After a stressful week, I recently decided to treat myself by purchasing and rewatching Birdman. I really like this film and, as you may or may not know, I posted a review of it here back in November. While I still agree with most of what I wrote before, there is still a great deal that I’ve yet to discuss (not that I’ll get to it all hear).
Birdman is the sort of film that an undergraduate English or film major could write an entire thesis over, which I’m sure is part of the reason that I find it so fascinating. As I’ve already written my senior thesis and have no interest in doing any sustained research at the moment, I’ll be presenting you with some somewhat scattered thoughts instead.
Note: Some of what follows contains as many questions as it does answers. I thought it might be worthwhile just to put some of my ideas and questions out there and to invite my followers to chime in. If you have an answer to any of the questions that come up below, share it. If you have something that you’d like to add, go ahead. If you think I’m totally off-base with something I say, let me know.
A Frantic and Frenzied Score, A Frantic and Frenzied Hero
It’s not unreasonable to claim that Birdman is an unusual film. Along with its energetic, fast-paced, and incredibly well-choreographed cinematography, with its particular blend of dark humor, sobering truth, and absurdity, and with its deliberate mixing of reality and fantasy, the film’s often frantic and percussion-heavy score also contributes to the delightful strangeness and the idiosyncrasy of Iñárritu’s film.
But Birdman’s jazz drum score (like most of the film) is about much more than setting the film apart.
Composed by Antonio Sanchez, the film’s fast-paced, manic, and improvised score can be seen to provide insight into Riggan’s mind. Riggan is not an artist with a master plan, he is a desperate man making things up as he goes along; similarly, the film’s nontraditional score gives viewers the impression that it is being made up on the spot (as I said, it was improvised). Throughout the film, Riggan can be seen improvising (not so much on the stage as in his own life), and he’s not particularly great at it either. The frenzied nature of the score also emphasizes his rather unbalanced, stressed, volatile, and often agitated mental state. With the score (and in many other ways), Birdman declares that Riggan is no cool-calm-and-collected-Hollywood-superhero; he’s a man on the brink of a mental break down, he is not well, and he usually does not know if what he is doing will work at all.
Birdman’s pounding and percussive score is also the type of score that makes its presence known. It’s loud, and it’s presence in the film is about as far from inconspicuous as it can be. The fast-paced drum-and-cymbal-filled score calls attention to itself, and could even be characterized as (deliberately) overwhelming. If viewers find it hard to relax or even to concentrate while being assaulted by such a score, they should consider how hard it is for Riggan to function while being similarly overwhelmed, disoriented, and unbalanced by just about everything in his life.
The fact that someone is shown drumming along with the score at a few points in the film is also important to the work that it does within it. Throughout Birdman, images (such as Birdman flying and Riggan moving objects telepathically) appear that cannot be understood as entirely “real”; such images are best and most easily understood as things that are appearing in Riggan’s own head. Therefore, those instances in which a drummer appears seem to strongly support the idea that the film’s score is largely a reflection of Riggan himself. On top of that, the drummer’s momentary presences on screen can also be understood as evidence that Riggan may even hear the score in his own head. In this way, the score can also be seen as one of the numerous ways in which Birdman goes out of its way to confuse the boundaries between fiction and reality, between what is imagined by Riggan and what can be interpreted as real.
Another way in which Birdman uses its unique score to cause a certain blurring of conceptual boundaries—while also highlighting the overarching importance of juxtaposition to the film—is by mixing it with pieces of classical music. The loud, crazed, in-your-face drum score couldn’t be more different from the soft and much more traditional works of classical music that also appear in the film. To go from one type of music to the other is jarring to say the least. The many differences between them also serve to emphasize and intensify the particular characteristics of each much more strongly—perhaps that’s part of the film’s motivation for using so much juxtaposition in the first place.
The Confusion of Boundaries
Birdman is a film that relies heavily on juxtaposition and confusion. What I mean by this is that the film deliberately juxtaposes and even overlaps certain concepts and pairs of concepts (like reality and fantasy, art and celebrity, love and admiration) 1) in order to ask important questions about them while encouraging viewers to examine them more closely than they might otherwise and 2) in order to blur the lines between them. While it may seem counterproductive to blur the boundaries around a given concept while also encouraging thoughtful examination of that concept, it does not have to be. After all, obscuring the accepted boundaries around any given concept or category is one of the first steps to reimagining it and to developing your own understanding of it.
I won’t discuss all of the concepts/ideas/categories that Birdman highlights, obscures, and calls into question here
(it would take too long ), but I will mention a couple that stuck out to me during my most recent viewing of the film.
First up: Social Media v. Reality. Perhaps one of the most memorable scenes from Birdman is Sam’s monologue in which she tells Riggan the following: “Well, there’s a whole world out there where people fight to be relevant every day. And you act like it doesn’t even exist! Things are happening in a place that you willfully ignore, a place that has already forgotten you. I mean, who are you? You hate bloggers. You make fun of Twitter. You don’t even have a Facebook page. You’re the one who doesn’t exist.”
While contemporary audiences are probably inclined to agree with Sam, does the film actually think that they should? If going viral “is power” (as Sam claims that is) then what does that power give a person? Is the world of Twitter and bloggers and Facebook the real world? Surely, it’s part of it, but I also don’t think that it’s the part that Riggan needs to concern himself with. Riggan’s problem isn’t that he hasn’t properly embraced social media and the internet, it’s that he hasn’t embraced the people around him (or even himself). Riggan might not matter in the grand scheme of things, but it’s hard to believe that his lack of a Facebook page is the reason. So is Sam wrong? If so, what on earth do we make of her monologue? What is the relationship between social media (and media) and reality?
Next: Reality v. Fantasy. For my brief discussion of this topic, I would like to call attention to one scene in particular.
When Riggan is shown standing on top of a building and looks as if he is going to jump off of it, someone from a neighboring building shouts something to the effect of “Hey, is this for real or are you shooting a movie?!” Riggan’s replies by confirming the latter option.
First, the way that the spectator’s questions is worded figures that which is “real” and that which is in the movies as distinct; the questions assumes that the answer is one or the other but not both. Thus, the question also assumes that there is something “unreal” or perhaps “artificial” about the world of movies and fiction that is somehow disconnected from reality. This assumption seems more than reasonable on the surface (surely there is no one who sees Birdman who does not understand the woman’s question), but is not as simple as it may seem.
In fact, Birdman itself deliberately pushes back against such assumptions. For instance, when Riggan Thompson the character says he’s standing on the top of a building for a movie, he’s not telling the truth (though he may believe he is). However, when the actor Michael Keaton (who is shooting a movie and is playing Riggan Thompson whose life looks a lot like Michael Keaton’s) says it, he’s telling the truth. Birdman is a movie; everything seen in it was acted out “for a movie”— so how on earth do we determine what is “for real”?
I’d like to pose a few of the questions that I still have about the film’s final moments. The end of Birdman is deliberately open-ended; in fact, in places, it’s almost frustratingly ambiguous.
One question I continue to wrestle with concerns the motivation behind Tabitha’s glowing review of Riggan’s play. Before seeing the play, Tabitha tells Riggan that she absolutely despises him (in her eyes, he’s a Hollywood hack who has no place in the artistic world of Broadway theater) and vows to destroy his play no matter how good it is. But then, she doesn’t. After watching Riggan shoot the nose off of his face, she writes a review so positive that Riggan’s attorney Jake says that the play is sure “to last forever” (and may even travel the world). In her review, Tabitha praises the “super realism'” of Riggan’s act of self-injury and explicitly commends the fact that he spilled real blood on the stage.
Given the great deal of conviction (and even malice) with which Tabitha tells Riggan that she is going to destroy his play, I think that one has to carefully consider precisely what it is that causes her to end up giving it the review that she does. When Riggan shoots himself and the play ends, everyone in the audience stands and applauds enthusiastically—everyone, that is, except for Tabitha, who exits the theater quietly while everyone else is transfixed and looking at the stage.
It’s possible that Tabitha reviews the film positively, because she is impressed by the lengths Riggan seems willing to go in the name of art. Tabitha may interpret his willingness to shoot himself as evidence that he is wholly committed to the art of theater and may truly change her mind about him as a result. This is probably the simplest way to interpret things and, more often than not, simple is good.
However, it also seems possible that Tabitha does not change her mind about Riggan and that there is something much more sinister in her review. If her review has the power to ensure that Riggan will be forced to perform this play (which he seems more than tired of) again and again and again, then she may be using it to punish him. The fact that she praises the spilling of real blood in her review could be seem to support this; in order to live up to the hype of her review, Riggan will have to bleed every night. Moreover, since there is no way that Riggan can shoot off his nose every time he performs the play, Tabitha’s review may be meant to set future audiences up for disappointment.
Once one takes into account the fact that the act of blood spilling that Tabitha praises is presented to viewers as a botched suicide, things become even more complicated. If failing to kill himself (which is something that Riggan has done before) somehow makes Riggan a praiseworthy artist, then what does that say about art? Is the film merely trying to say that art requires life or that is also requires pain? Furthermore, what does Tabitha’s willingness to praise Riggan’s self-injury say about her and the way that she understands art? Does she realize that he wanted kill himself? If she does not; then her understanding of the play is not based in truth. If she does, what do we make of that?
Since the film’s second title (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is also the title of Tabitha’s review, it seems more than apparent that the films wants viewers to pay attention to the review. What is somewhat less apparent, is what exactly they are to do with it.
Flowers and the Difference between Admiration and Love
According to Riggan’s ex-wife, one of Riggan’s primary problems is his tendency to confuse admiration for love. He does not feel wanted and valuable unless he is being fawned over by thousands of strangers; he does not fully understand the difference between celebrity and meaningful relationships. Thus, Riggan feels utterly worthless so long as he is a has-been.
Birdman begins with a scene in which Sam video calls Riggan while out buying the flowers that he has asked her to get. He doesn’t want roses, and he wants flowers that smell nice.
Skip ahead to the opening night of Riggan’s play. Riggan’s dressing room is overflowing with flowers. Not just with any flowers either, but with roses, which he hates. These flowers are signs of admiration and were given to Riggan as tokens of goodwill toward his play, but he doesn’t like them. They aren’t the flowers that he personally prefers; they are the flowers that people give to people they don’t know. That Riggan attempts to kill himself just after receiving so many roses (read: admiration) seems to emphasize just how worthless admiration really is—it doesn’t make Riggan happy, and it does not change the fact that he’s had enough of life.
Cut to Riggan’s hospital room. There are flowers here too, but far fewer than were in the dressing room. These flowers are more personal, are far less showy, and far fewer in number, which would seem to indicate that people care far less about Riggan himself than they do about his play and about all the pomp of the theater.
When Sam arrives at the hospital, she comes bearing lilacs—flowers that aren’t the roses that Riggan hates, flowers that smell good. These are essentially the sort of flowers that Riggan wanted Sam to get at the beginning of the film. By giving her father these flowers, Sam seems to be showing genuine love to her father; the moment they share in the hospital is the most touching and most affectionate one between them. That Riggan cannot smell the lilacs with his new nose makes the moment bittersweet, but it does not change the fact that it is meant to highlight the difference between love and admiration. Admiration is not nearly as personal as love, and it does nothing to comfort one when they need it most.
What Becomes of Riggan
I’ve read a few interpretations of Birdman’s final scene, but have found none of them particularly convincing. When Riggan jumps from the window with his new nose, does he fly or does he fall? Does the answer depend on whether or not we believe in him? What causes Sam to look up at the sky in wonder? Does she finally see her father the way he often sees himself (that is, as Birdman) or is there something else going on? Surely the bandages over Riggan’s new nose are meant to look like a superhero mask, but are they also meant to indicate that he has somehow become the hero that’s been in his head the whole time? I don’t have the answers for these questions, but I would love to hear what you have to say.
Until Next Time
Thank you so much for reading. As I said earlier in this post, feel free to share any of your thoughts on Birdman by leaving a comment below. You can also talk to me about any of my posts by following me on my new twitter (@wordsonfilms).
Oh, and one more question. What do we make of the fact that the after the first few images of the film, Birdman only makes uses of obvious cuts again after Riggan shoots his nose off?