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Saturday, February 7, 2015

Birdman: Catharsis Through Flames

Flames... Sacrifice... Icarus.. 
This is the second part of my review of the movie Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance) by Alejandro González Iñárritu but this can also be seen as a separate post, an interpretation based solely on the protagonist's perspective. If you have seen the movie, you are aware of  the ambiguity throughout the story and especially the ending which has started countless discussion threads. There are no spoilers ahead, what follows is much more than that  !!!

Riggan Thomson comes across as a tortured soul, unable to draw a line between genuine aspirations and inflated ego, between reality and his world of delusion. He is trapped so deep within his mind that everything he sets out to do is doomed to failure, even the attempt to kill himself.  Yet a part of him knows that his liberation is possible through understanding and clarity which would come at a great cost.


As the story opens, Riggan Thomson is directing and acting in his first Broadway play but from the start things seem to go very much against him and he starts living in his own world of delusion in which he has superpowers such as telekinesis,the ability to levitate and in which the Birdman talks to him, reminding him of his lost popularity and the play being a bad idea. The jellyfish scene indicates that even suicide wasn't an option for him unless he fulfils what he considers his destiny. He craves to be recognized an actor because he could never live up to the expectations he set for himself as a school-kid after receiving compliment on his perform from Raymond Carver. The obsession to prove himself leads him to abandon his career, neglect family and ultimately develop mental illness, living in a delusional world with his battered ego haunting him as the voice of Birdman. Riggan adapting Raymond Carver's "What We Talk When We Talk About Love" is a link to this obsession and as he describes
Riggan : this play feels like a miniature, deformed version of myself that keeps following me around, hitting me in the balls with a tiny hammer.

This also stands in the way of rapprochement with his daughter and he wants her to feel proud of him but the theater is exactly what she detests, being more realistic in life and aware of Riggan's limitations. The Icarus analogy he tries to make in the beginning is reference to Icarus of Greek mythology who flew close to the sun with wings made of feathers and wax. [ Icarus bear vague resemblance to the brothers Jatayu and Sampaati in Indian mythology]

Jacob Peter Gowy's The Flight of Icarus (Wikipedia)
In Greek mythology, master craftsman Daedalus creates a pair of wings from feathers and wax so that he along with his son Icarus can escape from Crete. He instructs Icarus to neither fly low and allow dampness of the sea to clog the wings nor fly high enough lest the sun's heat melt the wax holding the feathers together. Yet, Icarus driven by ambition soars close to the sun, the wax  holding the feathers melt  and he plummets into the sea. The Icarus metaphor has been used in art often, in Birdman, the metaphor is taken bit differently, the wax and feathers here are ego, obsession and need for validation but the fall is seen as catharsis. Like Icarus, Riggan Thomson needs to feel the heat from people around him as well as from situations. His daughter Sam superbly played by Emma Stone and the eccentric and selfish method actor Mike Shiner that Edward Norton brilliantly portrays, constantly serve the purpose.


 Sam plays the voice of reason, at times rationalizing such as in the sequence in which she explains how insignificant mankind is in the scheme of universe by showing a roll of toilet paper roll marked to represent age of the Earth and how mankind's existence consists of just one piece. At other times she is rude and almost cruel 

Sam: ... And let's face it, Dad, it's not for the sake of art. It's because you want to feel relevant again. 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,by the way, has already forgotten you. I mean, who the fuck 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. 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. 
Emma Stone delivers the dialog with such passion that one cannot but feel sympathetic towards the protagonist. Mike Shiner on the other hand challenges Riggan to prove himself as a stage actor yet sabotages whenever he is performing well. He repeatedly tells his achievements in frivolous Hollywood  mean nothing in theater circle (often proven wrong) yet pushes him to perform realistically.

Mike : Bullshit. People don’t know you. They know the guy in the bird suit. They know the guy who tells those quaint, slightly vomitous stories on Letterman.
Riggan : Well, I’m sorry for being popular, but that-- 
Mike : Popularity is just the slutty little cousin of prestige.

However, the biggest insult by Mike has to be the time he disrupts Riggan's performance complaining about replacing gin with water on stage, has a showdown with Riggan. telling him the only thing real thing on the stage was the fried chicken and as the latter is walking away he says

Mike : [showing a fried chicken to Riggan] That's a nice bird, man! 
Like Mike, Broadway critic Tabitha Dickinson tries to ride down Riggan but far more ruthlessly -

Tabitha : That’s true. I haven't read a word of it, or even seen a preview, but after the opening tomorrow I'm going to turn in the worst review anybody has ever read. And I'm going to close your play. Would you like to know why? Because I hate you. And everyone you represent. Entitled. Spoiled. Selfish. Children. Blissfully untrained, unversed and unprepared to even attempt real art. Handing each other awards for cartoons and pornography. Measuring your worth in weekends. Well, this is the theater, and you don't get to come in here and pretend you can write, direct and act in your own propaganda piece without going through me first. So, break a leg.

Then there is Riggan's alter-ego, the Birdman perched on top of his head. As a matter of fact, what the Birdman tells him is more rational than what Riggan himself tries to put across. If he really wanted to regain respect and validation, all he had to do was make a comeback as the Birdman again, staking his name (he is still recognized as Hollywood actor) and his fortune in untested waters of Broadway is not the rational thing to do.

Birdman : Do you hear me? You can do anything! You’re an icon!
You’re bigger than life. You save people from their boring, miserable lives...
...You make them jump, laugh, cry, shit their pants... All you have to do is snap your fingers and...
Then there are situations which go on to show further cruelty. Riggan dislikes roses, he says this in the very first sequence, yet he gets roses in the next. He criticizes Sam's generation for their love of going viral, yet his video walking in his underpants in public becomes a Youtube sensation.



But looking from an objective perspective, this is perhaps necessary for the miserable and depressed actor if he is to achieve catharsis. He is so deeply trapped in his own mind that in order to liberate him, his repressed memories, guilt has to be exorcised through fear and humiliation to the point that he can face reality. Instead of eliminating the Birdman from his psyche, he absorbs him and accepts the reality, to fulfil his aspiration; to be known as a real artist and also seek validation of his achievements from his daughter, he shoots himself on stage in what is later described by the critic as super-realism. That he seems unconcerned in a room full of roses and confesses to his ex-wife about his aborted suicide attempt indicates his attempt to come to peace with himself. When he recovers in the hospital he finds it amusing that his daughter has finally brought his favorite flower, alchemilla but he can no longer smell.

Riggan (as Ed) : What's wrong with me? Why do I end up having to beg people to love me?
      .... I just wanted to be what you wanted. Now I spend every fucking minute praying to be someone else. Someone I'm not. Anyone...
Riggan : I don't exist. I'm not even here. I don't exist. None of this matters.
Riggan's response and the calmness suggest a deeply embattled soul going through a catharsis which require
  • Purgation
  • Purification
  • Intellectual Clarification

In the hospital room Riggan seems to be finally at peace.
  • He has gained his daughter's respect, ex-Wife's forgiveness.
  • His facial reconstruction has given him  a new bird-like face so he no longer needs the Birdman, he has fulfilled his aspiration by giving the most realistic performance on stage ever.
  • But he is liberated, no longer bound to mediocrity, yet it is something he cannot repeat. So he flies out of the window ( as Greek mythology maintains, you are alive as long as you are remembered). 
Like Icarus he has tried to sore too, high and his wings are scorched, which in his case is false aspirations, ego and unresolved emotions.

Birdman : We have to do this. We have to end it on our terms. With a grand gesture.
                 We’ll go back. We’ll show them how much they're going to miss us.
Birdman : Flames..  Sacrifice..  Icarus..


P.S. This is my interpretation, please feel do share yours, the director/writer(s) haven't closed the loops..

Here is another take on Icarus analogy I found, sharing because it's different from mine which only goes on to show why I consider it a great movie.   https://shoton35.wordpress.com/2015/02/03/birdman-analysis-icarus-myth-shot-on-35/ 

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