Saturday, November 1, 2014


BIRDMAN, or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance: a Film Review

So much to write about these days, when you start writing about men, as this blog seeks to do!  Apple CEO Tim Cook's courageous act in coming out as a gay man would warrant an entry in itself; and I've been thinking a lot about the Frontline special that I watched, The Rise of Isis.  Then there are three exhibitions at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art that I saw last Friday, two of them provoking further thoughts about men at war.  If all goes well, I'm planning to write about them next week.  And I didn't have time for the exhibit of Samurai armor!  More testosterone to think about...

Today, though, I'm choosing to put down some thoughts about the movie Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) by the Mexican born director Alejandro González Iñárritu.  Along with the rest of the audience at the performance I saw last night, I sat stunned into silence while the end credits ran.  The film was that powerful, that intense.  It had had so much publicity by now that it is almost unnecessary to note that it's about an aging actor, Riggan Thomson (superbly played by Michael Keaton), like Keaton himself a one-time action movie ("Birdman") idol, now struggling to recover something of his earlier success and fame with the production of his own stage adaption of a Raymond Carver story.

At one level, this is a classic (Jungian) hero's journey: descent, ordeal, return.  The descent is triggered by a stage accident that makes way for the hubristic Mike (Edward Norton) to step in as replacement for an injured actor and provoke chaos in the play's preview run.  The clash between the desperately insecure and needy Riggan and the imperious, sneeringly confident Mike is complicated by fellow cast members, wives and women, including Riggan's flirtatious daughter (a great acting job by Emma Stone) who challenge, sometimes mock, the fragile male egos of the lead men.  The ordeal is Riggan's.  Tormented by the voice of his taunting alter ego, the superhero Birdman, he vacillates between his desire for the success and adulation he once knew, and despair and the impulse to self-destruction.  It's a powerful inner battle, and he ages visibly as it progresses.  The director stages it for the most part in the confines of the theater's dingy backstage, where Riggan slugs it out with both his inner voice and--sometimes literally--with his outer nemesis, Mike, in the interminable, ill-lit corridors and claustrophobic dressing rooms.  As a metaphor for the twisted passages and chambers of a tortured mind, the director's use of this location works to unsettling perfection.

In part the struggle is between reality and artifice, between the actor and the roles he plays, between the small stage in the theater and the great stage of the world out-there.  Mike chastises Riggan for being lost in artifice--but he himself is the shell of a man, who exists only as the character he inhabits.  Unable to "get it up" in the context of his real life as a man, he's ready for sex, inappropriately, on stage.  Riggan is agonized by his ambition and his unsatisfied--insatiable--need for recognition, but also guilt-ridden for having sacrificed wife and family (his daughter) on the altar of his actor's ego.  Goaded by Mike, he loses himself in the gap between the real and the imagined--and it is this nightmarish confusion that leads to the startling climax of his ordeal and costs him, possibly, his life.

But this is not purely psychological drama or social realism.  It's the element of Latin magical realism that makes this production more fraught with symbol, more intense, more internal, and more lyrical.  Riggan is gifted, or imagines himself gifted with supernatural powers: he can shift objects with his mind, throw them up against the wall, summon images of events and beings that have no basis in the real world.  In strictly psychological terms, we'd call him schizophrenic.  But he's more than that--he is, in a real sense, a super hero; perhaps, to be more exact, a meta-hero, the exemplar of conflicted human being, caught between raw existence and the hunger for transcendental meaning.  He's exceptional, like all heroes, yet also Everyman--for who, among us, has not in his mature years nursed regrets for what might have been, for what seems now so hard to achieve, if not beyond our reach.  It is to Michael Keaton's great credit that he pulls this off, creating a character who inspires profound compassion.

So about that leap...  At the beginning of the film--and it passed too quickly for me to have remembered the words exactly--there was the suggestion that nothing great will come without that leap that characterizes risk, the staking of everything we have.  And at several moments throughout the film, we see characters literally or metaphorically confronted by that leap.  At the end (don't ask, you must see this for yourself) we find Riggan on the high ledge of a hospital room, looking out into the void, and ready, now, to take the leap.  For him, this is the leap that will free him from everything that has tortured him: his ambition, his failures as a man, a husband, a father, the one-time mega-success that is now beyond his grasp.  And what will make it possible for him to finally take that leap is the realization of the love he longed for and was unable to find because of if "ignorance"--the ignorance of the film's subtitled--that has blinded him to the truth of his own love for others and the love that others, he now understands, have for him.  In his hero's journey, this is the moment of truth, the moment of return, of salvation of a kind.

You may be as initially surprised as I was, as the final credits rolled, to see the name of the well-known Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh included in the list of to whom the film's creators wished to express their gratitude.  On second thoughts, though, the inclusion seems natural and credible.  The central teaching of the Buddha asserts that suffering is inevitable for us human beings, but that there is a path to the release from suffering.  It is this letting-go of pain, in the final scene of the film, that the hero finally achieves.

And the rest, as Hamlet said, is silence.  Which, as noted above, is how we were left, as an audience, as the final credits ran.  In stunned silence.  Birdman will remain in my memory as one of the truly great movies I have been fortunate enough to see.

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