I left the movie theater last night, post-Birdman, intensely moved. Rarely has a film gotten to me so directly. Birdman is a wacky movie that seems to be asking a serious question: why live? What keeps us trucking on and floundering and trying as hard as we can to accomplish things, when we’re only specks of dust on a small rock orbiting around an average star, one of billions in a galaxy that itself is one of billions in the universe? How can you explain that we care so deeply about our shit? Our little troubles and tribulations? The movie has a simple answer: madness. That’s what explains it. And the beauty of it all is that madness is at once a curse and a necessity, without which, well, we might as well throw in the towel.
In one scene, Riggan Thomas (Michael Keaton), an aging Hollywood actor trying to make a grand artistic statement on Broadway, asks his daughter (Emma Stone) about the thousands of small dashes she’s been drawing on a roll of toilet paper. It’s a trick she learned in rehab, she explains, each of the dashes representing a thousand years, the entire roll representing the age of planet Earth (4.5 billion years), and the last toilet paper square standing for the amount of time (about 150,000 years) that modern humans have been around. The lesson: let’s step away from ourselves for a moment and contemplate how small we are. Let’s reevaluate. Riggan responds by absent-mindedly wiping the mustard off his mouth with the square representing humanity (the daughter: “You just wiped out the entire human race!”). Sure, we’re small and our selfish focus on our own small troubles looks ridiculous from any real perspective, but who cares, really, when it’s all that’s in front of your nose?
In another scene, our hero walks by a man on the street declaiming Macbeth:
[Life] is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
In the context of the movie, it’s easy to miss the fact that the choice of the excerpt here is important. I initially took it to be a scene about acting (which it also is), with a famous monologue thrown in for good measure. But it’s not just any old monologue; it’s the classic line in which Shakespeare makes his strongest statement about the absurdity of existence—or at least, how absurd it all seems if you believe in nothing. Riggan has a piece of paper taped to his dressing-room mirror that reads “A thing is just a thing, not what is said of that thing”—basically a Buddhist sentiment that we see Riggan trying to honor through meditation and breathing exercises. He tries hard to ignore the narcissistic voice in his head. And yet, in the ultimate irony, it’s a New York Times review, at the end of the movie, that settles the question of whether his play is any good or not. We have no idea until then one way or another, and no-one else seems to have any idea either. Perhaps the only important thing about a thing is what is said about it? It’s a messy world, folks.
Speaking of messy, how about the scene where the screenwriters bring two of the classic performer’s nightmares together? I’ve had both of them, many times: in the first, you know you’re supposed to be on stage but you can’t find it (see Spinal Tap—they had it too); in the second, you’re on stage and you realize you’re only wearing underwear. Riggan is subjected to both, in a plausible real life scenario, at once. Oh, the humiliation! And oh, the fine line between total embarrassment and greatness—there’s nothing more riveting than a human being doing all he can to transcend humiliation, specifically because we, who are watching, know that the success of the effort is entirely predicated on whether we feel it’s successful or not—i.e. on what we will say about it. It’s a moment of total power for the audience—the power of judgement. And perhaps this is what’s lacking from a lot of music I hear today, particularly in jazz—where is the risk? Where is the potential humiliation, to be battled with? And in the absence of the potential for total failure, what’s really in it for the audience? Shouldn’t every performance be a retelling of the story of Icarus (hopefully with a happier ending)?
Madness. What would we do without it? The film is quite clear on this point: people wouldn’t make much art. To make art is to believe that things matter; that we ourselves matter, when much around us is telling us the opposite (speck of dirt on rock around the Sun, etc). This recalls the great line from Moby Dick:
You is sharks, sartin; but if you gobern de shark in you, why den you be angel; for all angel is not’ing more dan de shark well goberned.
I.e. it’s not a matter of suppressing the shark within us, but a matter of managing its energies. In the same way, the schizophrenic voice in Riggan’s head seems to be the plague of his existence, but it’s ultimately what leads him to give a performance where he actually “risks all” (his life), and which lands him the all-vindicating New York Times rave. The last scene is particularly telling on this point: at first it seems that his near-death experience has enabled him to finally leave his narcissism behind, a shift visually represented in the film by Riggan’s ex-action-hero persona meekly sitting on the john. Our expectation, at this point, is that our hero has finally seen the light and will from now on live in the land of reality, not some desperate and self-destructive clinging to “being great.” Not so. The very end of the movie refuses to do away with madness, and in fact embraces it anew, and for the first time in a way that other characters in the movie can see as well. Perhaps Riggan has finally managed to make his madness his own—to govern his shark.
For life is ultimately absurd. If we know we’re going to die, then why live? Because we want to, that’s why. And there’s no explaining that desire, beyond the fact that eons of evolution have selected for the organisms that most want to survive. Schopenhauer* said
Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills
and that is, to me, one of the most profound things that can be said about our existence. You can do what you want (if you’re lucky), but you can’t decide what you want. Somewhere in the mystery of our desires—of why we want certain things and not others—lives the concept of God. And Birdman, by exulting in the absurdity of our existence, manages to be one of the most profound movies I’ve seen.
It’s also very funny, viscerally compelling (I was on the edge of my seat for much of the movie), technically stunning (most of the film appears as a single long shot, although it’s not actually), and has great performances throughout. I loved the many abrupt shifts in tone as the movie progressed, many of them registering only as changes in an actor’s face. Most were overtly theatrical, perhaps even overdone by film standards, but this is a movie that is very much about theater. Early on, Riggan’s actress girlfriend breaks the fourth wall and summons us, the audience, into the play’s opening night in a way that directly recalls A Midsummer Night’s Dream‘s Puck. Shakespeare is never very far away here.
A word about the music. Aside from a few 19th-century orchestral excerpts, it’s all Antonio Sanchez playing drums, unaccompanied. Although that may sound unpromising on paper (unless you know Antonio’s playing—he’s one of the best jazz drummers around), it is highly effective film music. I wrote my first feature film score in early 2014 (for Alexis and Bodine Boling’s Movement And Location) and the first thing I learned was how powerful film music is. It can singlehandedly set the emotional tone of a scene. It was a revelation for me, because in the music I normally write, I think mostly about the structure and language of the music, not its affect, in much the same way that as I’m writing these words, I’m not thinking about how you, the reader, are going to feel while reading them—I’m only trying to convey some ideas. The emotion the music carries is something that emerges after the fact, on its own, not something I purposely craft. This is turned on its head in movie music, and that’s probably why most film scores are conservative from the perspective of their musical language: what’s essential is to convey emotion, so the most accessible language is often used to make the communication of that emotion as efficient as possible. What I was reminded of, watching and listening to Birdman, is how the emotional impact of music is itself a mysterious thing. How is it that Sanchez’s drums, those pitch-less hits and sizzles, can convey such a wide range of angst, anticipation, mulling, self-loathing, catharsis? How does that come through? It does, somehow. There’s no recipe for emotion in music. The surest bet is probably, if you’re the performer of the music, just to try to feel the emotion yourself, and trust that it will somehow be conveyed to the viewer—a process that sounds a lot like the work of an actor.
*the internet is great. I always thought that line was from Einstein, but looking it up just now, it turns out he was quoting Schopenhauer, whom I’ve never read, when he said it in a 1929 interview.