“A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing.”
That’s the quote that rests on Riggan Thompson’s dressing room mirror. Riggan is a retired actor who starred as Birdman, the main character of a superhero blockbuster trilogy from decades ago. He decides to write, star in, and direct a production of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love for Broadway. Riggan claims he is doing it as an artistic endeavor, but we soon learn that Riggan is just desperate to feel relevant again.
The idea of what it means to be ‘relevant’ in today’s society, the cultural divide displayed between millennials and their parents, and the overall state of society is explored beautifully within this film.
Being ‘relevant’: What does it mean, and does it even matter?
Riggan’s daughter Sam sums up the dilemma facing young people today perfectly in an impassioned speech to her father:
“…And let’s face it, Dad, it’s not for the sake of art. It’s because you want to feel relevant again. Well, there’s a whole world out there where people fight to be relevant every day. And you act like it doesn’t even exist! Things are happening in a place that you willfully ignore, a place that has already forgotten you. I mean, who the f*ck are you? You hate bloggers. You make fun of Twitter. You don’t even have a Facebook page. You’re the one who doesn’t exist. 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. It’s not important. You’re not important. Get used to it.”
Pure poetry. Sam is fed up with her father’s attitude towards social media, which she views as one of the most important ways to stay relevant. Meanwhile, Riggan views social media as frivolous and pointless. He’d rather do something he sees as important the old-fashioned way, instead of “going viral.”
Sam (Emma Stone) angrily tells her father he doesn’t matter and he doesn’t exist.
Ironically, once he is on the Internet and social media (both against his will), he starts to get recognized again. He gets locked out of the theater in his underwear and has to walk through Times Square. Amateur videographers record him and post it to YouTube. It even makes some of the major celebrity news stations on TV. After his attempted suicide on the stage, Sam creates a Twitter account for him that gets hundreds of thousands of followers in just one day.
As part of Sam’s rehab treatment, she has a scroll of toilet with tally marks on it that are meant to signify all of time. She points out a small part of the scroll to Riggan, saying that’s how long people have been on the earth. She tells her father: “I think it’s to remind us how insignificant we really are.”
After Riggan angrily lashes out at a top theater critic, Tabitha Dickinson, he goes to a liquor store to get himself a drink. Outside the liquor store, you can hear a homeless man passionately reciting Shakespeare:
“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, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Riggan goes to buy himself some alcohol, and hears a crazy man shouting Shakespeare.
It was no accident that the writers decided to use this passage specifically. This passage is a direct parallel to Riggan’s struggle to stay relevant. His play has faced one disaster after another. Mike Shiner, a famous actor Riggan chose for a main role, ruined the previews by getting drunk and sexually assaulting his costar on stage. Riggan has to perform another one of the previews in his underwear. Tabitha has promised to destroy his play with a bad review. Riggan is the poor player strutting and fretting his hour upon the stage.
Ultimately, the movie is saying this: yes, you can be relevant. You can sell out your soul and make a superhero movie. You can have a video of you walking through Times Square in your underwear go viral. You can be a celebrity your whole life. Sometimes you can even not sell out and still be famous. But it also asserts that notion that, in the long run, it doesn’t really matter. You will most likely be forgotten. You are just one of hundreds of billions of people that will live on this planet, like Sam’s scroll says. It’s a harsh but depressingly true fact of life.
The cultural divide between Millennials and their parents
For some comic relief, let’s talk about when Mike Shiner is giving Riggan a nice little speech about how this is “his town” and “nobody here really gives a sh*t about you.” Seconds later, excited fans of Riggan ask for a photograph, asking Mike to take it. They don’t recognize Mike at all. As Mike is taking the picture, the little boy asks his parents, “Who is that?” to which they respond, “He used to be Birdman!”
Mike Shiner (Edward Norton)
This brings to focus another important aspect of the movie: the divide between the millennial generation and their parents. The little boy had no clue who Riggan was. A major blockbuster of his parent’s generation is completely foreign to him. Not to mention Sam’s powerful speech I mentioned earlier mocking Riggan for shunning social media, which is a product of Sam’s generation and not his.
The theme of the divide between the two generations is subtle, but it is definitely worth noting.
The struggle between “being who we are” and conforming to society’s norms
The entire film, Riggan struggles with the voice of Birdman tormenting him. He tries to convince Riggan that people love blood, people love action, “not this talky, depressing, philosophical bullsh*t.” In the opening scene of the movie, Riggan is meditating off the ground in his dressing room, with Birdman saying things like “How did we end up here?” and “This smells like balls.” From the very beginning, Birdman gives him a hard time and tries to convince him that what he’s doing is going to fail, and he will never be relevant again unless he does something like Birdman.
Birdman following Riggan (Michael Keaton) around
Birdman’s voice is an extended metaphor for society’s tendency to try and repress individuality. When Riggan tries to do what he wants to do to make himself happy and relevant, Birdman’s voice is quick to try and bury his thoughts, telling him that his ideas are stupid, and being an action hero is the only way he will ever be relevant again.
When Riggan sees Tabitha Dickinson writing a review in the bar, he questions her: “What has to happen to a person for them to become a critic?” Soon, he is yelling at her, saying of the review she is writing:
“It’s just a bunch of crappy opinions, backed up by even crappier comparisons.You write a couple of paragraphs and you know what? None of this cost you f*ckin’ anything! The F*ck! You risk nothing! Nothing! Nothing! Nothing! I’m a f*cking actor! This play cost me everything… So I tell you what, you take this f*cked malicious cowardly sh*tty written review and you shove that right the f*ck up your wrinkly tight as*.”
Tabitha is also society. Tabitha is cynical and harsh, judging Riggan as a fraud and doing her best to make sure his creative efforts fail. Society has nothing to lose. The advertisers and executives with all the power who tell us what to be and how to think, they risk nothing. They have all the power and can do whatever they want. Just like Tabitha. Meanwhile, the freethinkers of society risk everything just by being themselves.
“I’m going to kill your play,” Tabitha tells Riggan
During the final scene of the play on opening night, Riggan comes to the harsh conclusion that he doesn’t matter: “I don’t exist. I’m not even here. I don’t exist. None of this matters,” he says to the audience. He proceeds to then shoot himself in the head, and at first you assume he is dead. His death symbolizes not just the death of a person, but the death of creativity and individuality. By surviving the suicide attempt, Riggan instead finds relevance by conforming to popular society and going ‘viral’.
The difference between love and admiration
We live in a society of celebrities. Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus, Kim Kardashian. How many people have you met that say things like “I love Kim Kardashian” or “Taylor Swift is the nicest person in the world”? Many of us are guilty of speaking of celebrities as if we know them personally. As if we could love somebody we’ve never even met or have any hope of meeting. What this movie is saying is that we don’t actually love celebrities, we admire them.
“That’s what you always did, Riggan. You confused love with admiration.”
These are the words that Riggan’s ex-wife says to him during intermission. This is right after she angrily tells him that just because she didn’t like one of the sitcoms he participated in, doesn’t mean she didn’t love him. Riggan has a desperate need for approval, and sees anything other than that as him not being loved.
By the end of the movie, Riggan is desperate for love, which he views as admiration and relevance. In the final scene of the play, he asks his ex-lover: “So you don’t love me anymore. And you never will, will you?” But by the end of the movie, during his last performance, he isn’t really asking her. He’s asking the general public. And when she says no, the public is also saying no. Realizing he will never be relevant by being who he wants to be, he attempts to shoot himself in the head.
Riggan attempting suicide. He is unsuccessful and merely shoots off his nose
Birdman was nominated for nine Academy Awards and won four, including Best Picture. It’s not hard to see why. Birdman asks the tough questions about the state of society – and answers them. It’s a movie that’s not afraid to hurt your feelings and tell you how it really is. It’s a movie that will make you think and make you uncomfortable. It’s the most honest, raw, and captivating movie to come around in a long time. Ultimately, it’s the most important movie of 2014.