Why I loved Birdman

“You’re doing a play based on a book that was written 60 years ago, for a thousand rich old white people whose only real concern is gonna be where they go to have their cake and coffee when it’s over. And let’s face it, Dad, it’s not for the sake of art. It’s because you want to feel relevant again. Well, there’s a whole world out there where people fight to be relevant every day. And you act like it doesn’t even exist! Things are happening in a place that you willfully ignore, a place that has already forgotten you. I mean, who are you? You hate bloggers. You make fun of Twitter. You don’t even have a Facebook page. You’re the one who doesn’t exist. You’re doing this because you’re scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don’t matter. And you know what? You’re right. You don’t. It’s not important. You’re not important. Get used to it.”

As a writer, I sometimes get what is referred to as Writer’s Block, and when I do the voice usually sounds something like this quote. When I saw Birdman a few months ago, I was going through a period of writer’s block, and then it was like the movie magically cured it—at least temporarily.

When I first saw the trailer for a new movie called Birdman but I wasn’t sure what to think. It’s about an aging actor, Riggan, played by Michael Keaton, who is best known for starring in a lame superhero movie named, you guessed it, Birdman. He’s determined to make a comeback, and he does so by adapting a short story by Raymond Carver for the Broadway stage, directing and starring in it as well. To attract a larger audience, he hires Mike, a high-maintenance method actor (played by Edward Norton) but they argue. It was clear that there were some funny parallels between the real-life actors and their characters, and that it would be an amusing satire on Hollywood and acting, but I didn’t think it looked like anything I hadn’t seen before.

At the end of the trailer, however, something caught my eye. I saw that it was directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, the director of the very serious, very good Amores Perros, the very serious, less good 21 Grams, and the very serious and pretentious Babel and Biutiful, which is practically unwatchable because it’s so heavy and depressing. But the idea of him directing a ridiculous comedy seemed intriguing. Finally, I read this rave review by a critic I’ve followed for a long time who also said it was a favourite to be up for a lot of Oscars, and decided it would probably be worth seeing.

birdman

There is an element of magic realism in the movie, as Riggan has developed telekinetic powers. The style of the film is also very much inspired by both the New York theatre and Martin Scorcese as it’s shot in very long shots that give the film a sense of theatrical tension, and there’s dazzling camerawork as we go from one room in Broadway’s St. James Theatre to another. In fact, the theatre becomes a sort of character in itself, representing Riggan’s tormented mind; in one scene, Mike is seen reading Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges. Eventually, Riggan’s struggles become a sort of existential crisis that is an interesting meditation on the frustration of creating art.

Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.

At one point later on in the film, this soliloquy from Shakespeare’s Macbeth is recited by a homeless person. Like the speech, Birdman gets to the heart of the struggle to create art: it is to make meaning out of meaninglessness, an act of sheer faith that brings you face-to-face with a sort of nihilism. To confront this fear and continue to create is a sort of transcendence, which is what the movie ultimately does, making art in the face of criticism, living in the face of despair. To do so is to not be bound by the laws of the universe that we see immediately before us but to believe in something greater.

birdman-movie-still

I have writer’s block again. Maybe I should watch this movie another time.

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