Birdman, Ego Identity and Transformation

Birdman movie poster starring Michael KeatonBirdman (imdb) is a complex and thoroughly entertaining film that follows the intertwining relationships of Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a washed up Hollywood action movie hero whose star has fallen and hopes to rise again via staging a noble return to his thespian roots on Broadway.

Much of the film, and in particular it’s dramatic ending as well as a powerful confrontation between Keaton and one of the film’s antagonists, deals with elements of inner transformation which this article will entertain to delve into below.

If you haven’t had the pleasure of seeing Birdman yet, I highly recommend trying to catch it in theaters if you still can.  It’s quite a singular and remarkable film. Then come right back and read this review.

Heavy Spoiler Alert

An important theme that emerges throughout Birdman is embodied by an intriguing quote which appears prominently displayed on the mirror of Riggan’s dressing room in the opening scene of the movie:

“A thing is a thing, and not what is said of that thing.”

It signifies on one level the futility of Riggan’s quest for public acclaim and admiration as the source of his identity and self worth, which we can infer he believes will translate into happiness.  In other words, he is only able to define himself through a perception of what others think and say about him.

In the same opening sequence Riggan is shown sitting in the lotus posture as in meditation.  Through a voice over effect, we hear Riggan’s inner monologue or ego, which he contends with throughout the film, berating him over his failures.

In a later scene as the camera pans by a window of the dressing room, a bronzed Buddha head statuette can be seen.  Some form of Buddhist philosophy clearly plays an important role in Riggan’s inner life and his struggle for inner peace.

Outwardly, the source of Riggan’s contention takes the form of New York Times theater critic Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan) who threatens to derail the play with a nasty review.

Riggan, in order to satisfy the demands of his ego and bring about a return to the notoriety he feels he deserves, has staked everything on the success of the play, both psychologically and materially in the form of mortgaging his home to finance its production.  He sees critic Tabitha as a major obstacle on his path to glory.

One of the film’s most compelling and thought provoking scenes occurs when Riggan confronts her at the local after hours bar.  In a powerfully delivered scene, he pulls a white flower from a vase on the bar, and holding it up, questions her:

You know what this is? You don’t, do you? You can’t even see it if you don’t label it. You mistake those sounds in your head for true knowledge.

Riggan accuses Tabitha of being a “lazy fucker” whose vocation rests solely on the ability to label things, through “crappy opinions backed up by crappy comparisons.”

On a deeper level, I believe that this scene is meant to reflect a popular Buddhist anecdote known as the Flower Sermon.  In it, the Buddha plucks a white lotus flower from the ground and holds it before his pupils, without uttering a word.  All are confused and don’t comprehend the nature of the lesson but for one student, Mahakasyapa, who simply smiles in understanding, and to whom the flower is then given.

At last the Buddha purportedly spoke, “What can be said I have said to you, and what cannot be said, I have given to Mahakashyapa.”

I will not pretend to know all that is meant to be imparted by this allegory, but rather I will attempt to relate my own idea and interpretation of how it connects to the film and life in general.

To mentally categorize and label a thing means to put it within a box of predefined knowledge. So doing we may fail at truly understanding a thing for what it is, which is surely more complex than the categorization or label.  Applying the label is efficient, and perhaps has had some evolutionary advantage in the development of our species.  It could be said that the brain, and mans thinking, has evolved in some ways to become lazy, in the sense that the ability to quickly and accurately categorize something such as a plant, to know which are poisonous and which are safe to eat, or an animal, to immediately assess which are predator and which are prey, would have contributed to our survival.

In service to the ego, this same attribute allows us to objectify and “fix” (as in fixate) the world and our relationship to it according to our own preconceptions, which can then become a barrier to directly experiencing the world and ourselves as we actually are, which may be different from those preconceptions.

In saying to Tabitha, “you mistake those sounds in your head for true knowledge”, Riggan is saying that the word is not the thing, and that she is committing the error of mistaking the thoughts she has about a thing for the thing itself, in this case, the thoughts that she has and will write about the play in her review, for the actual play which includes all of the rehearsals, the production and costuming, the entire cast and crew,  their various relationships, both outer and inner, the struggles, the blood, sweat and tears and all that ultimately goes on behind the scenes in the real theater of human drama, such as what it actually feels like for Riggan to be risking it all.

Yet could such a thing as a theater critic exist at all, without the ability to categorize and compare, and to label a thing with words?  In some respect this points to a fundamental duality, in that life and its many complexities and intricacies are in actuality beyond all words and labels, yet the mind needs the word and the label in order to function efficiently in the world and to communicate.

Riggan Thomson sits in dressing room of St. James Theater with a Buddha's head in background

It is of interest to note that during a Q & A session at the New York Film Festival, director Alejandro Inarritu said of the film that it’s inspiration came from his conception of “this struggling battle that we all have with our own ego” and of his perception of his own ego in the creative process as a sort of ‘tyrant’.

Indeed, Riggan himself, through his own inner critic in the form of Birdman, is guilty of the same flaw of which he accuses Tabitha. His self-awareness, relationships and experience only deepen and become more meaningful over the course of the story as he begins to see himself for what he actually is, and not through a narrowly confined identity in relation to Birdman and what it says about him.

That “a thing is a thing, and not what is said of that thing”, can also be understood as the dictum that “the map is not the territory.”

Of this Wikipedia has to say,

“This concept occurs in the discussion of exoteric and esoteric religions. Exoteric concepts are concepts which can be fully conveyed using descriptors and language constructs, such as mathematics. Esoteric concepts are concepts which cannot be fully conveyed except by direct experience. For example, a person who has never tasted an apple will never fully understand through language what the taste of an apple is. Only through direct experience (eating an apple) can that experience be fully understood.”

Ending and Transformation

Near the film’s end, when Riggan attempts his own suicide on stage the crowd thunders in a standing ovation, whereas Tabitha alone can be seen leaving her seat and hurriedly exiting the theater.

Upon awaking in the hospital, after a heartfelt exchange with his daughter, Riggan enters the bathroom where Birdman again appears but for the first time in the film is silent and does not seem to disturb him.

Was Riggan’s suicide attempt symbolic of an ego-death experience through which he finally succeeded in silencing his own inner critic, as portrayed outwardly by a silencing of the theater critic?

This brought to mind the ending of Fight Club where Ed Norton’s character sought to extinguish his alter persona Tyler Durden by pointing the gun on himself, miraculously surviving to recover his true identity, which is the same thing Keaton’s character in Birdman seems to have done.

As is to be expected, there is much more to Birdman than can be covered here, and I highly recommend you go out and see it for yourself.  Ultimately, the experience of the film is not what is said of that film.

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