Birdman — Superhero, haunted
Birdman, the 2014 award-winning masterpiece from Alejandro Inarritu is a must-watch for its cinematic brilliance in storytelling, editing and for regaling us with the famed single shot cinematography technique way before 1917 (2019 film that won 3 academy awards) ever released. For the uninitiated, the “single-shot” technique refers to a full-length movie filmed in one long take by a single camera or manufactured to give the impression it was.
Lots of people have said that Birdman is a confusing movie to understand, and even wondered why it won so many awards. It’s obvious within a few minutes into the film, there’s a lot of subtexts to unpack and what we are seeing is not what’s really being conveyed. There are many ways to present metatextual fiction, most popular is the technique of “breaking the fourth wall where the performers speak to the audience”. A famous film that employs this technique is Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. Another technique is the art of being “self-referential, i.e. the fiction realizes that it is fiction”, the adult animated comedy Rick and Morty (An amazing show that is a hilarious adventure of nihilism) does this beautifully. Birdman uses another technique that is called “super-realism”, this is the art of blurring the lines between fictional and real-worlds, often incorporating fantastical elements that invite you the audiences to escape into this skewed reality with the characters, this will help you suspend disbelief to believe what the characters believe though you know it defies all logic.
You need a certain understanding of human psychology to watch the film and understand Birdman. Inarritu famously said in an interview, if there are 1000 seats in the theater, he expects 1000 interpretations to exist of the film. Let’s try to explore some basic concepts of the human psyche to start with… Anyone who is familiar with Sigmund Freud knows about his id, ego, superego structure of the human psyche (id is the set of uncoordinated instinctual desires; the super-ego plays the critical and moralizing role; and the ego is the organized, realistic agent that mediates, between the instinctual desires of the id and the critical super-ego). Even before his id, ego, super-ego theories, Freud wrote a paper on narcissism and its role in understanding human society. Though people look at narcissists as people who lack empathy, seek admiration, and show a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, it’s actually a personality disorder. True narcissists are besieged and tormented by a sadistic Superego that constantly judges them. It’s the admixture of all the negative emotions, criticisms, anger and disappointments, and disparaging comments that were ever meted out in the narcissist’s formative years by peers, parents, and other authority figures. These harsh judgments and repeated berating echo through their inner mindscape for failing to adhere to his supernatural ideals, fantastical goals, grandiose plans. The narcissist’s self-worth oscillates like a pendulum between these two opposing poles: from an inflated view of self to utter despair. It is a strange mind-state because the very sadist who is your tormentor is your ultimate champion. Some personify this into a super-realistic being, so if they are talking to “it”, they might look like they are talking to themselves. This is a mental disorder but acts as a long-running coping mechanism as long as the narcissist makes peace with it. The psychoanalytic theory calls for the narcissist’s need for Narcissistic Supply to regulate this wild pendulum, i.e. people’s adulation, admiration, affirmation, and attention restore the narcissist’s self-esteem and self-confidence.
Before I talk about Birdman, I would like to discuss another psychological phenomenon called the “impostor syndrome”. A surprising fact surfaces from multiple biographies and interviews of many highly successful people, they all have a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”. Though this is prevalent in artists, people in any field always feel that their success is due to luck and they lack any real talent and though they have achieved money, success, and adulation of people they always feel they are not “real” artists. If I can talk about my own field, IT, many successful engineers I know have an internalized fear that they are not real engineers because they are not building anything original (like those who in core engineering groups of Google, Facebook, Microsoft), rather building on top of other existing software, specifically solution developers vs system engineers. From the outside, both are programmers, but their work is incomparable.
Similarly, movie actors have an innate lack of self-worth because they don’t consider what they do as “art” compared to theater artists who work on Broadway shows. Though they might denigrate Broadway actors as pretentious or high brow outwardly, they secretly resent them and yearn to be them. Though blockbuster Hollywood movies garner millions (or even billions depending on the franchise) from box-office, it’s well known they fall short in artistic value compared to indie films from serious filmmakers (Scorsese in a recent interview said that the Marvel franchise is akin to a theme park), while these serious filmmakers are looked down by theater artists. This is the premise of Birdman. Birdman is the story of Riggan Thomas, who is a washed-up Hollywood actor who once played the lead in a superhero franchise and declined to continue playing the superhero after the first few films. It’s been 20 years and now he is on a comeback mission to prove himself trying to go all out before his career whittles away. He is investing his time/money to produce, direct and star in a Broadway play based on Raymond Carver’s What do we talk about when we talk about love. He is a narcissist who lives in his own world and is haunted, taunted, and tormented by his alter ego, the superhero character he once played, the Birdman. The Birdman tries to tell him this is not his world, he needs to get back to Hollywood where he can regain his lost glory. While battling his inner Birdman he is trying to repair his relationship with his daughter, ex-wife, his new girlfriend, his co-actors, his manager, and the disapproving Broadway critics who have a deep-set hatred for “actors” of his ilk who swoop in or stop by Broadway when they are looking for validation or to legitimize their “craft”. As I said in the beginning, elements of super-realism are peppered throughout the world as seen by Riggan, he is suffering from illusions of grandeur, he literally thinks that he is endowed with superpowers including telekinesis, power of flight, does he really possess these superpowers or are they just illusions? You’ll have to decide for yourself, either stand on the precipice to understand him or be sucked into his world to take a jaunt with him.
The film has won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Cinematography. The screenplay not only blurs the lines between reality and fantasy but also blurs lines between fiction and the fiction within (i.e. the film’s story/dialogues and the play that is being rehearsed on the stage). Sometimes the characters are able to express exactly what they are feeling in the play but in real life, their words fail them. The catharsis that is offered in the play is not so easily attainable in real life for the same characters, that goes to show you, whatever fiction tries to teach us, we need to be willing to receive it, otherwise, it will be a futile attempt and the mood dissipates as soon as the lights come on. The camera and the editing deserve special mention because the “single-camera” hangs throughout the continuous shot of the film where it moves from character to character, setting to setting without breaking stride, it also breaks the time/space continuum by assuming that singular unblinking stare whether the protagonist is in the frame or not, hinting that the show must go on. The film examines multiple facets of a person’s relationship with his family, friends, co-workers, lovers, and even his own reality.
The casting of the film is just brilliant because Michael Keaton who plays Riggan Thomas also played Batman in the 90s and famously refused to continue playing Batman in sequels. All 3 main actors including Michael Keaton (Batman), Emma Stone (Gwen Stacy in Amazing Spider-Man), and Edward Norton (Hulk) boast superhero film pedigree and either was fired or got out. Many have asked Keaton whether Birdman felt a little autobiographical to him, whether he admits to it or not, I am sure he dug into some of his own misgivings, fears, and inner demons to play the character convincingly. He did win the best actor Golden Globe for his role though he lost the Oscar to Eddie Redmayne for playing Hawking in Theory of Everything.
Without giving away the actual story and its twists, I hope my introduction of the psychological background and nature of the human psyche gives you enough context to watch and enjoy the film.
Written On Apr 21, 2020