when one never really does. It is like a constant clearing of the throat preparing for a symphonic release that will envelop the film and neatly wrap it in a bow to say: this is what this is, and this is what it is all about, but the reveal of the soundtrack’s diegetic origins keeps everything tethered to the film’s core.

Just as the soundtrack is trapped within the film, Thompson gets his wings clipped too. As much as Thompson’s opening night performance is feted, I can’t help but feel the film is playing a bit of a joke and suggesting that all he has done is quite literally cut his nose off to spite his face, caught between the two stools of reality and representation. Birdman posits so many different forms of identity that it is difficult to arrive at a meaningful conclusion. However, the film shows that art rises amidst such a backdrop because it is defined by representation, relying as it does on a sense of performance that outstrips the manipulation of identity through social networks. The conflict between Thompson’s ego and the artistic project he develops emphasises the need for art as a communal space, one where meaning emerges from a communication between artist and audience, rather than pandering to how we wish to be perceived.

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2014: Tablets of plastic, tablets of stone.

2014 has been a year of portents. Portents mysterious and elusive, half-seen as they emerge through the shimmering curtain that separates reality from myth. News stories were symbols, a code laid out in stone, far removed from our trail in a technological slipstream. The technology allowing us to follow the news may be improving on a regular basis, but the news this year was old  – narratives from older cultures and religious texts. Tablets of plastic emulated tablets of stone.

Enoch was seized into heaven, but in the summer, dozens of unfortunate souls were blasted out of the sky over Ukraine, victims in a conflict that they had no part in, accountable to no one. Death visited them in a flash, as if struck by one of Zeus’ thunderbolts. This was shortly after the Bermuda Triangle decided to go for an extended vacation in the Indian Ocean and swallowed up flight MH370. The data was pored over, the metrics adjusted, the grizzled Australian oceancombers reunited for one last job. Yet the plane remains unfathomable, an anomaly within our quantified spacetime. There may be radar and sonar systems that are aware of its location, but will not divulge it due to the risk of exposing confidential military information. It may be the age of big data, but the military-industrial complex will always be the bigger brother. The plane’s absence has frustrated any construction of a narrative, with only speculative strands able to emerge, like bean plants groping for support in their germination. The deaths of 239 people needed to be accounted for, but no enemy was willing to step forward, despite nominations from China, Iran, and the pilot. It would seem apposite that in a year such as this, the most likely solution is found to be that the pilot, the one responsible for navigating his passengers through the storm, decided to kill himself and everyone else on board.

Moses descended from Mt. Sinai clutching the Ten Commandments, yet for the poor souls trapped on Sinjar Mountain in Iraq, the mountain was not a portent of salvation, but the last refuge as they were slowly wiped out by a fundamentalist wave, cutting like a scythe across the Middle East. The sacred intervention provided at the mountaintop was by air strikes, another interventionist thunderbolt thrown down from the sky. Conflict was charged with as much religious sensation as any account of Old Testament legions, though the weapons may have changed.

In 2012 we watched Felix Baumgartner meteor across the sky, synthesis of man and machine; a worldwide event, the climax of human potential plummeting towards the New Mexico desert. In 2014, Alan Eustace returned to the same spot in secret, after years of repressed negotiations that would lead to him emulating Baumgartner’s feat. It was all wrong. Baumgartner was the rugged outsider, a man built to BASE jump from manmade skyscrapers, a plummet of human freedom from towers of steel and glass. Alan Eustace was a man in a suit, someone who could convert capital into the equivalent of superior of Baumgartner’s raw daredevilry. Eustace is a vice-president of Google, and his jump seemed oddly coalescent with that corporation’s endeavour to index all information on Earth – content with archiving all information on ground level, they decided to push the vertical frontier in their relentless harvest. Thinking of 2014 as the year of portents, this was the moment that the illusion of a global celebration, peoples united by the admiration for breaking the limits of the human shell, was dustbinned by private discussions and transactions. Baumgartner’s accumulation of distant sympathies was replaced by a disappointing realisation that most events are conducted despite our ignorance, and only made available to us after the fact.

(As an aside, Alan Eustace did not exist until he made his jump. That is to say, he did not exist according to the ontology which is quickly growing to the sole arbiter – Wikipedia. Before the jump, Alan Eustace did not have a Wikipedia article. He needed the gravity one can only experience when falling from 40,000 metres to be catalogued in their database.)

The digital does not decay. It exists in binary, either on or off, 1 or zero. Analogue information disintegrates and is therefore more susceptible to time’s arrow. Perhaps living in a digital space removes from being able to observe that decay is central to nature. Combine this with years of Orientalism towards the African continent, and the anaesthesia towards death imbued by gentrification, and we are not prepared for the outbreak of a viral disease. Or at least, we are not prepared for it to cross the Mediterranean. In a way Ebola actually frustrates our catastrophic instinct – strains of bird and swine flu were given letters and numbers, labels, to show how new they were, so any widespread death could be accepted as a black swan, the unseen monster, the spike in the statistics. Ebola is not a new disease; it has been with us since the 1970s, with each previous outbreak largely contained within Africa.  And we were happy for it to stay there, thinking that the African continent itself was diseased. If 2014 has been the year of portents and stone tablets, then Ebola threatens us with a plague that we hope will not breach the walls of Constantinople. Ebola could be our enemy, the indefensible nemesis against which we launch all of our efforts as any form of religious or political ideology has been deconstructed to the extent that any and all of them can be sympathised with or criticised in equal measure. Yet we cannot even raise the effort to make this so, because it seems that, as if with many events in 2014, we are incapable of viewing ourselves as a common species.

Data might have a colour. Black lives became so dispensable in the USA in 2014 that human beings were reduced to a bundle of probabilities – the odds that the man in front of me is holding a gun, the odds that he wants to use it on me, the odds that he wants to kill me. The number of people killed on those spurious odds tallied until it became a statistic, almost fulfilling Stalin’s aphorism. The audio of the gunshots, the proximity of the props on the crime scene have all been Zaprudered to unimaginable levels, as if the exact quantification of data could make an accurate enough statement about the power dynamics between black and white, as if black and white could be demarcated by hexadecimal codes.

There was still a coda to the bleakness and obliteration of humanity in 2014, as the details of the CIA’s shocking institutional torture were finally held up to the light. The mutual animosity between radical Muslims and the moral cavalry of the West is itself like a ray of light, endlessly mirrored between the two sides until it fulgurates into a mutually destructive beam. I read the details of the report whilst stood at a platform waiting for a train and the bilious reaction I felt towards the inhuman treatment towards the prisoners pulled me self-destructively towards the train tracks from the pit of my stomach for a fleeting moment. So soon after we supposedly learned our lessons from the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War, our capacity to commit violence to each other had never seemed more brazen. They were billed as ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ but the ineffectiveness of torture is so well-known that the pain inflicted upon the prisoners was punitive – a medieval application of morality which wormed its way through damp towels and anal canals.

And all of this leads us to 2014’s greatest phenomenon, the one which captures the spirit of the passing year: Twitch Plays Pokémon. A reservoir of 8 bit memories attuned in a cloud mind. An ultra-democratic interface that created its own mythos within a matter of days. A stage where every facet of human existence could be observed, an anthropological Petri dish. There was war, prompted by sectarianism. Even the days of the week seemed imbued with their own particular baggage (‘Bloody Sunday’) with the sense of Creation at work, where millions of users were spawned instantaneously and grappled in the dark to make sense of a directionless world, trying to work together. The image of Red being pulled in four different directions while repeatedly trying to consult the helix fossil seems like the appropriate image for the year in which the confusion of trying to narrativise the world with an overabundance of information was made plain. Perhaps the way we are going forward is actually the way back, to try and interpret events as portents, to read into them a millennial millenarianist significance that supersedes rational thought.

Postscript:  What was the soundtrack to such a bleak year? I found no better candidate than the unremitting darkness and monolithic intensity of Andy Stott’s Faith In Strangers. The album cover depicts an enigmatic head situated in front of an apartment window, interrupting any look out of it – towards escape maybe – with an Polynesian style statuette.  The album is punctuated by ghosts, either breathing all over the mix or restlessly banging on pipes. The vibrance of dub and techno is detuned into a cold grey steel which is unrepentant in the darkness it broods. Any sense of urgency has the paranoid powerlessness of a caffeine overdose, with movement a step ahead of thought. At a time where Spotify and the curatorial power of each individual music consumer is more powerful than ever, the experience of listening to work which completely crushes you and drains you is more important than ever – you are accountable to the music, rather than vice versa.