Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

NOTE: Spoilers follow.

Where to start with Birdman? It is brilliant to have Michael Keaton, who has always been first rate, carry as extraordinary a picture as this one. All those years since the Batman movies doing smaller, sincere pictures, cable work, and voiceovers, and now here he is in this exceptional, dark, very serious comedy by Alejandro González Iñárritu.

I was hesitant about seeing it, however, because the bare bones of the plot made it seem likely that Birdman would bump up against my own inner drama, and anticipating this made me nervous. I have this story that I carry around in my heart, the story of my own so-called career, the on-again, off-again periods when I write, when I go into a corner and challenge myself to do the best work I can. I do this in private because no one is really paying attention. I once tasted greater success, but that has been the extent of it. Riggan Thomson, Keaton’s character, has had billion-dollar worldwide success playing a superhero character—a Batman–type character, an in-joke—in a series of three pictures, a success he walked away from in 1992 as a matter of personal integrity. Twenty-plus years later, he’s mounting his own production on Broadway of Raymond Carver’s famous short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” He’s put everything he has into it—his money, his talent and life experience—and during the two hours or more of Birdman in which we follow him and the people around him during previews and then opening night, we sympathize with this nettlesome, flawed human being as he reaches for something he might not attain. (But what is talent for if not to attempt exactly that?)

I’d like to think that the fact that “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” is the play that Riggan Thomson is mounting is itself also a kind of in-joke. Troubled-soul Thomson, a regular bloke with the spirit of artistic genius in him, is a reflection of troubled-soul Carver. Under the tutelage of or despite the interference of Gordon Lish, a darling of the New York literati and avatar of the institutional “new fiction” of the 1970s and 1980s, Carver came to be regarded as an essential talent, and the writer did, after all, praise Lish for that one’s guidance and strong hand in the editing of his stories. But for me, this episode in American letters has the odor of goofy Manhattan literary smugness and that city’s dreary, insulated view of the world, which is that of a flaneur strolling the boulevards and glancing down dirty alleys while remaining too precious actually to put his hands in that dirt. This sort of wrestling match—phony, momentary, artsy pretentiousness and troubled but sincere artistic integrity—fits neatly into the facile pomposity displayed by Tabitha Dickinson, the weary theater critic for the Times, a seen-it-all, done-it-all creature of the indoors and too much booze, who plans to base her review of Thomson’s play not on the play itself but on what she perceives it to be—a stunt mounted by a Hollywood celebrity arriviste, an interloper in the self-aware colony of Broadway theah-tuh folk. So Raymond Carver, a regular bloke adopted by anaerobic New York intellectuals, is being played on Broadway by another self-aware bloke, Riggan Thomson, in the actor’s attempt to gain respect and be real in the only way acceptable in modern America, by appealing to these anaerobes—and the whole gimmick opens a long corridor (figuratively and literally, backstage in the St. James Theater) in which we wonder what’s behind that door, or that one, or that one.

Each of the persons involved in the production of this play— Riggan Thomson, Jake, his lawyer (Zach Galifianakis), Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), the actresses Laura (Andrea Riseborough) and Lesley (Naomi Watts), and even the contemporary artificialistes (a word I just made up), such as the theater critic—has part of the truth, and it clearly hurts them, being aware of whatever they have that is part of the truth. But nothing means anything, as Thomson’s daughter, Sam (superbly played by Emma Stone), makes clear to him in one of the many blood-on-the-floor, nonartificial, wholly aerobic confrontations in this picture. We don’t matter. Nothing matters. (Could this be made any clearer than in the scene in which Thomson passes an actor on the sidewalk thunderously orating Macbeth’s sound-and-fury speech?) This is the heart of it: we don’t matter. But what should then be a moment of spiritual liberation instead weighs these people down, traps them on a hamster wheel, suffocates them.

The joy of liberation, however, is communicated and emphasized in the magical realism exhibited by the Riggan Thomson character. When he meditates, he floats. When he is angry, he points a finger, and whatever he points at flies around the room and smashes into a wall. It is as though he has the powers of one of Professor Xavier’s X-Men.

In fact, he does, because he is creative. I hope to tell you that this is exactly, exactly, what it feels like to be a creative person. We bring things to life. We make something out of nothing. We push things together and watch them crash or light up or send out sparks. Once, during a suffocating lesson in a seventh-grade English class with Mrs. Fuller, I sat in my seat looking at the front the room, at the wall beside her desk, and I realized that at that moment, to avoid the boredom I was experiencing, I could have stood and gone down the aisle between the desks and walked through the wall. I didn’t. But I could have. I have written books and screenplays and drawn pictures and done many artistic things. This tells me that, although I didn’t walk through that wall in the seventh grade, I could have.

The characters in this story, whether they know it or not, and most of them don’t, are seeking redemption. Certainly Riggan Thomson understands this, and his quest for personal redemption imperils and threatens and enlightens and frightens those around him. He is being honest in every way possible (for example, as when he walks through Times Square in his tightie whities, a scene that occurs following an argument between Thomson and a backstage door that abruptly closes on his dressing gown—leaving him with nothing else to do than hurry out of the alley and quickly walk all the way around to the front of the theater in time for his entrance). His ex-wife is achingly present and honest, but whatever their relationship—and clearly they still love each other—it is clear that he remains alone in his personal desperation. He is like the soul of a dying man fighting in the immediate afterlife against the demons he has created while on earth so that he can move beyond the demons and gain enlightenment. Thomson does so, and as he moves through this journey of life-in-death throughout the course of the movie—his search for redemption, his hope for honesty and integrity—he pulls many others along with him.

The performances in this movie test your heart. Everyone is exceptional. Perhaps because I’m a father now, the performance by Emma Stone of the disenchanted, recovering-from-drugs Sam hit me hard. It would break me if I failed in this way as a father. But did Thomson really fail her? Shiner puts Sam wise to herself, just as all of these characters, in a script that is perfectly, beautifully constructed, help one other through their rites of passage backstage and onstage. When are we being honest, and when are we acting, and can we ever tell the difference? Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan), the powerful theater critic, is such an anaerobe that she interprets Thomson’s failed suicide on opening night, his attempt at freeing his soul and being honest, as an advance in the art of stage acting. This is because she, like Shiner, of whom she has never written a poor review, are so hollow that, for them, performance is reality. Norton’s Mike Shiner is so far gone that he has become sexually impotent, able to get it up only when he is on stage; he is a real human being unable to be a real human being unless he is acting on stage pretending to be a real human being. Corridors full of doors waiting to be opened, and what part of us will we find on the other side when we open this door, or that one?

A word about the soundtrack, the music. It includes selections from the soaring symphonies of Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky and Mahler—all late Romantic era composers—as well as Ravel’s beautiful, infinitely sad “Pavane for a Dead Princess.” I have seen Birdman only once, but if I recall correctly, these romantic aural vistas of the concert hall are pretty much allied with the Birdman character when he appears in the picture and when Thomson—insane, or perhaps merely self-aware—is talking to the cartoon character—that is, to himself. The vivid, immediate drum solos that make up the other half of the soundtrack serve as the chorus or commentary on the backstage shenanigans, ego-bruising emotional confrontations, and high-pressure stakes that Thomson deals with every waking moment.

So what about that subtitle—the parenthetical The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance? Thomson, in the ignorant, clear-eyed assuredness of his genius, enters with trusting, childlike certainty the wolf den of the commercial Broadway theater, a substitute for the world itself—for the world, as we know, is a messy agglomeration of everyone else’s compromised virtues, distorted imaginations, failed ambitions, and phony personas. In maintaining his belief in himself, in trusting to his genius, in mounting his play the way he wishes to against all odds—will Riggan Thomson’s artistic integrity even be comprehensible to the denizens of such a soiled world, or will the world disappoint him as it inevitably does all visionaries? What unexpected virtue— strength, courage, self-awareness, moral honesty—will Thomson gain by being true to himself but remaining ignorant of many things—ignorant of parts of himself, perhaps, and ignorant of certain aspects of those around him, and ignorant of the dangerous situation he has put himself in?

The answer is in the ending, which follows his failed suicide attempt. I wondered throughout the final act how the writers—Alejandro González Iñárritu himself in collaboration with Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo—would complete Thomson’s quest for redemption. Have him kill himself? Too easy, I thought—but they gave this necessary conclusion a wonderful twist that perfectly fits Thomson’s character, his history, and his spiritual quest. Failing in his suicide attempt on stage and still largely misunderstood, we assume, by his opening-night audience, Thomson awakens in a hospital bed with a bandaged face. He goes to a mirror and undoes the wrappings to regard himself for the first time since passing out. He accidentally shot off his nose in his try at suicide; now, with the new schonzz his surgeons have provided him, his physiognomy is literally that of Birdman. His nose is a beaklike proboscis. The humor is not lost on our genius; indeed, the transformation is revelatory and completes his search for his soul. Sam is in the room with him; she has brought him flowers. The story opened with the two of them arguing via Skype over what kind of flowers Thomson wanted Sam to buy to celebrate his play on Broadway. Now that they have made their peace with each other, she has brought a lovely bouquet for him to have while he recuperates. But there is no vase. She leaves to fetch one. While she is gone, Thomson walks to the window of his hospital room and opens it, looks out at the birds in the sky, steps onto the ledge—

When Sam returns, we see that Thomson is no longer on the ledge. We hear ambulance sirens and shocked voices on the street. Sam goes to the window and looks down, then up at the birds, and she smiles. My hope at first was that, in another moment of magical realism, Thomson had joined the birds and was flying over the city as we saw him do in an earlier scene. But of course he is dead. Of course he achieved the only possible resolution available to a man of his gifts who has gained what he has and who has gone down the dark corridors and looked into the dark rooms and dealt with the crowd of demons that have tugged at him through the course of the story and throughout his life.

We are left, finally, with the words of Raymond Carver explaining, or illuminating, just what it has been that Riggan Thomson has been searching for in this hell of his own making, his life, and what it is that his earnest ignorance has gotten him. They are the lines inscribed, as we know, on Raymond Carver’s headstone:

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

That’s what Carver wanted. It’s what Riggan Thomson wanted. It’s what all artists want. It’s what I want. It’s what everyone wants.

To be understood by others may be asking too much. But to be loved?

Can asking to be loved be too much to ask for?

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