Birdman and Nothingness

Birdman, 2014, Alejandro Gonález Iñárritu

“Popularity? Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige.”

Iñárritu’s Birdman tells the swirling and freeform story of a washed-up Hollywood star trying to make it on Broadway. In a delightful bit of casting, Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, the erstwhile star of a Holllywood superhero franchise struggling to wrangle the unravelling threads of his theatrical debut and his disintegrating relationship with his daughter Sam, ably portrayed by Emma Stone.

Throughout the film, the “one-take” seasick camera work of Emmanuel Lubezki (fast becoming recognised as one of the most masterful cinematographers working today) illustrates a world that happens around and unaffected by each of the protagonists.

This includes not only Riggan and Sam, but also theatre actors Mike (Edward Norton), Laura (Andrea Riseborough) and Lesley (Naomi Watts). Each character attempts to define themselves in an uncertain world, but becomes increasingly powerless and unable to become the person they want to.

Riggan lollops through the one long extended scene regularly looking within and never looking out, the camera centred on his own obsession with his own identity.

Similarly, Mike, when flirtatiously asked by Sam what he would like to do to her, can only desire to rip out her eyes and place them in his own skull in order to see the world from her perspective.

They are all constrained by their own egos, leading to a film that could be considered a magnificent ensemble piece where the characters rarely even notice each other.


Riggan Thomson, played by Michael Keaton

Crumbling actor Riggan Thomson, played by Michael Keaton 

Similarly, Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist framework – first expounded in Being and Nothingness – sees us individually trapped in the cage of our egos, unable to live outside our own phenomenological experience.

When faced with the certainty of our own mortality and the uncertainty of our futures, Sartre believed that we have to act in order to form our own reality. We exist before we are defined, and as such can define our own reality. How? Through exercising our freedom as agents.

The problem for Riggan and his compatriots is that they are never truly free. Events around the theatre happen to them, but are rarely caused by them, typified by random falling lights knocking out cast members, revelations of surprise pregnancies and the fire doors slamming shut on a tragically placed dressing gown, leading to Riggan trotting through time square in nothing but his “tighty-whities”.

In fact it is not Riggan’s own actions that define what he becomes, but the voices of the people around him, from the sublimely bitter theatre critic that says he is nothing more than a celebrity playing at being an actor and the millions of Twitter followers that finally make his play an overnight success.

But these definitions are transient and fleeting. In fact, without giving too much away, he only truly becomes free when he lets go of any definition – not an actor, a director, a celebrity, a Birdman or a father, but simply allows himself to be.

Iñárritu’s modernist take on the great existential dilemma is, at times, maddening and frightening, but ultimately leads us to better understand ourselves and our purposes, allowing us to let go of the shackles of success, popularity and prestige, and to just be.


Riggan and Mike Shiner, played by Edward Norton

Riggan and Mike Shiner, played by Edward Norton

In a modern scientific framework (ignoring the quantum world), the hard determinist notion that every action has a cause, and as such every action is 100% logically predictable, does seem to do away with the once popular notion of free will. If the future is pre-determined, we cannot make our own world.

Just as Riggan only becomes what he is by being acted upon, and not by acting himself, so we are unable to define ourselves.

At the very opening of the film, he is seen attempting to practice mindfulness to empty his mind. Perhaps this is a better way of finding our true nature, by shutting off all external influences and our own desires to be recognised by external influences and living in the moment. Or perhaps we are bound by our human condition into only seeing ourselves in light of others.

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