Once in a while a film comes along that seems as interesting and layered as a psychoanalytic dialogue. Birdman is such a one. From the many Hollywood and Broadway in- jokes, through the Raymond Carver story serving as the play within the play, all the way back through Greek mythology to classical Buddhism, abundant points of symbolic reference serve to deepen and enrich the meaning. Ironies and ambiguities draw us in further and unanswerable questions inspire. Finally a complex and beautiful pattern appears. At least, that is the way it is in my viewing, and this is a film that grants an unexpected degree of authorship to its viewers.
Birdman fully rewards Freud’s method of dream analysis. We are presented with a wealth of disguised wishes in conflict, and although they start as our hero’s desires, they blink in and out of view in the other characters, shoot into the wider culture, and eventually light up the viewers’ struggles as well. (As evidence of this I take the unprecedented number of passionate post-film conversations in the seats and the lobbies and the bathrooms each time and in each location where I saw the film.) The much-noted camera work (by Emmanuel Lubezki), rendered as if in a single uninterrupted take, feels like free association, taking us seamlessly into the mind of the driven, let’s say virtigiphilic hero, his belligerent Birdman alter ego, the characters from the Carver story whom he directs and plays on stage, and the parts of himself we see echoed in the other people in the film such as his actors, his crew, his loyal friend, his recently rehabbed daughter and his forbearing ex-wife. Taken as a whole, it widens from a small look at the impulses toward both flight and fall of an individual actor who could easily be called narcissistic, manic depressive, suicidal, perhaps delusional, through a nuanced examination of the nature of Love and its close cousin, Art, all the way to riffs on Reality and hints at Enlightenment.
As in many psychoanalyses, the symbol set and inter-texts are introduced at the very beginning. Before anything else, we see a quote from Raymond Carver (from A New Path to the Waterfall):
“And did you get what you wanted from this life even so?”
“And what did you want?”
“To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.”
The letters appear first as separate points, gradually coming together to form words, like stars in a constellation.
Next, although it takes a while to realize it, we are met with images signaling the subtext of the myth of Icarus: A ball of light soaring and falling from high in the sky and below it something ambiguous, drowned in the receded sea. Next we see our hero, Riggan Thompson (played brilliantly by Michael Keaton), in his underwear, in lotus position, levitating slightly, looking out the window of his dressing room and being addressed by the growling voice of his former role as Birdman, a movie superhero he is trying ever to rise above. What makes this funny is the fact that Keaton himself left behind his famous role in the Batman movie series, declining, as his fictional character does here, to do further episodes despite the assurance of further fame. His path serves now as a kind of “reality pre-quel” to the film, especially given his many recent awards and pending nominations. (Indeed, a synopsis of the situation might now go like this: An old actor becomes newly famous for playing a superhero becoming a real actor after famously declining to continue to be famous for playing a superhero.)
In the window facing Riggan is a garden variety Buddha head, unprepossessing in a way it is said the Buddha would condone. There are more mirrors and lights than one could count. Into one of them is tucked the quote, “A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing”, evidently something Susan Sontag may have said. A large movie poster of himself in beaked, caped and spandexed splendor stares out from the wall. The Birdman, an apt emblem of the compulsion to repeat, wants him back, exhorting him relentlessly throughout the film to give up the paltry human life and embrace the invincible icon he “really” is, but Riggan is risking everything instead in adapting, directing, and starring in an imminent and increasingly vexed Broadway production of Raymond Carver’s famous short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” The intense, sometimes crazy actions he takes in order to mount the play show us that he wants desperately, jaggedly, to be a serious actor and director, not a mere superhero. At least consciously, that is.
Opposing this wish are many contradictory currents, recognizable to psychoanalysts as unconscious wishes. Most people remember that Daedalus, Icarus’s wing-making father, instructed him not to fly too close to the sun, lest the wax that held his wing feathers together melt, and most of us know that this was his fate. But Icarus was also told not to fly too close to the sea, lest the dampness collect on the wings and drag him under. As the opening images foretell, Riggan does both; he flies too high and he dips too low.
As many times as we see Riggan beating back obstacles to make the play succeed, we see him jeopardize it with precipitous casting decisions, a casual affair with a fellow actor who may now be pregnant, a nasty altercation with the critic who vows to kill the play, a drinking binge. It goes on and on with him locking himself out of the theater, again in his tighty whities, before a key scene in the preview performance, striding down the street followed by a twittering crowd and entering the scene from the audience, brandishing his finger as if it were a gun. Indeed, until the last scene of the film and beyond, we are not sure if his play flew or crashed. Or both.
The play is Riggan’s “chance to do something right”, he tells his lovely and supportive ex-wife Sylvia (played often in a bird-like profile by Amy Ryan). He was a disappointment as a husband and a father, but he could be great in The Theater. In the same conversation though, he asks her agreement with his risky plan to mortgage the house they have set aside for their daughter Sam. He reveals that he is drawn to the fact that if he and George Clooney (another one of the many “real” actors mentioned in the film who have played superheroes, along with many in the film itself) had been in a plane crash together, Sam would see Clooney’s face on the front page, but not his. In the next association he shows his morbid fascination that Farah Fawcett and Michael Jackson both died on the same day. We can see that he wants to become famous for dying, perhaps as much as for living to become an artist. We learn that on the night his wife discovered that he was cheating on her, their anniversary, he tried to drown himself in the ocean but was turned back by a swarm of painful jellyfish. (It turns out to be these jellyfish we have seen in the opening shots and a later scene.)
The wishes to fall, to crash, are echoed and amplified by Sam, Riggan’s disaffected daughter, newly sober and working as his assistant and gopher. Sam (played by Emma Stone), functions in the story as a Greek chorus of one. In fact, a careful look at her tattoo shows the two options in the Icarus story: A large bird (or a feather in the shape of a bird) plunges vertically downward while several smaller birds fly straight up as if out of its body. (While it may sound like a rebirth image, there are so many riffs on anal contents and practices in the film, all serving to qualify the lowest of the low from which our hero flees and to which he nevertheless desires to return, that I have to go with that explanation. And in a hilarious send-up of this year’s Oscar nominees, the Washington Post called its composite hero Dick Poop, an apt name for a composite character in this film alone. If you read the tattoo as a feather, it argues for the message that Sam and Riggan are both “birds of a feather” which is of course true too, and illustrates the principle of condensation of symbols). Time after time we see Sam, her wide set eyes looking ever more birdlike, perched on the edge of the theater’s flat roof or in the catwalk high above the stage, often playing Truth or Dare with Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a fantastically egotistical, perverse actor in the play who can only feel real when acting, who mistakes reality for artistic truth. Will she jump, will she fall for the cad? Will she relapse? Or is she the wisest one, patiently marking the centuries that make up the millennia on a roll of toilet paper to illustrate the millisecond that humans have been on the earth, documenting our glaring unimportance in the universe? We see the appeal both of rising and falling, the excitement of the uncertainty, the escape from the boredom of the “petty pace” of ordinary human life that most of the characters seem to fear above all else. This bit of Macbeth is spoken by a failed, fallen actor as he clings to the scaffolding on the street while Riggan falls into a whiskey bottle after the theater critic declares that she will kill his play.
To morrow and to-morrow and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
(At this point we see Riggan, the fool, among strings of lights in the liquor store foyer)
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot,
(the camera shows the idiot that is Riggan and the idiot that is the fallen actor, and the idiot that is life itself)
full of sound and fury
— Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5, lines 17-28)
And with that begins what may be a ruinous binge.
This first, and arguably most explicit (conscious) conflict in the film, call it wishes for Artistry vs. Celebrity, is illustrated by a paradoxical and dynamically shifting meditation on the Icarus problem, as Riggan himself tries to tell the ridiculous journalists who arrive to interview him about the play. Success in The Theater represents the height of authentic artistic achievement, as opposed to the phony celebrity of movie stardom. But stardom nevertheless has its uses; it may have enabled him to afford to put on this production, for example. This dichotomy is most clearly articulated by the theater critic (so wonderfully portrayed by the theater actress Lindsay Duncan) who is certain that Riggan could never do anything but Birdman, telling him, “You’re no actor; you’re a celebrity”. The twist here is that Riggan may actually be able to put on a great play, and not because he is trained, versed and prepared, the things Duncan values, but because he is risking it all to mount an authentic performance, the best he can manage. And by the way, he may actually have superpowers.
Innaritu takes the Icarus theme and adds another point of light: a discourse on the Nature of Love. The most straightforward vehicle for this is afforded by the stunning Raymond Carver story on which Riggan’s play is based; “What we Talk About When we Talk About Love”. Along with the more explicit Icarus themes of Flight vs. Fall and its variations – Life vs. Death, Risk vs. Complacency, Success vs. Failure, Art vs. Trivial Pursuit – he adds perhaps the most heartfelt: Love vs. Loss.
In the original short story, two couples (they are scrambled in the play and in the film, for reasons of universality, I think) are driven to drink their way through a short afternoon’s journey into night around a kitchen table, where they manifestly fail to understand anything about love. Some think it is physical attraction, infatuation, others violent obsession or nervous placation. They declare love for each other while becoming more ignorant, vicious and slurred. A foreshadowing in the film makes particular use of the bit in the story where one woman’s former lover shoots himself in the mouth when she leaves him, an event she wishes her current husband would grant as “proof of love”. He does not, claiming instead that love was best evidenced by an old man who was depressed at not being able to see his wife while both of them were in the hospital wrapped in full body casts after a near-fatal crash. (Another crash!) As the actors in the play repeatedly rehearse and preview this scene, we fear Riggan’s own foreshadowed crash ever more intensely. And the unanswered questions mount with our anxiety. What is love? And where is it?
Love and Art are entwined in the film, as they are in psychodynamics. In the short story, one couple have a telling argument concerning what the husband calls knights as vessels. Although his formerly battered wife was sadly mistaken that violence is evidence of love, she did know the difference between a vessel and a vassal, and she corrected him. And it is with this imagery that Inarritu amplifies the conflict between the desire to be a vessel for the artistic Muse, a humble conduit for the energy inspiring the “high” creative arts, and a vassal, slavishly serving the “low” bully of Fame. The story makes explicit what we see symbolically in the film; the armor of a knight, or in this genre a celebrity, a superhero, is so heavy that it easily becomes a liability, especially when under the sway of gravity. This is wittily illustrated by a giant, cumbersome metal bird conjured by Riggan as he indulges in his Birdman powers on a destructive spree while walking down the street. So heavy with armor, it nearly falls off the tall building from which it is meant to hold a menacing perch, the better to threaten those below. Of course, this echoes the rooftop scenes with Emma and Mike who dares her to spit on the head of a pedestrian on the street far below. Guess what he thought hit him?
The couples in the Carver story, still ignorant of what we talk about when we talk about love, never make it to dinner. The light from the window has completely gone, an event also played out repeatedly in the film through time-lapse camera work passing up and down the tall elevations of city buildings, from roof to sidewalk and back . The wife from the “kick-me-so-I’ll-know-you-love-me-school” has the final line, “Now what?” and the narrator says, I could hear my own heart beating. I could hear everyone’s heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark. I think it is this sound of everyone’s heart beating that we hear in the unusual score of the film, largely drums alone, played by the virtuosic Antonio Sanchez. At rare times we see the drummer (not actually played by Sanchez), as in the street scene when Riggan must take the twittering walk of Birdman celebrity back to the theater where the doorman and the ushers nevertheless do not recognize him, or in a room in the back hallways of the theater as he walks by on the way to the final scene in the play. Most often we simply hear him and feel his human noise and ours.
In addition to the conflict between wishes to rise and to fall, beneath the explicit meditation on the nature of love, the film is beautifully layered with a meandering discourse on the nature of what we call reality. Many of these variations are drawn in small witty strokes almost too brief to notice, and dropped as easily as they are raised. In one scene two actors in the play (Naomi Watts and Andrea Reisborough), both unlucky in love, console each other by repeating the lines they each want others to say of them, and they are affected as if by the real thing. In other scenes, one of these, the one who may not really be pregnant, may or may not really have been intended in one scene to look like Mona Lisa. She is pregnant in the play, but there is not a pregnant character in the story, and she wears reindeer antlers in a dreamy sequence that never goes anywhere. Riggan’s wig looks so like his real hair we forget it is there. These tiny jokes are plentiful and delightful. So many times, someone says, “Really?!” We see real blood, real sweat, real spit and real tears.
The main illustration, also very amusing, is played out more fully. Readers familiar with the Carver story, published in 1981, can get the joke about realism that begins here; it was one of the most famous representatives of the movement called “dirty realism”, one that frequently climaxed, as this film does, in what were called “zero endings”, abrupt, never neatly resolved. Extending the riff on realism, the film could be placed in the current genre called “magical realism”, one that mixes fantasy into the realistic plot in a way that invites questions such as whether Riggan can actually fly, move objects with a flick of his finger, conjure giant armored griffins and crash helicopters, or whether these are fantasies he has while, say, riding in a taxi whose driver now wants to be paid. In one scene he stands at the edge of the roof making us think he will jump, and an onlooker says, “Hey, is this for real or are you shooting a film?” He says it is a film. This note, the play within a play, and more details than I can mention, ask what is real in ways that stay on the viewer’s mind, begging for further exploration.
Perhaps the most explicit question about reality is posed when the perverse and pathetic Mike can only feel real when performing. Impotent in real life, he wants to have real sex with his character’s lover in the bedroom scene of the play, his real girlfriend in the real life of the film. Get it? Not quite? That’s because we are meant to think about it, and we do. We see this conflict ratchet up when thrill-seeking Mike exhorts Riggan to bring a real gun on stage ( I’ll explain it, but it will spoil the climax). Finally another layer of the “what is real” meditation is addressed when the theater critic called the play “super realism”. It is this riff on dirty-magical-super realism that invites us into the film as authors, to interpret key elements in the way that makes most sense to us, elements including the enigmatic ending. What actually happened there?
It is inevitable that since there was a gun in the first act, it was used in the third. This anxiety provoking observation, commonly attributed to Chekov, was not lost on the audience. (Stop here if you don’t want the ending spoiled). The fake gun used in the rehearsals, the finger pretending to be a gun used in the preview, the gun in the Carver story used in the botched but eventually fatal suicide attempt, and the real gun Riggan uses to shoot himself in the final act of the play all dislocate our ideas of reality quite explicitly, just as Riggan’s flight and other powers do. But the real gun does not take us to real death in the end. We see that Riggan did not kill himself after all. He has shot off his nose in a replay of the bungled suicide attempt of the Carver character he plays as well as his own earlier foiled effort in the anniversary sea of Icarus. He wakes in a hospital bed in a gauze bandage recalling the ones encasing the loving husband and wife in the Carver story. In Riggan’s case, though, the bandage is small, in the form of a birdlike mask and beak. His eyes are open and he can see his devoted ex-wife and daughter there with him.
The scene harks back to the question at the beginning of the film: “And did you get what you wanted from this life even so?” Love. In the beginning of the film it certainly looked doubtful that he would get it. Sam, reluctantly employed as his personal assistant, beleaguered by his demands for a certain flower (a universal symbol of love), messaged him from the market to clarify his request. He told her he would settle for “anything that smells good” but she was too frustrated to manage, telling him everything there smelled like kim chee. She left him a pot of wilted unceremonious flowers with a surly note, “They didn’t have whatever you wanted.” He used his super-powers to crash the vase.
But the flowers get more and more wonderful throughout the film, big batches of fresh roses in the dressing room after opening night and more in the hospital. Best of all, Sam brings him lilacs as he wakes in the hospital, arguably the best smelling flower in the city. Ironically, he cannot smell them now. His new nose is not working yet. And Sylvia is there too, protecting him from the paparazzi in the hallway and from his friend played by Zach Galafianakis, who suddenly seems to have taken up the mantle of manic grandiosity that Riggan has shed. We see that Riggan has unexpectedly found himself “beloved on the earth.”
When Sam leaves to get a vase for the lilacs, Riggan walks to the bathroom mirror, a far cry from the dressing room mirrors we have seen before, and removes his mask, finding underneath a transplanted nose, a bigger, but nevertheless more ordinary looking one. We hear the toilet flush and see Birdman in full regalia, but sitting down to pee. Riggan barely looks at him as he delivers his last line, “Bye bye. And fuck you.” He goes to the window, looking first down and then up. He sees a flock of birds in flight and we see an idea dawn in his mind. Opening the window, feeling the welcome breeze, he climbs to the sill and leaps. Sam returns, looks for him, calls, looks out the open window, first down with a worried expression, and then up, with a slow smile. What happened?
And what of the enigmatic subtitle coined by the lioness theater critic Tabitha Dickinson in her glowing review? When I looked back at the film’s title to get this exact wording, I noticed that all the letters in the text throughout were capitalized except for one; the i’s were lower case, yet taller than the capitalized others. It reads: “or (THE UNEXPECTED ViRTUE OF iGNORANCE)”. This was indeed unexpected, and brought me back to the Buddha head and the meditation posture in the first act.
Ignorance, in Buddhism, is a technical term for one of a set of obstacles to enlightenment known as “the three poisons”. I have never understood ignorance as well as the other two, passion and aggression, which seem to map somewhat more neatly into psychoanalytic concepts of Eros and Thanatos, the life and death drives. I do know, though, that its face is one of self-aggrandizement, the thirst for importance that leads to destruction through attachment to success. And that certainly describes the central problem in the film. Virtue is another common Buddhist term, used to highlight the opposite underlying qualities in so called neurotic presentations. Everything has its light and dark side. If we add the point of Buddhism to the picture, perhaps the message here is that Riggan unexpectedly, accidentally, found a smaller “i” by pursuing his quest for high art via nevertheless ordinary human effort and talent. Combating his temptation to grandiosity so strongly embodied by the Birdman alter ego, and simultaneously turning from his self-destructive urge to drown in whiskey or destroy the show, he stumbled on an integration of these wishes with its qualities of ordinariness, acceptance of self, peace of mind, by choosing to make Art rather than chasing Celebrity. He did not fly either too high or too low in the end. In this reading the i is both smaller, in the sense of humbler, and taller, with its eye above the heads of the rest of the text, affording a bird’s eye view.
The integration, in psychoanalytic terms, happened with the shooting on stage. In analyzing a work of art in the manner of a dream, we see the disguised wishes of the dreamer, represented as fulfilled. Riggan acted on both his wish to kill himself gloriously on stage, and to live as a successful artist on the merits of his hard work. With both drives gratified, he achieved a kind of fusion illustrated by the very ordinary nose he would now live with. He became more like Daedalus, who lived on to create, flying neither too high nor too low. In the end, he had succeeded in his ardent wish to produce something worthy of the name Art. It was “the thing itself and not what was said about it”, despite the critic’s ironically lavish and unexpected praise. In saying Bye bye to the embodied Birdman whom he had called ” a mental formation” he demonstrated that he had given up his excessive grandiosity in favor of a more ordinary integration of his unique strengths and weaknesses. He was a guy who could fly but whose fly was often unzipped, who woke to fly paper on the ceiling of his hospital room. A guy who could fly but was not compelled to, one who could perhaps calm down now that he saw that he could achieve artistic success through his ordinary merits. Like all successful artists, he retained enough grandiosity to try to create something from nothing, but not so much that it would kill him or his work.
In my ending, he took his new nose out for a test flight, at a moderate altitude. Sam saw him and was glad, since she was working on this same kind of integration with her toilet paper millennia. The story could continue, with Jake, the newly grandiose friend taking up the manic mantle, and perhaps Tabitha Dickinson, the surprised critic who would now need to think about her elitist values anew.
So did he really fly? It doesn’t really matter. In either case the film helps us see our own longings for love, for inspiration, for a creative outlet, for success through hard work. It helps us clarify what is real and what is true, to understand that we can bring together opposing currents in our own minds, learn something new, keep trying, and perhaps have an unexpected experience, not just repeat the past again and again. We can listen to our own human hearts as we listen to others. With an open mind and enough free association, we can connect the dots that illustrate the developing constellations of truthful experience. And what better way to spend one’s time!
Dr. Mara Wagner is a professor at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis where she teaches courses that highlight the unconscious layers of personal and artistic experiences. She has also assisted in courses at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Her practice is in Brookline, Ma.