Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) almost made me want to give up trying to become a writer, artist, or creator. Not because of the story’s content, although it did give me a lot to chew on.
No, the reason it made me want to give up is because, like when I read Fitzgerald or Bradbury, I can’t imagine ever being able to create something so perfectly realized. It’s like Alejandro Inaritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., and Armando Bo (the four credited writers of Birdman) reached into my head, took all of the thoughts I’ve had about fame and artistic success, and told a better story with that inspiration than I ever could. It encapsulated a lot of my thoughts and feelings about one’s ambition to be an artist. Like Inside Llewyn Davis before it, established, successful filmmakers communicated the plight of the fledgling artist better than the fledging artist himself can.
In my estimation, the film picks apart art and artists through three separate characters. There is Riggan, the main character; Mike, Riggan’s foil for much of the film; and Sam, Riggan’s daughter. Let’s take a look at the ideas they embody one by one.
Riggan: Riggan represents the commercial, aging, soulless artist that may or may not have pursued acting for the right reasons but, as he’s gotten older, becomes obsessed with leaving a legacy behind. This resonates with me because part of the reason I want to be a writer is a vague attempt at leaving something behind that might allow me to be remembered.
Mike: Mike is pure artistry, only able to be his true self when he’s on stage. Renowned for his talent, he rejects all attempts at commercialism. I think the majority of those who are serious about writing feel this way. They look at what makes money in Hollywood, compare that with their idea of what makes a good movie, and notice a pretty huge discrepancy. Neither Riggan nor Mike understand the idea of a balance between art and accessibility.
Sam: The uncaring world. At one point, Sam has a great monologue about what motivates Riggan to put on the play at the center of the story. She explains that the only person whom the play’s success or failure matters for is him. No one else cares about his art. It’s a great point: How self-involved do we have to believe that the things we create matters to anyone but us? I tell myself I write stories and screenplays because I want to make people feel joy/inspiration/terror/thoughtfulness/whatever else I tell myself matters at any particular moment, but why should I assume they care?
Those three characters represent the extremes of every debate about art and its place in the world that I can think of. I’ve struggled with all three of those thoughts more than once while writing and thinking about why I want to write.
I think that Mike is what artists, whether writers, musicians, or painters, prefer to see themselves as. It’s what Riggan strives to be. But it’s not necessarily what any of us are, especially if we’re successful (not that I’d know what that’s like). There is a certain loftiness we all ascribe to our arts, but that loftiness also makes us inaccessible and pretentious. Riggan, on the other hand, is affable. He’s spent a career giving people what they want and being rewarded for it. This, I think, is ultimately the path we’re all on. Does something exist if no one acknowledges it? Popularity is the only sign of success that means anything.
That’s where Sam comes in. She is indifferent to everything and everyone for the most part, only coming to life when there is something more substantial beyond the “art” everyone is peddling. Her character, and what her character represents, is something I think about constantly. Why should anyone care what I think? Why should anyone care that I’m trying to do this thing over here when they can see that thing over there? The other characters need to justify their existence to her, just as any artist needs to justify their existence to the world at large.
There were some lofty ideas in Birdman that were wrapped up in a beautiful technical package and delivered by excellent performances. I just hate that the ideas that I spend my time obsessing over have already been stated in such an elegant way.
Damn you, Inaritu.