Reflections on ambition, the modern artistic process, and how we see millennials in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Oscar-nominated film.
I remember clearly the first time I read Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” I was twenty-one, and lonely, and was trying to cure the feeling with a short story bender. At the time, I didn’t know why or for what I was searching, but when I hit on Carver’s piece I knew immediately that I’d found it. I remember reading the story, re-reading it, emailing it to about a thousand friends (likely subject line: YOU. GUYS.), and then just sitting back in awe. How could Carver know so much about loneliness and hoping and mixed signals and crossed signs? And how could he write about all of them with such conviction, such authority, in such a condensed and self-aware space?
As a human, I was moved; as an artist, inspired. I decided I would give myself my own challenge: create an updated version of Carver’s story, keeping the premise of two couples but recasting them as young 20-somethings who pre-gamed in a Craigslist sublet. Instead of cards, they’d play Kings, and instead of gin they’d drink the cheap beer my friends and I could afford. While the resulting story certainly isn’t the best thing ever written (by me or anyone else), it’s something I stand by in my development as a writer. Having to break down Carver’s prose taught me a great deal about technique, and reframing the story on my terms allowed me to see my own voice more clearly.
It was these lessons that sprang immediately to mind when I sat in the theater last December, aggressively gnawing on some gum as I watched Michael Keaton’s Riggan make a go with his own adaptation of Carver’s short story in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman. While I’d like to believe it’s a happy coincidence, I think it’s no accident that Iñárritu gave Riggan this particular story to bring to life. The reason is that “What We Talk About” is not so much popular as it is embedded in the western literary subconscious; insofar as there is such a thing as a modern (western) canon, this is it. Even if you have never in your life seen the piece, you’ve read it, absorbed Mel and Terri, and Nick and Laura, into your writerly DNA.
To me then, the choice of such a well-known story is a signal that Birdman is not just about Riggan’s journey as an artist. This is a story about artists, plural, and about our struggle to do what we all do in this modern day and age.
The staging and cinematography support this idea, showing long shot after long shot down windy, intricate corridors that seem to be perpetually shifting. As an artist, that’s exactly it–you’re constantly searching, painfully self-aware, always trying to peer down corridors into the next thing until suddenly you’re not, because you’re finally lost in the white-hot fire of your work. And the ground during all of this is never quite secure.
So, okay then, the movie is making a statement about art, and the artists who produce it. But what, exactly, is is saying?
At first, I thought Birdman was intended to be a commentary on the types of art being made today. In depicting through Riggan a film star trying to adapt a short story for the stage, the film gave a clearly postmodern nod to the mixing and mashing of mediums. The lines between different artistic forms are blurred, we learn, and dynamic. What’s more, various mediums are not only mixed with themselves, but with reality. The lives of the film’s central characters are all intertwined with the work they’re trying to do on the stage, which to me reminds us that in this reality-television and selfie-infused day and age, it’s increasingly difficult to separate art from life.
As I watched the film progress, I began to sense it was also a commentary on the constant scrutiny and self-awareness of artists as they make their mish-mashed work. However you bill it (post postmodern? meta postmodern?), the point is a good one: we see ourselves, and what we are doing. And the more we do that, the harder and harder it is for us to free ourselves up to do anything good (as is evidenced in the ongoing argument between Riggan and Edward Norton’s Mike throughout the film).
With such conditions on our shoulders, how is an artist supposed to produce anything of merit? The answer the film seems to offer is reality. It doesn’t matter how you do it, but what you have to do is find a way to cut the crap, to get out of your head and get at something real, and original. This is the chief point made by film critic Tabitha Dickinson (well-played by Lindsay Duncan), who tells Riggan that unless he finds a way to do something authentic that hasn’t been done before, she’s going to write him off.
Riggan takes her advice, and (stop reading if you don’t want the ending) elects to make the gun he holds to his head a real one in the play’s final scene. Inevitably, then, Riggan goes out with a bang, causing the audience to erupt in stunned applause as blood pools on the stage.
I was prepared for the film to end here, but when I saw Riggan wake up in the hospital several days later, having remarkably survived the incident, I realized the central question wasn’t whether or not it’s possible to make good art today, but rather at what cost? Riggan, of course, has been Icarus, risking more and more as he pursues his artistic dream. Whether he succeeds is in the eye of the beholder, because it seems at the end that though he’s received rave reviews, his sanity may not have survived.
An interesting sidenote here is the film’s treatment of Sam, Riggan’s daughter. Emma Stone has gotten an Oscar nomination for the aspects of Sam that we do see (a needy, insecure young lady, who oscillates brash provocation and deep reserve due in part to her recovering drug addiction), but what interests me more is what we don’t. Despite the fact that she’s in the theater day in and day out, we hear very little from Sam on what she thinks of the play, as a piece of her father’s or as an independent work of art. Her most significant contribution seems to be her technological savvy, as she is able at several turns to use social media tools to bolster her father’s popularity. At no point does she reference Carver’s original story, or make any indication that she has even bothered to read the piece. Instead, she’s consumed in her own struggle, which seems grounded primarily in thinly justified pity parties and a desire to be physically validated.
While I’m willing to concede much of this has to do with the fact that Sam’s shortfalls are vital plot points (Want to complicate things for Edward Norton’s Mike? Insert Sam looking desperate on the balcony! Want to show that Riggan is a shitty dad? Insert Sam again, this time wide-eyed and alone as she draws cliched lines on toilet paper), I think it speaks to a broader issue about the way millennials are presented in film and other media today. Too many times, I have seen characters in their 20s written off as intellectually shallow dabblers whose sole talent lies in reaching out to their lightning-fast twitter network. Is the world on fire? Has there been a scandal at the office? Hip 23 year-old is on it.
At first glance, this may not seem a big issue, and I’ll concede that if this were an isolated instance, it wouldn’t be. But the repeated occurrence of millenials who tweet instead of act makes me worried for our place in future films. The reality is that every minute we’re recounting is a minute we’re not participating, and my fear is that if we’re depicted again and again as standing on the sidelines with iPhones in hand, we’ll begin to believe that’s our natural place. And at the end of the day, I’d rather be crazy Icarus who tried than the one live-tweeting his demise (#crispy #marshmallowstatus #dontflytooclose).