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.
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.
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.
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) ,
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.
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?
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.