In one scene in the 2015 Best Picture winner Birdman, the protagonist Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) ends up locking himself out the theater in his underwear. In the theater is his creation, his catharsis, and his supposed salvation. Outside is his reluctant home.
Birdman is a good not just because of its impressive gimmick — the camera never cuts away for almost the entire film to make it look like one continuous shot — but because it’s truly a post-modern film. The viewer plays a role in telling the story. When I look deeper at a movie, I never try to infer more than it has to offer. Yes, the ending is left opened, and we’re tempted to try to understand what probably happened. But the reality is that nothing probably happened because Riggan Thomson’s world doesn’t exist outside of the two hours it took to create it.
The question isn’t what happened, but why did the story get told that way? Why didn’t all the loose ends get tied up?
Birdman explores a lot of themes, and every time I watch it (which it’s been probably five times by now), I learn something completely new from it. It’s about the tragedy of celebrity. No, it’s about our obsession with technology. No, it’s critique of Hollywood blockbusters. No, it’s a critique of criticism. I think it’s all of those things and probably more. But simply, it’s the story of one man’s search for transcendence.
Getting back to the infamous underwear scene, Riggan Thomson rushes through the streets of Broadway where a comical amount of activity is taking place. There’s a marching band for Pete’s sake! But many, many people recognize Riggan from his iconic role as blockbuster superhero Birdman. He’s welcome on those streets, being exactly who he’s supposed to be: a lunatic celebrity who we exploit to make ourselves feel normal.
It’s when he gets back into the theater that he’s a stranger. The box office clerk and the ushers all try to stop him from going back into the theater. His search for transcendence doesn’t end through creating some new piece of art. Transcendence, in Riggan’s case, is unobtainable.
Throughout the film is a meshing of reality and art. Perhaps that’s why it appears the camera doesn’t cut away. Reality doesn’t cut away. Edward Norton’s character can only experience reality through his art. Reality is blurred by media and interpretation and criticism because perhaps we take art too seriously. So seriously that it truly damages people.
The theater critic only gives Riggan’s play a good review because he shot himself in the face, “super-realism”. Would she have given him the same review if he had killed himself? The demands of our entertainment is so high that we’re truly wrecking people. Ironic, considering the torment director Alejandro Iñárritu put his crew through for his upcoming film The Revenant.
In the final scene of Birdman, Riggan Thomson jumped out of the window, and we’re supposed to assume he either fell to his death or flew away. But like I said, there’s a reason we’re left in the dark: it’s because both events happened. He didn’t either die or live, he both died and live. Falling to his death and flying away are one and the same.
Consider how much we forgive a celebrity for after they die. Consider how we can abuse someone, exploit someone, dehumanize someone, but then worship them once they’ve passed away. It seems as though, for those who we most idolize, death and transcendence are the same thing.
For the rest of us, I guess ignorance really is a virtue.