Wonder is a barometer of ignorance: the learned experience it rarely; God, never. Wonder is not only a peculiarly human passion; it is also one that, at least on this account, underscores the limits of human knowledge. The more we know, the less we wonder.
—Lorraine Daston, ‘Wonder and the Ends of Inquiry’
As you probably know, Michael Keaton played the role of Batman, the caped crusader, in Tim Burton’s 1989 comic book film adaptation. It was the role that catapulted him from the cult stardom he achieved one year earlier in Beetlejuice to international fame. And even though Keaton has since experienced a long career, no other role after Batman came close to such instant box office success and pop culture impact.
The self-conscious reference to Batman in Keaton’s latest film Birdman does provide some surface amusement. And granted, the reference deserves a smirk and a nod. In Birdman Keaton plays a washed-up movie star, Riggan Thompson, who attempts to tackle Broadway in a serious, two-part attempt to stay artistically relevant and distance himself from the role that made him famous, the masked superhero called Birdman.
Irony plays a central role, from those amusing surface references to Batman to more subtle displays. One thing to keep in mind, however, is the film does not hide its irony. It does not hide its references. It does not hide its metaphors, nor its metafiction, nor its reflexivity. The thing that is perhaps most debatable, however, is whether or not Birdman hides its true meaning.
Truth is one thing. Art might be everything else. I had the idea, which felt like a good one for three seconds if you count quickly, of titling this article the way I did and then presenting you with a blank page. But if the people behind Birdman put all that effort into the film to achieve the same effect, I should put in a little more effort, too.
The film’s subtitle, and the title of this article, appears in the film’s last scene, but the idea is woven throughout the entire film. Many of its characters, Riggan Thompson especially, teeter on this pendulum of knowing and not knowing. At times characters teeter back and forth in the very same scene, which is more easily negotiable due to the film’s long takes, yet such a fact shouldn’t discredit the notion nor its importance altogether. In fact, characters often switch upper hand in the same exchange, a nod to the medium it’s portraying: drama.
Edward Norton’s character can go from berating Thompson at one end of the bar to defending him at the other end without so much as a scene cut. A heated argument between Thompson and theatre critic Lindsay Duncan volleys as in a tennis match. When Thompson spoke, I sided with him. When Duncan spoke, I sided with her. It’s been a while since I’ve found myself siding with whoever happened to be speaking. We can berate and defend, and we can be berated and we can be defended. By the same person, no less.
Perhaps the most visibly capricious character is Norton’s Mike Shiner, a lauded stage actor whose talent is only exceeded by his arrogance. He is difficult from the start, calling for script changes and making demands to which Thompson agrees for the sake of his play’s success. It is Shiner who consistently kicks the legs of Thompson’s director chair out from under him, yet it is Shiner who expresses to the critic Duncan that Thompson is risking everything.
Shiner is a caricature in most instances: a self-important artist in public and a pompous male backstage. The acclaim of his acting career compels him to announce that New York City (or in the very least, Broadway) is his town. He is a skilled actor and appears to take it seriously, although the latter is somewhat debatable: Shiner enjoys the ‘serious actor’ label and is now possibly hiding behind it. As a result, his long-term relationship with Lesley, an actor in the play and the reason Shiner was brought on board last-minute, deteriorates as personal and professional relationships get muddled and hazy.
The only person with whom Shiner lets down his guard is Sam, Thompson’s daughter, who lingers aimlessly on set as her father’s assistant by proxy, in Thompson’s half-formed attempt both to be near his daughter and make sure she stays out of trouble post-rehab. Sam is the only person in the film with whom Shiner doesn’t share a working relationship, and it is perhaps this reason that he finds her disarming. This does take time, however, and there is never evidence suggesting that Sam disarms Shiner completely. In the pair’s first moment of privacy, they play truth-or-dare, and the usually brash Shiner insists on always picking ‘truth’. She asks him why he openly commented on her ‘having a nice ass’ during their first meeting. The notion that Shiner’s crude comment was to establish himself in the role of pig-headed male, and thus keep another person at distance, does not figure into his response. Instead, Shiner shrugs a simple reply, ‘Because you do.’
Birdman doesn’t seem to pass itself off as innovative, which is indeed part of its strength. Nothing really is new, which is another concept it does not hide, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t done well. In film alone there are many movies that comment on its own futility, on art’s futility, on the artist’s futility, and such results exist because the special ego we attribute to artists allows them to transcend such futility, or at least make everyone believe that they did. And each time this happens, and each time it is done well, the Goddess of Irony sits back and laughs, maybe. Or maybe she shrugs. She seems more like a shrugger.
We may perceive the artist as egotistical and delusional, but that doesn’t mean that people with more ‘humanitarian’ professions are free of those characteristics by default, either publicly or privately. Perhaps it is time once again to stop thinking of artists as separate types of human. It’s not exactly what we do, but why we do it. This is perhaps why you can’t stay angry with Riggan Thompson. This is perhaps why, after telling her father that his work is meaningless because his life is meaningless, Sam’s face emits deep remorse two seconds after the outburst. This is why, when defending his play to the critic who aims to kill it, you stick behind the old bird. His art is what makes him human, not what sets him apart.
Ironically enough, Keaton’s character for most of the movie actually does live more like a bat as he wrestles with his arguably more natural state of being a bird. As if the bat reference wasn’t rich enough, it may be worth thinking about it this way: bats are often mistaken for birds from afar, when in fact bats are mammals, just like humans. On a made-up spectrum, you can measure a bat halfway between bird and man.
Having said all that, Thompson doesn’t venture too far from his caverns. He knows the ins and outs of his theatre better than we do, and even when it’s dark there’s no need for him to turn on any lights. Even the surrounding environs feel rather like extensions of his dwelling, add-ons so he can feel brave enough to venture outside, protected, within close retreat, and without risking too much exposure. (This kind of safety, of course, is shattered when Thompson locks himself out of the back entrance of the venue and must run through Times Square in his underwear to get back into the theatre.)
Birdman presents the theatre district in this cloistered kind of manner. Each venue exists in its own space, and the restaurants and bars in the area exist primarily to serve the theatregoers. None of the characters are seen at home, so they inevitably create private spheres at work, which complicates matters greatly. Thompson seems to eat and sleep in his dressing room, and the theatre critic Duncan works on her columns at the far end of the bar.
The ongoing balancing act of knowing and not knowing is mirrored in the film by the balancing act between life and death, perhaps the foremost example of knowing and not knowing. Thompson claims to have attempted suicide in the past, throwing himself into the Pacific Ocean, only to be run out of the water and saved inadvertently by a swarm of jellyfish trying to kill him themselves. There are a few moments when Thompson finds himself on the ledge of a building. (The only other character that spends time on the ledge of a building is the one that shares Thompson’s blood, his daughter. But even then, Sam only sits on the ledge, and only for adrenaline. She knows she won’t jump, but her father is a different story. His various states of creative and personal instability keep us on edge each time he stands on one.)
What makes it even more complicated is how closely a rock-bottom moment can look just like an epiphany for Riggan Thompson. As he contemplates going over the edge, it’s hard to say whether he’ll fly like a bird or fall like a man. In essence, you can’t be sure whether the jump would result in Riggan Thompson’s death or in his rebirth.