Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) provides us with characters that are trying to prove something to the world. For example, we have Naomi Watts’s character “Lesley” trying to prove she is a worthy Broadway actress, Emma Stone’s “Sam” trying to show her father that she is no longer an unstable addict, and Zach Galifianakis’s character who is determined to be a formidable theater producer. The most recognizable example of this and perhaps the most important theme of the movie is Michael Keaton’s character, Riggan Thomson, striving for genuine recognition as an elite actor that can work beyond the limitations of a blockbuster superhero movie character. Inhibited by his past as Birdman, he hopes to gain sincere appreciation from the acting world by returning to its roots, the theatrical stage. By doing so, Riggan Thomson is striving to regain his own genuineness which is embodied by the mental struggle he has with the fictional Birdman character that brought him fame and recognition in the first place. By replacing the movie set with the theater stage, he effectively limits his audience to those who, at least pretend to, care about acting. This cuts out any sort of post-production editing and any ability to overwhelm the audience with mere visuals, allowing the actor to be naked in their form.
Riggan’s struggle nearly causes the play to be cancelled on multiple occasions. These occasions tend to be when Riggan is questioning his ability to maintain himself as an actor as opposed to merely his role as the superhero character Birdman. Riggan is directly affected by the discontent and pressure that critics and peers place on Riggan as an actor. He is surrounded by a variety of positive characters (Lesley, Brandon, Sylvia, and, at times, Mike) who keep the play together throughout its previews. However, key to Riggan’s struggle with genuineness, there are numerous negative characters (Sam, Birdman, Tabitha, and, at times, Mike) that tend to spark the moments in which the play nearly implodes. The negativity and positivity struggle of Riggan with himself and others is an inherent part of his striving for genuine recognition. Per de Beauvoir, “In order for the return to the positive to be genuine it must involve negativity, it must not conceal the antinomies between means and end, present and future; they must be lived in permanent tension” (144). Thus, is the struggle of the genuine Riggan in his attempt to regain his freedom from the grip of the Birdman and whatever past experiences haunt him. We are given little background to Riggan’s life before the movie, however, we know he is divorced with a daughter who didn’t receive enough attention from her father as a child and we can at least assume he was a heavy drinker at some point. Furthermore, the struggle of positivity and negativity in his striving towards his personal goals is most effectively exemplified in his relationship with his producer (positively motivating Zach Galifianakis) and the interactions with the theater critic (the notably negative). Positivity and negativity abound, this idea comes full circle when Riggan Thomson shoots himself in the face on stage. He is finally praised as an actor and receives the positive recognition he had strived for, yet, he still receives a little negative backlash from, particularly, his ex-wife.
The idea of human transcendence, in which de Beauvoir comments “it has to found itself, though it is prohibited from ever fulfilling itself” is also commented on here (140). Riggan’s escape from the Birdman past is nearly transcended in his moment of theatrical greatness, however, he is only to be reminded of his past by the beak-like bandage over his new nose and a urinating Birdman in the hospital bathroom. The outpour of love and recognition from people has his producer reeling, yet, it is unclear how Riggan himself feels. As a sort of toast to ambiguity, we are never given full resolution to Riggan’s struggle thanks to the relentlessness of filmmaker Alejandro Iñárritu.
Birdman: or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance explores the lives of a messy cast of characters who are all struggling to put on an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk about Love. But they’re also struggling to live genuinely, a task that, for each of them, presents unique challenges. I want to focus, specifically, on Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), an esteemed stage actor who has the exceptional ability to memorize lines without effort and to embody his characters in a way that immediately elevates the quality of every scene he’s in. However, this incredible ability to be genuine does not extend to his off-stage life. This is immediately interesting, because the stage is where one would be expected to be less genuine and true to themselves since, of course, they are literally not being themselves. One way this lack of off-stage genuineness is characterized is through his recurring erectile dysfunction. Even his sex life is only “real” when he’s onstage.
Also worth examining is his relationship to Riggan Thompson’s daughter, Sam (Emma Stone). They have two noteworthy scenes that occur on the roof of the theatre, which is significant, because almost all of the action of the movie occurs within the theatre’s walls. Therefore, that they were outside of this setting--which potentially represents acting and inauthenticity--is significant. During the first of these scenes, Sam, clearly interested in Mike, suggests a game of truth or dare, trying to get him to suggest, through daring her, or answering one of her truths, that he wants her. Mike doesn’t comply and rejects her advances. His walls are up, and he’s being defensive, either uninterested, or unwilling to express any kind of attraction.
However, things are decidedly different during their second rooftop encounter. Between these two rooftop scenes, Mike has been worn down by Lesley (Naomi Watts) and Sam. Lesley, hurt and angered by the fact that Mike wanted to have sex on stage, rejected him, making it clear that he can’t do whatever he wants without consequence. And, of course, his previous encounter with Sam made an impact because of the way she so doggedly encouraged him to seize his freedom. Mike wants both to be more responsible towards Sam after having hurt Lesley in the way that he did, but also feels drawn to engage in freedom off-stage. He’s realized the consequences of fully exercising his freedom, and is learning how to balance that freedom with a newfound sense of responsibility. Through these encounters, he is able to better understand himself as de Beauvoir’s genuine person--that is, someone who realizes the necessary balance between freedom and responsibility. Because of this, this time on the rooftop, Mike becomes vulnerable with Sam, expressing to her that she’s important to him. It’s not perfect and eloquent, it’s messy and a little campy, but that’s what makes it genuine. He tells her: “You’re hanging around here trying to make yourself invisible behind that fragile little f*ck up routine. But you can’t. You’re anything but invisible. You’re big. And you’re sort of this really great mess, a candle burning at both ends.” These probably aren’t the words a girl fantasizes about hearing, but it’s a true representation of his feelings for her. His offstage clever asshole persona has disappeared. There’s an implied sex scene between the two, and it’s suggested that Mike doesn’t experience his usually troubles with these kinds of scenarios, which is representative of his having found the ability to act genuinely off-stage. In the words of de Beauvoir, “[J]ust as the physicist finds it profitable to reflect on the conditions of scientific invention and the artist on those of artistic creation without expecting any ready-made solutions to come from these reflections, it is useful for the man of action to find out under what conditions his undertakings are valid. We are going to see that on this basis new perspectives are disclosed” (145). Mike is in the process of discovering how to translate the kind of artistic knowledge that he has mastered into his actual life, and understand himself in true relationship to others.
In her concluding analysis of ambiguity, Simone de Beauvoir reasserts the requirement for the genuine person to avoid positing the end of action as an absolute, and explains the uncertain outcome that attends any action or creative effort.
(With our apologies to Alejandro González Iñárritu.)
Our next set of posts observes themes from late in Simone de Beauvoir's The Ethics of Ambiguity in the 2014 film Birdman: or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). We found this film to rehearse key elements of genuine humanity, that goal and figure so central to de Beauvoir's text.
Matt Bender focuses on the polarizing influences in the life of Riggan Thompson, the film's main character, played by Michael Keaton. Matt's discussion turns on the way Thompson negotiates a balance of these influences in order to understand his genuine humanity. Sami Brisson turns her attention to Mike Shiner, played by Edward Norton, and the delicate transformations toward genuine expression evidenced in Mike's encounters with the young Sam (played by Emma Stone). Finally, Becky Vartabedian assesses de Beauvoir's analysis of art and criticism, focusing on a scene between Riggan Thompson and the critic tasked to review the show, Tabitha Dickinson; de Beauvoir's analysis offers a way of understanding the deeply polar positions of artist and critic, with an aim of showing the artist as caught up in the work of genuine humanity. Thanks for reading.