Monday, November 10, 2014


Birdman is a complicated film. There's a lot going on in it, and it is saying a lot about a lot of different things. In all this, it is strengthened by technical virtuosity and truly remarkable performances by pretty much everyone involved, but especially Keaton who, to be fair, is certainly given more opportunity than anyone else.

Alejandro Inarritu has called the superhero genre "cultural genocide" and "very right wing." This second accusation is pretty old and has been maintained by a large number of comics critics and creators since at least the 1950s. When Frederic Wertham and Gary Groth both agree on something, I'm not certain they're right. I've spent some time arguing against this idea that there is something inherently fascist about superheroes, so I'm going to pass on it here, partly because -- among all the things Birdman is saying -- this is actually not even close to the most interesting.

Even the accusation that superhero films are "poison" and "cultural genocide" is not really the focus of this film; the criticisms directed at superhero films are really more about action films in general, and America's obsession with the big box office weekend, the entertaining "popcorn film," the blockbuster. Birdman has a very clear argument about these movies, and that is that these movies are illusions. They are distracting phantasms which indulge our desire for psychological numbness. There's a very good reason why we all want to be numb: because we are all basically alone and our existence has no larger meaning. We all know this, but we don't want to confront it, and so we go into narcissistic denial over this simple cosmic truth. We fantasize about incredible power (and here's where the superhero genre is the best example) because, ultimately, we lack all power. Much of this is explained in a key moment in the film by Emma Stone's character Sam, when she, fresh from rehab and so at least briefly inoculated against psychological numbess, shouts to her father, in a rage, that he has no value, that the universe does not care about him, and it never will. The dread which haunts Keaton's character Riggan Thomson is basically existential, and his various hallucinations (and despite what some critics like to say about reality being inseparable from illusion in this picture, Inarritu actually makes everything pretty clear, at least until the very end) are his mind's attempt to impose order and some measure of control on a chaotic and oblivious world.

There's a second point being made in this film, one much more intimate and not existential at all, and that is about confusing love with admiration. This, too, is spelled out in the film, a film which is filled with people who want love but accept admiration instead, who want to love but instead offer praise, who want admiration and end up accepting love, and who admire but, in giving voice to that, instead offer love. In all these cases, the people involved can't tell the difference. To be popular is to be wanted, to be desired is to be looked-at, and everyone is confusing respect with intimacy. Which isn't to say we don't want both; we do. But they scratch different itches and love and admiration work differently. The first is basically private. The second is basically public. And as our 21st century social society becomes increasingly public, intimacy becomes increasingly hard to find and preserve ... or even recognize. We all want love, but it's so hard to make and keep a one-to-one personal relationship. Instead, we embrace circles of a thousand facebook friends or twitter followers. And the craziest part is that those social networks are actually easier to create and maintain in our new world than an honest personal relationship based on intimacy and, yes, respect. Who has the time for THAT anymore?

As a film, Birdman is very "meta." Keaton, who resurrected the role of Batman for American cinema back in '89, is playing a former Hollywood superstar who was famous for a superhero trilogy twenty years ago. Ed Norton, whose public reputation as a prima donna is based on his dedication to the art of acting, plays an incredibly talented egotist who can't get it up unless he's on stage, because that's when he is at his most "real." And although the movie is called "Birdman," it's really based around a production of Carver's short story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," a story I teach every semester in my freshman English class. In a movie which is always showing us multiple versions of itself, Carver's story is also one with multiple versions, one which was famously altered by its editor before being published, and one which Keaton's character Riggin has obviously altered yet again for his stage performance. All of this is very intricate and will no doubt give critics, scholars, and readers much to talk about in the year to come. About ten minutes into this film, I realized it was, like the Watchmen graphic novel, basically made to be the subject of a dissertation.

But, amidst all the black comedy and the suffering, there's also some pretty simple, pretty straight forward messages in this film. First, good art, Inarritu maintains, is about reality, depicting the human condition in a way so sincere that it is painful and, in this way, helping us to learn something about that human condition. Second, what we learn is that human beings are desperate for affection. And that, in turn, is because we sense our oncoming mortality. We understand, deep in our bones, that we are a quintessence of dust. Our life -- and these lines are quoted in the film -- is a tale told by idiots, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Is it so surprising that we seek shelter in larger-than-life heroes? And is it so terrible? Inarritu may find any suggestion that superhero stories might be meaningful to be pretentious posing. But I can respectfully disagree with him on that score while still finding much in Birdman to admire.

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