Read Everything That Dunks Must Converge

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To their own devices: Pablo Larrain's 'The Club'

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A reflection on Inarritu's 'Birdman'

February 11, 2015


We saw Birdman and then a couple hours later I held my nephew. As he cried in my arms, we began to critique his constipation and fussiness. Considering his nine months of sonograms and check-ups, this may be the pattern of his life. Heck, it may be the pattern of all our lives.


Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s 2014 film is about how efforts to transcend the human condition are, for the most part, messy stumblings into performance art. A late sequence of the movie displays this thought through a not so subtle juxtaposition between Michael Keaton’s Riggan, a movie star trying to be an actor, and a homeless man doing a more real King Lear than any actor ever could. And yet, while the crossing of these boundaries—both natural and artificial—is messy work, Inarritu’s camera movements are not. He pans, cranes, and tracks his way seamlessly from the stage where actors perform to the dressing rooms where human beings live. The audience is invited to witness all as living becomes acting and acting becomes living.

Birdman is not the first work of art to examine these boundaries. The offstage scenes reminded my wife of the play Noises Off, and the film’s climax reminded me of a scene in Orhan Pamuk’s Snow. These gestures and shapes are not new, but Inarritu’s eye views them as such. And so we believe in Riggan’s struggle and his Birdman’s hubris. His own head, like what I said of Andy Murray at TheClassical, is the motor to his triumph and the brake of his defeat.

In fact, as much as the film’s pathos rests in our pity for this everyman, he, too, is a critic. In the film’s opening sequence, he complains about a less-talented co-star and even claims to have willed a stage light to crash down upon the man. “He’s the worst actor I’ve ever seen!” Riggan claims. And everyone agrees. And yet, later in the film, such criticism, from the film critic Tabitha, played by Lindsay Duncan, threatens to unravel both Riggan’s success and his sanity as he walks a tightrope between being a blockbuster persona and a true artist. Is he a flash of Tim Burton escapism, a la Keaton in real life? Or, is he Raymond Carver’s realism?

These questions reside within the film and without. After all, who better to accompany Riggan on stage than Ed Norton’s Mike. After all, Mike is the real deal—all the critics say so—and he’s played by an actor whose most famous role, in Fight Club, involved the same psychological unrest as Birdman. The playfulness of the film, in the sense that Roland Barthes would mean it (who the play also references),  is made even more clear when Mike asks, “Who are you going to replace me with? Ryan Gossling?”

The only thing that would've been more "in play" would've been if the film included this Birdman telling Lil Wayne to fly.
Moreover, the film displays that the world of texts at play in what Barthes would describe as intertextuality is the essence of the 21st Century and its barrage of social media. Every moment is a stage, whether something is happening or not. There is always an audience to be had. And an actor to be exposed as a hack and therefore more human. Our roles are our daily lives and they sit like cages, which is not to say they are necessarily wrong or dangerous, but  they are a barrier between what we've come to be and perhaps what we once were or could be again.

Yep. That's everything.
A jellyfish flashes in the opening sequences. A jellyfish flashes again towards the close. It is revealed that the stings of the jellyfish kept Riggan from drowning himself in his years between being a hero writ large and becoming a trending topic. In the waves of the ocean he was stung by one of the world’s earliest and most basic predators. He was stung by the ocean’s critic. The shots of the jellyfish in the film, however, are not of an organism at one with the water but stranded on the beach, dying in the sun, being picked at by seagulls. To be alive is to feel pain, but to live is also to sting. We are all the world’s oldest critics; transparent and dying in the sun. We exist. We don't exist. Transcendence is always on trial.  

Bryan Harvey can be followed on Twitter @LawnChairBoys.

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