The ambition of the creative artist
I have to admit my last review for About a Boy was lackluster, or at least that’s how I felt about it. I wanted to try something different with my review of this movie. I guess that’s the thing about writing, it’s an ongoing process, ever-changing, continually finding new ways to do the same thing. Or as my novel teacher said, we are students ‘til we die.
In Birdman, Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) is the former star of the Birdman superhero film franchise, echoing Keaton’s own role of Batman in the late 80s and early 90s. Riggan is now much older and washed up, for lack of a better word, so he’s writing, directing and starring in a Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver story, ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’. He’s putting everything on the line for this play, even selling a house that his daughter Samantha (Emma Stone) stands to inherit.
What he grapples with is ultimately whether he is doing this for the sake of art, or for his own ego and to save his career. In a fine performance by Stone, she blasts him at one point, asking “who the fuck are you? You're doing this because you're scared to death, like the rest of us that you don't matter. And you know what? You're right. You don't.” Maybe it helps to think of what Riggan has done in his career up to this point as a trade, taking the roles that pay and give his career a boost, but it’s not what he got into acting for, and now this play is an attempt at work that actually means something. But does being an actor make you an artist? Does being a writer make me an artist?
I’m writing my own novel and recently I made a goal to get up five times a week and write first thing in the morning, in an effort to boost my productivity and ensure that I get to do something that I love. So far it has been truly rewarding, although it only takes up a small part of my life. As I continue work on this novel it may come to consume me, perhaps even to the point of Riggan where the play drives him absolutely insane. It may seem ridiculous, but that’s how creative projects can be — totally absorbing.
The novel itself is a fictionalised story of my own life as a writer. The working title is 'Danno’s Odyssey'. Now how could this possibly be of any interest to the wider world? The story is highly self-referential, with lots of in-jokes that only people who know me will get. And some even might even go over their heads. Well, I still believe that with this project that I am expressing something artistic, that it will hold some philosophical truth, and I am trying to write it with a broader appeal as well. How it ends up remains to be seen, as I’m still in first draft, but I think it’s interesting that I’m pursuing such a project. How does my story hold any more relevance than anyone else’s? Is there part of myself that wants to do this for my own ego?
I’ve begun to re-evaluate my career as a writer, or if I want one at all. I want to write novels, but the occupation of the novelist is kind of dead. Would I want the responsibility anyway, where I was writing novels for the sake of my career? You’ve got me on the thought train now. I think a lot, and it can get rather tiring.
Back to the movie. Mike Shiner (played by Edward Norton in a knockout performance), is a method actor who causes havoc by drinking real gin onstage and trying to rape his co-star, Leslie (Naomi Watts), in order to make a sex scene feel more “real”, in the show’s previews. He and Riggan clash constantly, and their characters clearly contrast. Mike is what Riggan aspires to be, and yet he despises him. Mike takes his craft to the extreme and his dedication cannot be questioned. But in reality he is antagonistic to everyone around him and his personal life is shambolic. When Samantha asks if he would have sex with her, he replies that he’s afraid he wouldn’t be able to get it up, showing a clear difference in his confidence on and offstage. It’s funny that he’s a complete arsehole and yet still has a career.
My friend Pauly said one of the letdowns for him about Birdman was that Norton’s character kind of trails off in the final act, and this is true but to continue his character arc would probably require a whole new story. One actor completely unraveling at a time please.
So an artist can achieve greatness, but it can come at the cost of a stable personal life. I can certainly say that writing, when I’m really in the zone, gives me a rush. Just like acting does for actors. I have a friend who’s a visual artist who would probably say the same. But we’re constantly searching for something new.
The film is setup as though it is shot in one continuous take, evoking a stream of consciousness feel. The improvised jazz-drumming soundtrack also reflects this. I suppose the story and characters are living in a theatrepiece, where there is only one take for everything and they are always expressing through words and actions their deepest desires.
What I take away is that what the creative artist is looking for is a reason to feel alive. The next novel, the next gig. Inside, we want to know what comes next, and if others are paying attention, they do too. You will never be “finished”. I think this is what bothers so many, leading often to suicide.
When asked how things are going, Riggan muses “Yeah, well, I mean, previews were pretty much a train-wreck. We can't seem to get through without a raging fire or a raging hard-on. I'm broke. I'm not sleeping like, you know, at all. And um, this play is kinda starting to feel like a major deformed version of myself that just keeps following me around, hitting me in the balls with a tiny little hammer.” It seems in question whether Riggan is really achieving his objective, as his life is so unbalanced and he’s not thinking straight.
In the climax, Riggan’s inner Birdman speaks to him, and he finally assumes his alter-ego, taking flight over New York City, or at least in his brain that’s what he does. I guess he finally takes on what makes him a great movie star, the show-stopper stuff. In the calm after this high, he decides to shoot himself onstage in the final preview, supposedly achieving the status of a “true” actor, with his antics dubbed as “super-realism” by one critic. He merely blows his nose off, and wakes up in hospital.
The film’s ending is suitably open to interpretation, when Riggan climbs out of his hospital window. Does he fall or does he rise, transcending the washed up actor and becoming a reborn artist? How much further could he go in his career and his artistic pursuits? I realize I’ve asked lots of questions, so let me know what you think.
Birdman is on my list of all-time favourite films, and I may revisit it as I watch it over and over again.
Birdman is available on Blu-ray, DVD and to download.