In last month’s blog, I mentioned that Birdman and Boyhood shared more than the race for the Best Picture Oscar last year. Though the two movies were as different as can be imagined in tone, form, subject matter, pace and just about every other movie-making category, they were unified in pushing to the forefront a philosophy that goes back some fifty years, but seems to be gaining momentum as a philosophy of life: existentialism. I wrote about Boyhood and its thoroughgoing, but hopeful, existentialism, and accused it of cheating since classic existentialism was anything but hopeful because of one single factor: death.
Birdman doesn’t make that mistake. In the film references abound to death, particularly suicide, as its main character, Riggan Thompson, played superbly by Michael Keaton in an Oscar-nominated performance, struggles with his celebrity, the emptiness of his power, his own hubris, the effect he is having on others, his need for love.
Birdman portrays Thompson as a popular but shallow superhero actor who wants to be taken seriously, so he writes, directs, and stars in a Broadway play based on a Raymond Carver short story. The film spans the few days between final rehearsals and opening night. Shot in the St. James Theatre in New York, Birdman is distinctive, if not unique, for its very long takes, sometimes as long as twenty minutes or more without a cut. This, and a constantly playing jazz drummer rasping in the background, adds hugely to the fast-pace of the dialogue and action to create a feeling of one long moment for the film. Small wonder, given the existential themes explored particularly in two scenes near the end of the film.
[Spoiler alert!] Riggan, unbeknownst to anyone else associated with the play, decides to commit the meaning-creating act of his life by committing suicide on stage, but messes that up either by accidentally missing his head and blowing off his nose instead, or by changing his mind at the last minute (or possibly, but I think unlikely, planning only to blow off his nose all along). What happens before that in two important scenes tells us what the filmmakers were intending.
The first of these takes place in Riggan’s dressing room on opening night near the end of the play, when his ex-wife, Sylvia, played by Amy Ryan, visits him to tell him how well she thinks he’s doing in the play. Riggan declares his love for her and for Samantha, their daughter, and their exchange brings together the themes of family, responsibility and what is actually real:
Riggan: I love you. …And I love Sam. Sylvia: I know. Riggan: I really wish I wouldn’t have videotaped her birth, though. Sylvia: Why? Riggan: ‘Cause… (sighs) I just missed the moment, really. I don’t have it. I should have just been there with the two of you. You know … just the three of us. But I wasn’t. I wasn’t even present in my own life, and now I don’t have it… and I’m never going to have it. Sylvia: You have Sam. Riggan: Not really, I don’t. I mean, she’s… Sylvia: Oh, no, no, no, listen, she’s just going through … Riggan: No, I get it, I understand. She needed a dad; instead she got this guy who was a …three day viral sensation. It is so pathetic, I can’t… Sylvia: No, come on. There are things more pathetic than that. Riggan: Yeah, like? Sylvia: That moustache. (Both laugh.) They kiss. He tells her to get back to her seat. He pulls down a real gun from a shelf, not the toy one he’s been using in rehearsals. He checks and makes sure it’s loaded.
Riggan regrets not actually living the moment of his daughter’s birth instead of trying to do so vicariously through a videotape. Note how he says, “I wasn’t even present in my own life,” a telling admission that he doesn’t really believe he exists because he did not act authentically. He doesn’t have that moment and he’s never going to. So much more could be said about the idea of cynically dismissing the medium of videotape in a movie about a play, but the key for us is this: Riggan does not exist because he has not acted authentically and with passion.
Even more important is the penultimate scene in the film, when Riggan is on stage. In the play, he is Eddie, who has just broken into a motel room where he discovers his wife (Naomi Watts) with her lover (Edward Norton). He brandishes a gun at both of them. She admits she doesn’t love him, and his answer forms the heart of the struggle of the “real” Riggan Thompson within the story of the movie: “Why? I just want you to tell me: why? …What’s the matter with me? Tell me what’s the matter. Why do I always have to beg people to love me? …I just wanted to be what you wanted. What you wanted. Now I spend every fucking minute trying to be something else. Something I’m not. …I don’t exist. I’m not even here. I’m not even here.”
Riggan points the gun at the Norton character and goes “Bang!”, like a very dangerous child playing with a real gun. Then he points the gun at the audience and does the same thing: “Bang!” The terror for the movie viewer is palpable; it looks like a real gun. It is a real gun! Riggan then shoots himself, blowing his nose off, but we don’t know that until later. It looks like he has committed some existentialists’ one authentic act: suicide. The audience stays silent for the slightest of moments, then they wildly applaud—a thumping, rousing standing ovation for the apparently dead actor on the stage floor.
What do we as Christians think of this? Riggan, not finding the love he so craves, a love that takes the form for him of gaining from the audience respect for himself and for his art, chooses to kill himself in order to win that respect. Albert Camus fought this conclusion in his famous essay “The Myth of Sisyphus,” opting instead for an acknowledgment of the absurdity of life and a life lived in revolt against that absurdity.
But why? Stay tuned for part three next month.