A Portrait of the Artist as an Old Birdman

Birdman venerates artists as heroes, and draws a line in the dirt for critics.


Michael Keaton stars as Riggan Thomson and Birdman in  Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)  (2014). Image property of Fox Searchlight.

Michael Keaton stars as Riggan Thomson and Birdman in Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014). Image property of Fox Searchlight.

“I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can.”

—James Joyce, from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

* * *

“We live our lives with no editing.”

—Birdman writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu, explaining why he wanted the film to appear as if it had been shot in one continuous take.


Last Oscar season I wrote about 2013’s most interesting film, Her. This year I thought I’d make this a tradition and discuss my favorite from 2014. And the best film I’ve seen (so far) is Birdman, the full title of which is actually Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).

The thing is, Birdman proposes more questions than it answers. It’s weird and difficult to pin down. It’s been several weeks since I watched it and I still have questions about it, which is often a sign of something special. It might be wise to see it again before writing this — but such scrupulousness would clash with what I think is the philosophy behind the film.

So what is it trying to say, exactly? (SPOILERS AHOY!)


“Are You Making Fun of Me?”

When Michael Keaton first spoke to Alejandro González Iñárritu about the director’s vision for Birdman and his interest in casting him as the lead, he asked him a blunt question: “Are you making fun of me?” After all, Keaton famously played the Caped Crusader and blazed his way through some of the biggest blockbusters of the ’80s and ’90s, and has since been less conspicuous (by design of course — he’s become very selective in the work he takes on). Some of this probably seemed rather familiar.

But Birdman is not making fun of Michael Keaton, or any artists.

It is aggressively defending them from the likes of us.


The Play Is the Thing

On its surface, Birdman is a black comedy about a tormented narcissist grasping at relevance, trying to resurrect his career by adapting, directing, and starring in an off-Broadway play based on an obscure short story by Raymond Carver. But any mocking at the expense of the protagonist is done gently, ambivalently even, and in the end is ancillary to the true message of the story.

At the films core, peeking through all the dark humor (and from behind the ridiculous Birdman costume), is a tribute to imagination and a heartfelt apologia for all creators daring enough to express themselves. It is an acknowledgement that creating something and sharing it with the world is a perilous act, precisely because it leaves the creator vulnerable to attacks, misunderstandings, and resentments that — self-expression being just what it says it is — implicate the artist’s very self. And who needs that? Well, as we’ll see, we all do. Or to be more precise, we all depend on creative people to take those risks.

Birdman focuses on the staging of a play, but its message applies to anyone with courage enough to create something and share it, whether that person is an actor, musician, singer, writer, poet, comedian, designer, developer, dancer, chef, director, or subway busker. Even if the result of any such self-expression isn’t intended to be taken as “art” per se, the same message applies: It is risky to put yourself out there, but for that reason it can be noble and rewarding to try.


Haters Gonna Hate

As funny as it can be, the film itself gives plenty of knowing winks that it’s not some extended joke or a vehicle to get cheap ironic laughs at Keaton’s or any actor’s expense. For one thing, if satirizing the infamous “tortured artist” archetype were the point, the film would have been kinder in its treatment of critics. But sympathizing with critics is the exact opposite of what Birdman sets out to do. Going beyond mere mockery, the film castigates critics as a class through its treatment of one in particular, who happens to serve as the film’s only plausible villain (no small consideration in a story that touches on the comic book superhero genre).

The upshot is that Birdman delivers a preemptive strike on critics themselves: on their gall, their effrontery, the sheer arrogance, their dark audacity — the converse of the artist’s own boldness, as dark matter is to matter. The film repeatedly makes very clear that in this battle it is on the side of artists, revealing the sacrifice, doubt, and anguish of an actor who is risking everything he has left — his family, his fortune, his already-diminished reputation, his own self-respect.

For the entire film, the artist in question, played exquisitely (as always) by Keaton in a cast offering exemplary performances all (Edward Norton especially), is haunted by a character he played in his younger days: a costumed superhero named Birdman. And despite the worldwide acclaim and fame this past portrayal earned him, what does Birdman have to offer him now? Torment, mostly (this is all in his head of course, so he is being tormented by his own psyche):

Riggan Thomson, as Birdman: You had it all. You were a movie star, remember? Now youre about to destroy whats left of your career. We should have done that reality show they offered us.
Riggan Thomson: “Shut up.”

His daughter Sam (played by a terrific Emma Stone) attacks him even more harshly than his own self-doubt ever does, deriding what she calls his futile efforts to be “relevant,” and insisting that what he’s attempting is pointless:

Sam Thomson: “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.”

From his own alter-ego to his own daughter (who, as his assistant, should recognize that his success is in her own best interest, or so you would think), everybody’s a critic. But no one is as vicious toward him as The New York Times theater critic Tabitha Dickinson, played with icy intensity by Lindsay Duncan.

In one of the film’s most pivotal scenes, the would-be artist and professional reviewer face off at a nearby bar (where, like all places in the film that aren’t the theater, our artist hero never quite seems comfortable). Tabitha tells him that without having read it or seen a preview, she intends to savage his play with the sole purpose of closing it down after one night. She fancies herself a gatekeeper — a critical cultural custodian who gets to decide who the real artists are and who are the “entitled, selfish, spoiled children, blissfully untrained, unversed, and unprepared to attempt real art.” In her twisted self-serving estimation, then, the critic somehow supersedes the artist in importance.

Riggan (and thus the film itself) passionately sets her and all critics straight, turning the tables and exposing the absurdity of that position. Stealing a glimpse of a review she is writing at the bar, he calls her out for mindless maliciousness and a faux-sophisticated hackery that relies wholly on fabricated labels:

Riggan: “You know what this is? You even know what this is? You don’t. You know why? Because you can’t see this thing if you don’t have to label it. You mistake all those little noises in your head for true knowledge…. It’s just a bunch of crappy opinions, backed up by even crappier comparisons!”

Here we have a corollary to Birdman’s full-throated celebration of art and artists: its most direct attack on criticism itself. True, not all critics are shallow, contemptuous, or contemptible, but they are always reactive, in that their very existence depends utterly on the actions of others. And so, even at their best, they are parasitic. Setting aside the fact that their role is therefore subordinate, their interpretations of others’ work are often nothing but inauthentic performances themselves. These interpretations are hardly sacrosanct, and no matter what they say, critics do not get to decide who the “real” artists are — which probably explains their penchant for viciousness and for falsely claiming such authority. (I can’t help but think of the writer who reviewed American Sniper — despite the fact that he’d seen only the trailer.)

This quote caught my eye somewhere a long time ago: “Those who rebel against fashion are slaves to it.” Likewise, those whose actions (or careers) depend on reacting to the undertakings of others should have the self-awareness to appreciate that dependence and what it signifies.

It’s important to acknowledge that at the end of Birdman, Riggan does in fact receive a rave review from Tabitha Dickinson. But far from a redemption of critics or even of this particular character, the surprise favorable review becomes the film’s strongest condemnation of critics as a whole. Because in order to “earn” that praise, the artist had to shoot off his own nose with a gun and literally bleed all over the stage. By choosing to make this scene so over-the-top, Iñárritu has left zero room for doubt about where the film’s contempt really lies.


Various promotional posters for  Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)   (2014) . Images property of Fox Searchlight.

Various promotional posters for Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014). Images property of Fox Searchlight.


Critics Are Superfluous. Audiences Are Not.

One of the most remarked upon aspects of Birdman is its long, extended takes, which give the illusion that the whole film is made up of only a few shots. In a medium that already depends on massive coordination under the most ordinary circumstances, this approach would have spectacularly failed without the masterful execution of director, crew, and performers, and each of their individual triumphs large and small elevated the whole.

Its audacious shooting style gives the film added depth in another way. The long takes ensure that we follow the characters all throughout the cavernous theater, with its dingy dressing rooms and cramped hallways, to the extent that the theater itself becomes like another member of the ensemble. And to the message of the film — the importance of art and the importance of those who dare to create and share it — the theater adds an important qualifier: Being brave enough to share your work is not enough; artists also must fight for a platform to showcase their imaginative output and for an audience to experience it.

In its most famous sequence, Birdman accentuates just how hard that fight for a platform can be: When Riggan accidentally locks himself out of the theater in mid-performance, he has to get creative and fight through a crowded Times Square, almost naked in only his briefs, finagle his way back inside through the front door, and improvise his way back into the performance. (Remarkably, the Times Square scene only took two takes to shoot.) This is more than a nod to the vulnerability of artists, who inherently must “expose” themselves. Yes, they are at risk of being misunderstood or even vilified, but before that privilege they first must make sure people get to see their work. They can’t take their platforms and audiences for granted.

Here we see the fuller implications of the movie. Yes, it takes courage to create art for others. Yes, it takes perseverance to find a platform and then an audience. Yes, guilty critics deserve to be exposed for self-aggrandizing perfidy. But Birdman does not let audiences off the hook either. Its quirkiness and aloofness demand a lot of its own viewers, and the philosophy behind the film demands more of all audiences in general.

Here is the audience’s dilemma: People demand to be entertained. You’re a human being, so you entertain yourself somehow. We all have our go-tos. Music, movies, TV, fiction, sports, social media, apps, websites, news. Likely some combination of it all. Well, someone’s got to create all of that.

And since everybody has different tastes, it’s inevitable that each person will come across performances or creations that they are uninterested in or perhaps viscerally loathe. Most people will just change the channel, pick up another book, skip ahead on Spotify, visit another website. Others will thrash about in the comments section or find another avenue to troll away. Regardless of whether we enjoy something, have no reaction to it, or hate it, we arrive exactly where we started: looking for the next form of someone else’s creative output to distract us. We all depend on the people out there willing to create something new even as they know full well that those they’re hoping to reach might hate the results.

“Scoff and criticize and harp and doubt and mock all you want, but,” Birdman seems to say, “if you don’t like something and you’re not offering anything to the world yourself…. Well, maybe try to cultivate a little gratitude and self-awareness, is all.”


Do you see what I see? Emma Stone as Sam Thomson, Riggan Thomson ’  s daughter and assistant, in  Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)   (2014)  . Image property of Fox Searchlight.

Do you see what I see? Emma Stone as Sam Thomson, Riggan Thomsons daughter and assistant, in Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014). Image property of Fox Searchlight.


Take a Side

“The object of the artist is the creation of the beautiful. What the beautiful is is another question.” 

 —James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man


In Birdman’s final scene, we see Sam’s reaction to her father’s last action of the story, but we never see exactly what that last action is. She sees what she sees, and judges accordingly.

As the audience, we get to take a stand too. We are the only ones who can decide what this scene signifies for us. In other words, this is Birdman testing you. What did you see? And whose side are you on?

In his advice to critics, Goethe recommended they answer three questions: 1) What was the artist trying to accomplish? 2) Was the artist successful in his or her attempt? 3) Regardless of the outcome, was the attempt worth making?

For this daring and original film, I’ve answered Number 1. As to the other two questions, my answers are: yes, magnificently so; and yes, absolutely, and Im grateful they did. 

But hey, dont take my word for it. As the notecard pinned on Riggan Thomsons dressing room wall says, A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing. Say of it what you will, Birdman is a rare thing indeed.



Posted on February 19, 2015