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Film Department: Birdman Discussion

Image  © Fox Searchlight 

Image © Fox Searchlight 

Long before its premiere, director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film Birdman gained notice for casting former Batman star Michael Keaton in the role of an aging actor, Riggan Thomson, who also played a big-screen superhero in the 90’s. Depending on who you ask, Birdman either was or wasn’t written with Keaton in mind, but once he signed on, the movie became a must-see.

Reviews have been mixed, and audience reaction divided. The performances are almost universally praised, especially a gutsy turn from Edward Norton, but critics are divided on the technique, structure, and meaning of the film. Even those that came away admiring the movie are left to wonder what it all means.

Here, the Drunk Monkeys Film Department comes together to discuss the film, the performances, and that crazy ending (with spoilers for the film).

Matthew Guerruckey: First of all, I loved Birdman. It might be my favorite movie of this year, and that’s a tougher call than usual—2014’s been an exceptional year in film. But I’m easily taken in by glorious messes. Some of my favorite movies of past years have been things like Aronofsky’s The Fountain or Fincher’s Fight Club, which lack a cohesive structure but happen to trip over themes that are really important to me. At its heart,Birdman is about the creative process: the loneliness, the courage, and the insanity of it all. So, as a writer, I’m drawn to those ideas automatically. It shares that theme with Inside Llewyn Davis, my favorite movie of last year. In that film, we see that Llewyn is talented, but that sort of talent isn’t what the world wants.

Similarly, in Birdman, Riggan is struggling against the world’s expectations. No matter what he does, the world will never see him as anything but a character he played, and we’re left to wonder if he can be anything but that. Riggan’s choice of theater adaptation—Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love—is significant (some critics have suggested too “on the nose’”), because it deals with the abstractions and self-deception about love and what it is to be human.

It’s also sort of a “trendy” pick. Carver’s having a moment right now, and there are dozens of books popping up that are titled “What We Talk About When We Talk About “Blank”, with that “blank” being anything from God, to Running, etc. None of which use the title as anything more than a clever tie-in to Carver, or to make the author look smart and well-read. Is Riggan doing the same thing with his choice of material? Riggan’s production is far from subtle—filling Carver’s bleak suburban world with center stage monologues and antlered dancers. In a dizzying early scene, Edward Norton’s Mike challenges Riggan for not understanding what Carver’s talking about, in the same way that the characters in Carver’s story argue about meaning. 

Riggan (Michael Keaton) is challenged by Mike (Edward Norton). (Image © Fox Searchlight Pictures). 

Riggan (Michael Keaton) is challenged by Mike (Edward Norton). (Image © Fox Searchlight Pictures). 

Is Mike right? Does Riggan truly have an artistic soul, or is he a fraud? That question is key to our understanding of the film: how others see Riggan, how Riggan’s daughter Sam sees him, and how Riggan sees himself.

What do you guys think? Does Riggan have what it takes?

Gabriel Ricard: First of all, The Fountain was goddamn terrible. Second, I don’t know if Riggan has what it takes. Bill Murray once said something along the lines of when you’re famous, you’re an ass for a couple of years. And when that time is up, you get over it, and come back down to earth, or you don’t, and you’re probably going to wander the psychic dessert for the rest of your life. I believe Riggan began his artistic life with absolute integrity and love for what he was doing. I don’t think playing a superhero in a movie necessarily ruins that for an actor, in spite of what Tabitha, the theater critic, flawlessly played by Lindsay Duncan, says to Riggan near the end of the film. However, I do think that Riggan didn’t make it back down to earth after those couple of years. And by the time he realized that, by the time he wanted to get back to the place where the DNA of his profession was absolute love and ambition, it was too late. By the time he gets his troubled Broadway production to the point of opening night, he’s a trivia question. Worse yet, he’s a trivia question with very little to show for the source material behind the question. I think Riggan is trying to clone his soul from the fragments of what that stood for in his youth. And he’s failing. And he knows he’s failing. But like most of us, he has pride, anger, and those things drive him for a good deal of the film.

So in the end, I think you could describe Riggan as 97% fraud. The 3% is something that has kept him alive for the years since Birdman 3 was released. The fact that Michael Keaton portrays all of this with such uncomfortable clarity and precision is at least evidence of his staggering talent as an actor. A talent that clearly hasn’t gone anywhere over the years, despite large-scale public indifference, lousy films, and what seemed like a casual indifference to maintaining stardom on his part. Is the quality of Keaton’s performance evidence of something in the script that spoke to him on a personal level? Who knows, and I would venture to say, who cares.

Ryan Roach: Keaton adamantly denies that the role of Riggan is similar to him at all, and I’m inclined to agree. Certainly, though his star has faded, I don’t think many of us consider him to be nothing more than “the guy who played Batman”. Those of us old enough remember when the idea of him playing Batman was laughable. He angered nerds before the internet existed, no easy feat.

But back to Riggan. Does he have what it takes? I certainly think so. He’s absolutely got the ambition, and the desire to better himself. He’s even got the acting chops. He fools Edward Norton’s character Mike with a fake story about being abused, and he gets the snotty theatre crown to give him a standing ovation. An even better, there’s an early seen when Mike and Riggan are running lines on a scene and Mike immediately starts rewriting the script and improvising new beats and Riggan is loving it. He doesn’t resent the changes or cling stubbornly to what he wrote, he just wants it to be the best it could possibly be. That’s what a real artist would do.

But then of course, there’s the crippling self-doubt, something we all have, though in Riggan’s case it manifests itself as literally a giant bird looming over his shoulder, attempting to cut him down at  every turn. Birdman certainly thinks Riggan is a fraud. But I think that’s kind of like thinking you might be crazy. If you think you are, then you’re definitely not.

Unless Birdman isn’t a figment of Riggan’s imagination. Maybe Birdman is real. Maybe Riggan really is Birdman. What did we think of that somewhat confounding ending? Personally, I felt I had no choice but to view it as a throwaway gag and dismiss it entirely. To truly consider the idea that Riggan had superpowers was too bizarre and too much new information. 

Emma Stone in the enigmatic final moments of Birdman (Image © Fox Searchlight Pictures).

Emma Stone in the enigmatic final moments of Birdman (Image © Fox Searchlight Pictures).

Matthew Guerruckey: Yeah, I’ve been working that ending around in my head, and I actually come out on the opposite side of that argument—I think that at the end, Riggan really can fly, Riggan really is magical. I’m not sure if he is for the earlier flying sequence. In that scene, we see a cabbie screaming about his fare, suggesting that Riggan may have just taken a cab back to the theater. But at the end of the film, Riggan has melded the two halves of himself, so instead of fighting with Birdman, he’s become Birdman, and has his powers.

I think it’s significant that Birdman was directed by a Mexican director, Alejandro González Iñárritu. There’s a deep line of magical realism in Latin fiction that we don’t see as much in American film, and I think that’s why it’s so hard to place Birdman in that tradition. We’re used to a film being literal. When we get an American film that’s stacked with symbolism and ends ambiguously, we expect there to be some skeleton key that unlocks not just the meaning, but the plot in a way that grounds us safely in reality. American filmmakers present magic with one hand, and then strip it away with the other.

For instance, Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, for all of its kinky, dream-like chaos, actually tells a very straightforward story once we realize who’s head we’re in, and the circumstances leading up to all that’s happened in the first half of the movie. When we realize that we’re in a literal dream—the last that character will ever have—that thought may haunt us, but it also grounds us back in the real world. Things work in the way we generally expect them to work.

But in Birdman, there’s no such easy break between dream and reality. Mulholland Driveis actually a significant comparison, because there is a possibility that Birdman functions in the same way–when Riggan is telling his ex about walking into the ocean, and being attacked by jellyfish, there’s a chance that he dies in that moment, and so all that we see in the film is just his “death dream”. When Riggan shoots himself onstage, the camera cuts and we see a beach filled with jellyfish, among other abstract imagery. But I think that moment, as with the moment in the cab, is just thrown in as distraction. Because the film, ultimately, isn’t about what really happens to Riggan, it’s about what Riggan stands for—and when he embraces his whole nature, instead of forcing himself to be something different, he’s finally able to soar, and his daughter is finally able to see the true artist, and whole person, that he is.

Gabe, what did you make of the ending?

Gabriel Ricard: Honestly, I don’t fucking know what to make of that ending. I can tell you that initially, I thought the ending was great. I believed in the moments after the film had finished that it was a flawless conclusion, and that any other ending would not have been as effective. I still believe that, but that opinion is shaken, every single time I start to think about the movie again. My memory is turning on the integrity, strength, and necessity ofBirdman’s conclusion, although I still think the move is one of the three best films of 2014. The open-ended nature of Riggan’s apparent suicide is one thing, and then you throw in his daughter’s surreal realization, as she slowly gazes upwards, her mouth breaking out into a smile that does not appear to be altogether sane?

It’s the exclamation point on a sentence that might read “Birdman is a serious mind fuck!” It casts substantial doubt on the reality of the universe the movie exists in. Even the scenes in which Riggan is not on screen. It even casts doubt on the ending itself. Is what we witnessed real? Does Riggan actually jump out the window? We’re not super surprised that he’s finally figured out that everything is empty, and that he will not find the artistic salvation his soul requires. So Riggan jumping out the window is jarring, but not an ending that no one saw coming. It’s when his daughter comes back in the room, discovers what has happened, and makes her way to the open window, that we are suddenly left with the thought that nothing in this movie can be trusted. Ultimately, that bothers me, because it’s always a little jarring to realize that you didn’t know reality the way you thought you did. But really, there is no other way that movie could have ended.

I think as time has gone on, since seeing the movie a couple of weeks ago, I’ve come to realize that I have no idea of what was real, and what was simply the product of Riggan’s imagination. That’s a strange thing to realize over time, rather than right at the end of the movie. The fact that I’m still struggling to understand the ending, as well as my emotional response to it, is a pretty clear indication of just how good this movie is. Because then I start to realize that there’s a third option, which is that Riggan is somehow able to actually manipulate his reality. I mean, that’s probably not the case, but the beauty ofBirdman is that no matter how much you believe you have the movie clocked, you really, honestly don’t. You’re as lost as Riggan seems to be.

What do I make of the ending? I loved it. That’s not altogether true, but it’s the best and most straightforward answer that I can possibly give.

Ryan Roach: I think Matt’s explanation of Latin culture being more accepting of magical realism explains things nicely. It’s hard for me to accept the idea that a movie would exist in the real world for over 99% of its running time and then literally take a flying leap into the surreal. I do think that’s a demerit for the movie overall. I love this movie for its exploration of character, and for its great camera work, and for its themes of “what makes a true artist”, but I think it maybe got a bit too fancy for its own good. Similarly, the Straw Men character of the “Evil Critic” felt a little tired and obvious. I think anytime an artist attacks a critic in fiction it comes off as more than a little biased. It’s like expecting cats to make reasoned and articulate opinions about dogs.

But I’m being too hard on it now. This is a great movie, and I’m glad this year we’ve had so many directors willing to try things that feel genuinely new and daring. It’s been an excellent year for film overall.