Style and/or Substance: are comic book movies crap? A meditation on Birdman

birdmanOn the face of it, Birdman is about a washed up actor who previously acted in a series of movies about a superhero, called Birdman, and hasn’t had a hit since. Keaton’s character, Riggan, is emotionally torn between wanting to be seen for who he is and just wanting to be seen. The opening shot is of a meteor tearing through the atmosphere, obviousy seen by anyone who looks up, but also terrifying. It starts the audience out a little off balance, but it puts us on the right footing with Riggan.

In his head lives the voice of Birdman, ostensibly emanating from a movie poster of that film, purchased for him by the crew of the play he’s producing, directing, and in which he stars. The Birdman voice tells Riggan he’s more important than he feels, more important than others see him, bigger than the play he’s producing because he used to be a Movie Star: the very identification Riggan is seeking to leave behind. He wants to make something of substance, and feels that his history in comic book movies negates the Important Thing he’s trying to do with this play. Interestingly, he’s approaching this at a time when comic book movies are amazingly popular (all the current Marvel movies are referenced here) and the themes and stories of comics themselves are received as important texts, not to be dismissed just because they are accompanied by pictures. Riggan has bought into the idea that his having once played a superhero negates any other work that came after. This is reinforced to him by a critic who only sees him as a celebrity, even though he last played Birdman in 1992. Riggan wants to be important, both to himself and to others, but seems at sea when it comes to defining that importance; Birdman says he is important because he was a movie star, Riggan wants to be important by being a Real Actor, and his family already finds him important to them. Sometimes we already have what we want; we just need someone else to show us.

What Riggan really wants is to be free from expectations. Everywhere he goes, he butts up against expectations–his expectations of himself, expectations by those he’s closest to, fans’ expectations. He is constantly walking quickly away from expectations: sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively. HIs daughter and his ex-wife stop his running by telling him the truth, but it just creates a stronger pull toward fantasy, also reinforced by the voice of Birdman. We all have a little voice inside our heads that keeps us going. Without ego, without a certain level of understanding that we serve a purpose, we collapse. Sometimes the voice goes sideways and creates fantasy: we’re so important we can fly or we’ve been abducted by aliens or the hot object of fantasy we’ve never spoken to really wants us but can’t tell anyone. Riggan’s little voice is trying to push him into an aggrandized sense of self more than 20 years after he was a blockbuster celebrity, ironically at the stage in his life when he is less relevant than he has ever been. He needs Birdman’s voice to keep from collapse at his feelings of professional impotence, but resists it because at heart, he doesn’t feel he’s important to anyone. His preconceived notions of himself as worthless, the assumptions that he’s “just a celebrity” and not a “real” actor, and the stereotyping of him as a Bad Father by his daughter, Sam (played by Emma Stone, who, with Ed Norton, is also a comic book movie refugee) prevents everyone involved from seeing him, or each other, for who they really are.

The battle in Riggan’s head is also played out in the discussion of modern celebrity and art. When he was a Big Movie Star, no one took him seriously as an actor. Given that his career hasn’t been on an upward trajectory, largely due to his own actions (“I was miserable!”) people don’t take him seriously for the very reason that he used to be a Big Movie Star. His movie poster reinforces that he was a movie star, and that’s what made him important, but Riggan wants to do something that stands apart from his past. He makes the mistake everyone else makes; he forgets that we are who we are today because of who we were yesterday.

Due to his notions of self, Riggan disdains modern celebrity culture. Myself, I don’t like reality tv with people competing against each other or “being themselves” where a camera crew follows them around. Although I am a fan of Family Jewels; they seem pretty self aware and often actually have something to say, even if it’s only accidentally. Anyhow, I’ve never seen a Kardashian episode, and I’ve only seen one episode of Survivor. My reason is that I have a hard time watching people ACT stupid; I can’t bring myself to watch people BE stupid. It’s ridiculous, celebrity just for celebrity’s sake, but if they didn’t fill a want, they wouldn’t be successful. Reality tv stars achieve popularity though skilled manipulation of social media, and maybe social media wouldn’t be seen as low end if it wasn’t used for that reason. I suppose there’s nothing wrong with being entertained, as I’ve told those who disdain my watching of television, but to me, reality tv just looks like promotion alone, lacking substance; there’s no art to it. But then again, there are those who say that true art makes you think and leads to discussion, and a lot of reality tv does that, so maybe there’s an art to it after all. I mean, people who’ve made art appreciate good promotion, even needs it for its success; reality tv makes promotion into the art itself. The medium is the message. Riggan resists this medium, and near the beginning of the film, his daughter berates him for dismissing social media as pointless. Like it or not, the viral Youtube video and trending Tweet, or nearest facsimile, is here to stay. Riggan dismisses social media promotion the same way the theatre critic dismisses his celebrity–as pointless and lacking substance. In the end, when Riggan accidentally becomes that which he hates, it actually saves him, bringing him an audience that would never otherwise have paid attention. His daughter is right when she tells him that “this is power.”

Riggan believes Serious Actors and Serious Critics when they dismiss him due to his having been in a couple of comic book movies, although the comic book movies in 1992 were not taken seriously, even by their creators. That’s the only explanation for the Tim Burton Batman movies, honestly. I saw them because it was Batman, not because it was made by Tim Burton. Having recently read a number of histories of the comics, I know industry insiders thought comics, and their audience, were dumb so they could make dumb movies based on comic book characters. Comics allow us to explore who we are, to break through the expectations of others and be seen for who we are, or at least see ourselves. Everyone feels like most people don’t really see them, and maybe that’s true, but it’s usually because we’re trying to live up to how those people see us, and not being ourselves. Comics let us, if not break down those barriers, at least discuss them. They’re not Tolstoy or Fitzgerald but they examine all the same themes–love, loss, perception, ability, achievement, failure, heroism, cowardice, racism, elitism, war, and peace. Comic books illustrate our feelings, both literally and figuratively, and provide an outlet for those who find Real Literature daunting or snooty or both. Comic book movies finally have their day because their audiences have made their voices heard. Comic book movies are huge because people want to see their dreams and insecurities and challenges and victories made large. Just because something is a blockbuster does not mean it has nothing important to say.

Riggan, like a lot of ordinary people, artists or not, lives his life based on how he thinks others see him, and he only listens to the ones who make him feel small. He was part of the beginning of something huge, something that made manifest the imaginations of generations of readers. Riggan learns to accept that he’s not just one thing, and the voice of Birdman, even though it sounds like a megalomaniac, helps him. Even though Riggan tries to deny Birdman’s message, it’s only while listening to its voice that he appears confident and stong. It’s only at the end of the film, when he accepts his past, that he’s not just one thing, but that, partly, he is Birdman, that he finds real freedom. He may have seen himself as a meteor crashing to earth, but in the end he’s a shooting star, flying through the sky, everyone’s eyes upon him.

From a film making perspective, Birdman upends conventional narrative. Most films are a series of shots; you know when the director yells “Cut!” and even if the story takes place over a few hours, there are multiple scenes. Birdman is filmed as if it’s all one long take, although it becomes apparent this is not the actual case due to things like day turning to night, the camera moving from inside to outside, and the same person being in a shot and the camera panning to him in another area at another time. It provides a stream of consciousness feeling, which really works here. This, and the level of fantasy experienced by Riggan meant this film reminded me of nothing so much as Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Both have men who feel small trying to achieve something, or at least avoid irrelevance, and eventually retreating into fantasy to find their real selves.

This movie isn’t for everyone, and I can’t honestly recommend it to anyone because it is so far outside of what anyone might expect that I can’t guarantee they’d enjoy it. But then again, real art isn’t necessarily there to make us happy, but to make us think, so you really should go see it. Don’t wait for it to trend on Twitter, cause the trend yourself.


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