Reflections on the movie Birdman [Spoilers]

Birdman is a comedy about authenticity.

Critical notes:

  1. A Protestant vs Catholic way of life. The "Protestant" way of living your life is to believe in an authentic inner-self. The "Catholic" way of living your life is to perform the outer vestments of virtue, and that shall save you when it comes to the time of judgement. Riggan is concerned with the Protestant way of living his life - to become authentic to who he is - to become an actor. Whereas before, he was going with the flow, peddling schlock as Birdman, being a movie star. If Riggan had been a "Catholic" unobsessed with the notion of authenticity, then he wouldn't have bet it all on a switch to theatre. A theatre-director friend of mine commented that often, a lot of actors freeze up because they think the inner state of mind on stage is important - but acting out their roles as "Catholics" is often more effective. And Riggan often worries too much about being authentic, to the point where he often is upstaged by Edward Norton, even on his own script.
  2. Life tells us what we're suited for. Riggan's accidental nude walk through Times Square attracts way more attention than his play ever does.
  3. Birdman constantly undermines itself: It is a movie that relentlessly undermines itself. Perhaps it could end at the point where Birdman appears, and breaks the fourth-wall in telling the audience - "this is what you want!". Perhaps it could end when Riggan (Michael Keaton) shoots himself on-stage. Perhaps it could end when Riggan finally exits the film, but they had one more minute of footage to show how his daughter reacts to his leaving the room.
  4. The authenticity conflict changes after the extended scene where Riggan imagines himself as Birdman: after the extended scene of Riggan as Birdman, I believe that the central conflict of authenticity moves from "thespian vs Birdman" to the more general question of "should I choose to be concerned about authenticity as a Protestant, or live life without giving a damn about authenticity?"
  5. Authenticity is a brief fleeting moment. Where Riggan shoots himself on stage, that was the most authentic performance. Authenticity is a moment in time.
  6. Authenticity is an elaborate construction. But paradoxically, Riggan who is concerned about authenticity is ashamed of his nakedness, unlike Edward Norton in the dressing room. Authenticity, the movie seems to say, is not even nakedness, but a elaborate construction.
  7. Authenticity is impossible as a life philosophy. The movie ends at an indeterminate point, when Riggan has left the hospital room through the window. He has accepted that authenticity (represented by his abortive theatre career) is a mirage. Authenticity is impossible to focus on as a life philosophy. Riggan is perfectly content to be Birdman, and is no longer concerned with being an authentic artist. And so he jumps out of the window.
  8. Reading #1: I didn't like the ending because of the event of suicide undermines Birdman's own undermining of authenticity. And we are left in doubt as to exactly where he goes. Throughout the movie there is a streak of magic realism (Riggan appears to have superpowers, telekinesis, flying, but only when he is alone, and there is always an explanation for it - at the end of the sequence where he appears to fly, there is a taxicab who chases him for an unpaid fare, the telekinesis could be him just throwing things around.) And if we believe in the magic realism, then Riggan has become Birdman, is flying, and his daughter finally sees him for who he is. And if we don't believe in magic realism, then Riggan is splat at the bottom of his hospital block. I didn't like it because of its hint of suicide. There is a hint of The Leap into the Void: a leap of faith. But here philosophically is where I dislike the film: a suicide is a second event, and up to this point the movie has exhibited the principle: authenticity is only possible with great theatricality and falsehood - the most authentic Riggan has been in the movie is to shoot himself on stage. Therefore authenticity can only be achieved, performed, under contradictory conditions - to be as theatrical and false as possible. And because it is a performance, it can only be achieved in an event. The movie relentless undermines itself, showing that Riggan is as Nietzsche would say, "invulnerable only in the heel", destined to continue living even after he delivers his own coup-de-grace to himself, a bullet to the nose. The movie seems to say, authenticity is impossible as a life philosophy, because authenticity can only be an event, and people live on after events. That's why I did not like the ending, with its hint of suicide, because suicide/become Birdman/Riggan's exit from his hospital window is yet another event. I expected Riggan to exhibit some real character development. But his exit via the window is yet another flashpoint in Riggan's quest for authenticity - to be Birdman or to be a theatre actor (after the extended scene of Riggan as Birdman, I believe that the central conflict of authenticity moves from "thespian vs Birdman" to the more general question of "should I choose to be concerned about authenticity as a Protestant, or live life without giving a damn about authenticity?) - Riggan is superficially our hero for realising that his dreams of being thespian was unimportant. But in a much more profound sense, he isn't our hero, because he exhibits no awareness that the quest for authenticity (Birdman or thespian) is futile.
  9. Reading #2: A martyr for authenticity: Perhaps he is our hero for choosing to die as Birdman, rather than live in a world where authenticity is impossible. But becoming a martyr is only heroic if there is a concrete enemy. If the enemy is reality itself, then suicide is a futile action, guiding no-one, a shout into the void.
  10. The structure of the movie advertises the impossibility of authenticity as a life ideal, and it is a world where either the protagonist doesn't realize this impossibility, or the protagonist chooses not to exist in this world where authenticity is impossible. The first possibility is just a tragedy of a complete lack of self-awareness, the second is a futile stance, because there is no enemy but reality itself. And that is why I didn't like the ending of Birdman

Artistic notes:

  1. Drums capture New York. The drum soundtrack, made of all percussion, captures the feeling of New York, without music to join the beats, a relentless inner propulsion.
  2. First class editing: The editing, to make it seem like one whole shot is first-class

Rating: 16/20