Many of the films nominated this year for Best Picture are unusual in their quirkiness and singularity of subject. One such quirky film is Birdman, directed and co-written by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu [Babel and Biutiful] and starring Michael Keaton as Riggan Thomson. Birdman is a film about painful transformation and the search for meaning. Thomson, a once Hollywood blockbuster superhero (Birdman), is trying his hand at Broadway and at a comeback by writing, directing and starring in a play which is an homage to author-poet Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” This short story, now play, features two couples, Mel (Keaton) and Terri (Naomi Watts) and Nick (Edward Norton) and Laura (Andra Riseborough), who sit drinking around a kitchen table discussing what is real love. [I, among others, believe that only through love is transformation possible.Only through communion is meaning created and do we come to know we matter.] Later, Thomson asks the existential question, “Do I matter?”
Thomson searches for an “honest performance” and finds it in Mike Shiner (Norton) who otherwise, and ironically, lives inauthentically, even stealing Thomson’s back story for his own to use in a New York Times interview; and Shiner can only achieve an erection when on stage. Thomson hopes to find relevance, but theatre critic Tabitha Dickenson (Lindsay Duncan) has promised to destroy his play because, she claims, celebrities of “cartoons and porn” aren’t legitimate actors, to which Thomson retorts with indignation that critics, unlike actors, “don’t risk anything!”
Thomson is divorced, but seems to regret it, and is attempting to reconnect with his drug-rehab’ed daughter Sam (Emma Stone). He is followed about by his alter ego Birdman who both torments [People “love action, not talking, depressing, philosophical shit”] and encourages Thomson. Birdman also allows Thomson the power of telekinesis and, at his lowest points of suicidal thoughts, lets him fly above everyone else. The final lines of the play-within-the-film, reminiscent of those which may be oft spoke by certain of our own patients, and, if we are honest, ourselves, occur just after Thomson in the play playing Mel discovers his wife Terri in bed with another man (Nick played by Shiner) and just before Mel shoots himself: “What’s the matter with me? Why do I always have to end up begging someone to love me… I don’t exist.”
On opening night, Thomson exchanges the prop for a real gun, causing the critic Dickenson to glowingly opine that “blood spilled literally and figuratively” had been “long missing from the veins of theater,” and calling it “SuperRealism.” As Thomson recovers in the hospital, his bandaged face, reminiscent of Birdman’s mask, he and his daughter finally connect. Thomson struggles with suicidal thoughts and he experiences transformation through flying as Birdman. But we know from psychoanalyst Philip Bromberg’s work that death of our previous selves accompanies transformation. Sam, who looks out the open hospital window, and up, sees her father fly and this could as easily be metaphorical.
Some of the amusing tidbits include, Mike Shiner getting a shiner; Thomson ‘going viral’ [by living the common anxiety dream of everyone at work seeing you in your underwear] despite eschewing social media; a reference to Ryan Gosling’s failed directorial debut; and imagining Emma Stone could ever be invisible. The biggest laugh for me came when a man on the street was shouting about the “sound and the fury, signifying nothing.” Schizophrenia? No. An aspiring actor, auditioning, And there is a luminosity [literally] in a liquor store where the hot pepper shaped, copiously strung lights look like a festive Christmas or the stained glass of a church. But the heart of the film is about meaning, meaning co-created within an authentic relationship. Sam says the hardest thing to bear from her father is that he is always trying to make up for not having been in her life by “constantly trying to convince me I [am] special.” Thomson admits he “wasn’t present at his own life.” How fortuitous then that the stage manager calls out over the loudspeaker, “Last chance for places.”