Birdman leaves a lot open to individual interpretation and its ending has spawned multiple theories. SPOILERS in the link! It may require multiple viewings to solidify those theories. I think I need to see it again to decide.
Riggin, the aging star of superhero films is trying to make a comeback with a stage play by his personal muse Raymond Carver. He wants to create something great and is willing to sacrifice everything to make this play work. His relationship with his family is strained and his professional colleagues question his artistic decisions. Throughout the film he interacts with his superhero persona, Birdman who props up his sagging ego. Shot as one continuous take to reflect Riggin’s stream of consciousness throughout the story, Birdman takes the point of view of an unreliable narrator who may be delusional or may be possessed of supernatural powers. The film may or may not offer visual cues to help the audience distinguish reality from fantasy, if any of it is fantasy.
How it begins provides a more definitive perspective. Raymond Carver’s quote begins the film:
“And did you get what you wanted from this life?”
“I did.” “And what did you want?”
“To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.”
This film raises some questions about the nature of creativity, ego, and recognition. What do human beings hope to get out of creativity? While creativity is a means of expression it is also a means of communication, how others respond to what we’ve created matters, even when we pretend it doesn’t. Do we interpret how others receive and accept what we communicate through our creations as how they receive and accept us. Do we evaluate the worth of our creations by the responses of others, especially our creative peers and educated critics of our arts? How is the creation itself affected when the creator’s motives for making something becomes approval and adulation?
Birdman explores these questions but offers no definitive answers. Riggins struggles with what playing Birdman has made him in his own mind and in the eyes of the public. While it hasn’t gained him the respect or acclaim he craves, it did make him popular and beloved among audiences. Audience response is especially critical for performance artists. Without an audience there is no performance. And yet what is popular with an audience may not be popular with critics. Riggin wants so much to be respected for his art by his peers but being Birdman places him on a lower tier in the eyes of peers and critics.
Interestingly much of the critical commentary garnered by the film itself reflects this theme. The film is up for best picture, director, actor, supporting actor, best supporting actress, screenplay, cinematography, sound editing and sound mixing. It’s already won awards in some of these categories. Director/Screenwriter Iñárritu is getting lots of well-deserved attention. Lubezki’s unique and challenging cinematography is mentioned in just about every review. The acclaim former Batman star Michael Keaton has received for his performance is exactly what his character Riggin wants. It will be interesting to see what the Academy does with Birdman. Though his isn’t the only Oscar-worthy performance, I do think Michael Keaton deserves the Oscar for this.
Does this strange parallel make Birdman a meta-meta-narrative? Films like Birdman, Inception, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Memento and quite a few more, mostly produced in this century, represent a shift in film narrative. Stories are deliberately complex and non-linear.
Works and artists that represent innovation or transcendence, or those that mark transition from one era to the next, Beethoven and Impressionist art for example are the ones students study for generations to come. The rest are merely representative of a period or genre, albeit, some very good representations. These works are popular because they satisfy audience expectations and meet their aesthetic needs. Innovative works require more work from the audience and may even challenge existing aesthetics.
The audience must make a greater mental investment and may need multiple viewings to get what’s happening. The audience must not only suspend disbelief but also to surrender modern certainties for post-modern conceptualizations. And yet viewers of these films understand that they are watching a very deliberately crafted film that contains breadcrumbs from the creators of the film intended to lead both to discovering meaning but also to individual interpretation and theorizing.
There’s no shame in going to the movie and enjoy a simple, emotionally satisfying narrative or just watch stuff blow up. There’s no shame in producing, directing, or acting in such a film. Perhaps the end of Birdman has something to do with embracing being part of creating higher art and being part of offering an audience a simple satisfying story or an inspiring hero even when it’s not considered high art.