The flight of an artiste’s will | Sunday Observer
A review of ‘Birdman’ :

The flight of an artiste’s will

4 July, 2021

Birdman which won the Oscar for Best Picture at the 87th Academy Awards is a film that resounds with a unique pulse in Hollywood cinema in several respects. The cinema craft itself comes as off the beaten track and breaks out of the conventional demarcations of narrating ‘time and space’. The very strict linearity of this film’s narrative and the method by which it has been presented offers much food for thought in my opinion when it comes to how the time span in which a story unfolds is captured by the camera.

The story, it appears is captured in a ‘single shot’ that does not cut to the next scene at any point. By no means is this a feat that can be achieved easily given the geography and topology of New York and the Broadway Theatre environment. This film in my opinion must be hailed as a masterpiece of cinema of the present era.

The story revolves around the dilemma facing a retired Hollywood actor named Riggan Thomas who attempts to break into the Broadway theatre scene in New York which of course unlike Hollywood is projected as a space for ‘high art’ where utterly commercialised artistes of the screen cannot always make their mark.

Hollywood fame and retirement

The situation is a make-or-break scenario for Thomas who had once upon a time played a superhero named Birdman in popular movies. Being assailed by a censorious theatre critic, burdened by his own familial issues, dogged by constant self-doubt and also the problem of an inner voice of his past screen persona, the character of Birdman, Thomas is pretty much casting the dice for all the marbles. And losing all the marbles in this case very much renders him a person who would have ‘lost his marbles’, which means gone insane.

Thomas is magnificently played by Michael Keaton who was during my own childhood, the Batman of the early 90s. And interestingly enough, there was even a cartoon named Birdman back then about a winged superhero who derived his powers from sun rays. It was with these thoughts in mind that I watched the movie with great intrigue wondering how this work would find its genre classifications. It is of course a story of the triumph of the will of the artist to reach a pedestal of artistic accomplishment against the odds. It cannot be called a comedy due to the grimness of the character’s psychology that is brought out. It cannot be called a tragedy either since it does finally see Thomas prevail and rise above crippling obstacles, albeit at the cost of actually shooting himself onstage on opening night. But it isn’t without elements of light heartdness either. A mix of all these perhaps, I feel.

The film presents the dichotomy of the troubled artist and propounds that what can be classified as ‘reality’ is subjective. The ‘world’ of Riggan Thomas is depicted with much more than merely his material surroundings which are presumed to be governed by the laws of physics.

Challenging the ‘bounds of the reality’ is a theme that seems to be brought out by the film which thereby offers the proposition that ‘reality’ can be altered if your mind is strong enough to let your will prevail.

Thomas represents the artist as a creature striving for not merely financial survival but also to reach a more exalted status in the sphere of art as something more than mere entertainment commoditised for popular consumerism. It is the ego that Thomas has to be more than a mere superhero character on film, that drives him to stick to his guns and disallow getting out of the battle to pursue more lucrative options and reinstatement as a figure for popular entertainment.

Indelible truth

Birdman is about the will of an actor who wants to be recognised as someone more than a mere performer to delight people. It is very much in my opinion linked to that indelible truth about humans which Nietzsche expounded through his theorem, will to power.

If he can’t fly on his own, by his own right, as an artiste of a higher form of art, then whatever ‘elevation’ that Thomas can claim has always rested on the unreal wings of Birdman, the character who has now caused something of a symbiotic scenario of personalities within the psychology of Riggan Thomas.

The fact that Birdman’s voice keeps telling Thomas that in his days as Birdman he ‘saved people from their boring miserable lives’ speaks of how birdman’s voice is also fighting for survival, to be saved from being cast into oblivion. If Thomas succeeds as a Broadway artist, it could mean curtains to the voice of birdman residing in Thomas.

On the contention of ‘art for popularity’ and ‘art for prestige’ the character of Mike Shiner, an accomplished Broadway actor, played by Edward Norton says “Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige.” Which gives food for thought about what artists may want in whatever medium of artistic practice they engage in, since ultimately there is an undeniable link between ‘art for popularity’ and ‘art for prestige’.

Another very striking revelation about how Thomas deals with perceptions and receptions of him and his work as an actor comes out in a line spoken by his former wife Sylvia, played by Amy Ryan, who says that he always confused admiration for love.

This is possibly the point where art for popularity and art for prestige may find a tangled knot of not knowing whose applause each form sought.

Birdman was produced, and directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu who won the Oscar for Best Director for it as well.

It is without a doubt a triumph in filmmaking that must be applauded, with admiration, and also love.