The Unexpected Virtue of Suicide, or Birdman

The Unexpected Virtue of Suicide, or Birdman

“For the rest of the earth’s organisms, existence is relatively uncomplicated. Their lives are about three things: survival, reproduction, death—and nothing else. But we know too much to content ourselves with surviving, reproducing, dying—and nothing else. We know we are alive and know we will die. We also know we will suffer during our lives before suffering—slowly or quickly—as we draw near to death. This is the knowledge we “enjoy” as the most intelligent organisms to gush from the womb of nature. And being so, we feel shortchanged if there is nothing else for us than to survive, reproduce, and die. We want there to be more to it than that, or to think there is. This is the tragedy: consciousness has forced us into the paradoxical position of striving to be unself-conscious of what we are—hunks of spoiling flesh on disintegrating bones.”

–Thomas Ligotti

Birdman, or (the unexpected virtue of ignorance) (2014) (hereafter referred to as Birdman) exalts the courage of the artist over everything else. What is more dangerous than putting yourself on the line every night before an audience? The answer Birdman gives is nothing but reality suggests there are a good many more dangerous occupations out there however that is besides the point. Birdman is a look into the mind of the artist, not the artist as such, but a particular version of the artist, one who takes himself a bit too seriously and imagines their life in cosmic terms. Hyperbolic but not hyperbolic (or experimental) enough for my taste, Birdman is an entertaining mess that tries its best to make a grand statement about the contemporary artist in late-capitalist America.

Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, the titular character, who has put his entire reputation and finances on the line to produce, direct, and act in a stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. His daughter, Sam (played by Emma Stone), is his personal assistant and a recovering drug addict. His producer/best friend Jake (played by Zach Galifianakis) is his spastic supporter and number one fan. His new co-star is Mike Shiner (played by Edward Norten) the boyfriend of his lead actress Lesley (played by Naomi Watts, who was severely underused in this film). His girlfriend/supporting actress is Laura (played by Andrea Riseborough) who informs Riggan early in the film that she is pregnant with his child.

With the exception of the bookend shots of falling debris and a beach, Birdman was shot and edited to appear like the film is an unbroken single take. Emmanuel Lubezki, the cinematographer, has worked with several big-name directors like Tim Burton, Alfonso Cuaron, the Coens, and Terence Malick. Lubezki is particularly adept at shooting scenes with naturalistic lighting and a constantly moving camera, used wonderfully in the three films shot for Malick. In Birdman, the rooming camera style is used to explore the space behind the stage, showing us stagehands and the workings behind the facade. It is also used to detach us from Riggan’s character, intruding on the supporting characters, widening our perspective beyond Riggan’s consciousness, reminiscent of Altman’s cinema. The transitions break with realism and the whole tradition of establishing shots whose function are to set up the space of the respective scene. Moments bleed into each other ramping up the tension to the opening night’s performance.

There are no characters in the film but simply caricatures. Shiner is a caricature of New York method actors; Sam is a caricature of young women. The New York Times critic is a caricature of an older generation of critics that wielded great power over the success of a theatre production which cannot be extrapolated to cinema since in North American film journalism has degenerated into film promotion and negative reviews have little to no effect on the commercial success of a movie (with the exception of Vincent Canby at the New York Times who has blocked Godard films from getting released in the U.S.). And our fearless hero is caricature of every desperate celebrity trying to become an artist. The use of caricatures instead of characters is to explore various binary oppositions that are centered around art and “the artist” and these oppositions are essential to understanding how the film works.

The idea of the artist is juxtaposed with the “celebrity”, the “father”, the “husband”, and the “critic”. These binary oppositions imply another set where “entertainment”, “critical approval”, and “life” (in the broadest sense possible) are all juxtaposed to art. Riggan’s life as Birdman meant that he was a bad father and husband. He neglected his daughter who eventually developed a drug addiction and cheated on his wife who eventually left him. According to Birdman, being an artist or a celebrity means neglecting personal relationships and commitments.

Before putting on the Carver play Riggan was a super-hero movie star, or a celebrity as the NYT critic calls him. His celebrity past constantly haunts him whether it be with fans, posters, or the Birdman alter-ego we hear in the voice-over and then eventually see when Riggan is day-dreaming. Riggan tries to ignore his inner Birdman but eventually gives into his logic which leads him to suicide.

Suicide is key for this film, it becomes the logical conclusion to Riggan’s struggles and the fatal flipside to Shiner’s belief that an artist puts their life on the line when they perform. Shiner’s method actor caricature is juxtaposed to Riggan the celebrity-in-the-process of becoming an artist. His struggle with the play is a penance for his commercial sins. Shiner is Riggan’s other alter-ego, a person who exemplifies the artist, a very particular artist in this case which is a Broadway method actor. Shiner represents the true artist, someone so artistic that he can only perform real actions (like getting and maintaining an erection) on the stage but not off. However, Birdman does not equivocally exalt the artist and shows us the negative consequences of pursuing art over everything else. Shiner can’t get it up and Riggan along with staking his entire financial security on the play becomes suicidal. Riggan knows that his sense of self-worth is inextricably tied to the success of his play; the preparation and desire to be a success is the only thing keeping Riggan from acknowledging the pointlessness of his existence, something his daughter explains to him but he chooses to ignore.

Suicide is art according to Birdman. There is a number of scenes that foreshadow this conclusion: the shots of falling debris on fire that bookend the film signifying death; Shiner’s conversation with the NYT critic; the suicide finale of the play-within-the-film; Shiner criticizing Riggan for leaving the red tab in the gun-prop; and Riggan’s fanciful leap off the building that turns into another tedious day-dream which evoke the dream-sequences from The Big Lebowski (1998). Riggan’s quest to become an artist necessarily means that he must give up everything to do so which in this case means literally taking his own life. In the third act of the film Riggan uses a real gun on stage and shoots himself in the head but somehow fails to end his life and simply shoots off his nose instead. Why is this the logical conclusion? Because the binary oppositions that Birdman relies so much to produce any sort of coherent meaning are treated in the film as logical antimonies rather than contradictions to be resolved. There is no way, according the ideology of Birdman, that art and commerce or art and entertainment can be synthesized and yet the world demands they be synthesized. If Riggan succeeds in being an artist his play will make money (at least that is the implication of the NYT critic’s approval and the explicit threat of her negative review). And in her mind Riggan is not artist because he used to be a celebrity. He bought his way into the Broadway circuit, skipping the traditional channels of entry via the New York performance community. It does not matter if Riggan’s play is good because he has taken up space that should have been filled by true artists. These logical antinomies leave no option but to bring a new type of realism to the stage, that is, Riggan must shoot himself in the final act.

Much like Carver’s short story the first suicide attempt in Birdman is unsuccessful. After the play, Riggan is recuperating in the hospital where his family and friends congratulate him on the success of the play. His suicide attempt was interpreted as a new frontier in artistic realism which ties into the other ideology of this film which is the commitment to realism as necessarily authentic art. This ideology explains why the experimental/strange sequences are revealed to be day-dreams rather than breaks in realism or magical realism (as a point of comparison watch the Dead or Alive trilogy by Takashi Miike to see for yourself what I mean). Riggan’s suicide attempt, the necessary consequence of Birdman‘s ideology, is then a triumph; he succeeded in winning over the stuffy NYT critic and his play is a success. Birdman exalts art over everything else, equating performance with suicide.