Upon its release in 2014, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman (Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) was met simultaneously with critical acclaim and popular confusion. Audiences seemed to feel belittled and made fun of by a movie that focused on what one of the characters refers to as the “cultural genocide” of filmmaking – caped superheroes and bombastic explosions replacing real, meaningful art. At the time, the merits and criticisms were strictly about the main message of the film, and Iñárritu’s resounding protest against the current state of art. But, after rewatching Birdman recently, I was struck by something else entirely. Namely, I found Iñárritu’s film to be a brilliant adaptation of Raymond Carver’s writing.
Carver – one of the major American literary figures in the second half of the 20th century – composed stories about ordinary beings in ordinary settings faced with ordinary dilemmas. His prose captured a certain essence of small town America and its hidden secrets.
In Birdman – a film about a fading movie star named Riggan Thompson (played by an incredible Michael Keaton) trying to resurrect his career by making his debut on Broadway – Carver is central to the movie’s plot as Riggan adapts one of his short stories (What We Talk About When We Talk About Love) into a play. The production, however, is plagued with problems: ranging from casting issues, malfunctioning props and Riggan going through a mid-life crisis. The movie-star-turned-thespian is also haunted by his past in the form of Birdman, a superhero whose franchise – similarly to Batman for Keaton – made him the biggest box office name of the 90s. Now, with the success of Birdman being only a distant, hangover memory, Riggan moves through life like a fish out of water. His daughter (a young, pre-Oscar Emma Stone) is out of rehab and working as his assistant, his lover (Andrea Riseborough) confesses to him that she may be pregnant and the big name actor he hired at the last minute (played by Edward Norton) is an egotistical asshole who is always on the verge of ruining the play. In short, Birdman is a film about a man in a disaster-zone, seeking validation at all costs.
The need for validation in fact is the key ingredient in Iñárritu’s successful attempt at adapting Raymond Carver. Much like Carver’s protagonists, every character in Birdman is faced with a difunctional reality – a reality they clearly struggle to fit in. The world these people inhabit has chewed up and spit them back out, both in personal and professional terms, and for some reason they all find themselves clinging on to this play, written, directed and starring Riggan Thompson. For Thompson this is the last shot at making something meaningful in his career. He’s a has-been, a cheap celebrity that has realised there must be more to life than millions earned off a superhero franchise after years of wasting his talent away.
But, like in Carver’s writing, the film’s characters fail to see that their loneliness and sorrow is shared by others, too. The Oscar-winning screenplay is filled with fantastic one-liners (“How do you know Mike Shiner?” “We share a vagina”; “Why don’t I have any self-respect?” “You’re an actress, honey“), but the more interesting aspect of it is the constant miscommunication in an endless stream of words. Almost every scene in the film is a confrontation on unfriendly terms, similarly to Carver’s stories where each exchange between lonely characters feels like it’s building up to something akin to an apocalypse. In Birdman‘s case, words carry enormous weight. Much like the film’s visuals and the decision to stage all sequences into a seemingly one unbroken tracking shot, what is said propels the action and the motivation behind it. Riggan is constantly being called an asshole by those around him because he pays little attention to what comes out of his mouth. When his lover, Laura, tells him she’s pregnant, he can only muster up enough interest to blurt out, “Are you sure it’s mine?”
But, Riggan finds out the gravity of words when his daughter, Sam, confronts him about his motivation for staging the play in the first place. “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.” In typical Carver fashion, Sam disintegrates her father’s fantasy. It’s a venomous outburst meant to mask a lot of Sam’s own fears. Carver spent his entire career writing characters like Riggan and Sam: two people desperately paddling away from each other, yet ultimately bound by a love that is impossible to tear apart. Emma Stone’s big, feline eyes completely change expression as soon as she realizes what her character just uttered. Like Riggan before, she can’t help but simply blurt out in shame, “Dad…”
Goffman’s theory that we all wear masks and life is a stage for us to perform in. That’s well known by now, and Carver transported that belief into his stories set in the Midwest, with blue collar people drowning their anguish in pints of cheap whiskey and gin. The mask, and act of revealing their true selves was central to Carver’s body of work. Without it, his characters had no reason to go on living. Revealing their true identities, whether to their relatives or total strangers, was the greatest display of intimacy in his writing.
In Birdman, Mike Shiner is the actor Riggan hires for lack of alternatives. Shiner is old school, and unlike Riggan he’s not a sell-out. He doesn’t care about critics or fans. He doesn’t believe in money, he believes in acting: pure, raw and unfiltered. His ego is off the charts, and no one seems to be able to break him down and get him to bare his soul outside of the stage. No one except for Sam. The girl out of rehab, the one everybody finds creepy and disturbing, is the only one Shiner deems honest enough to confess his own fears and frustrations to. “You’re a great mess,” he tells her. “It’s like a candle burning at both ends, but it’s beautiful.” For Shiner, the only place that matters, that is truly real is the stage. Everything else is artificial, make-believe bullshit, and only Sam sees why. These are the kinds of revelations that in Carver’s writing turned mere characters on paper into fully fleshed out individuals.
Unlike Robert Altman’s Shortcuts from 1993 which was a direct adaptation of Carver’s collection of short stories and approached the writer’s subject of social malaise more head-on, Birdman‘s critique of Hollywood, ego and fame skillfully disguises the character study at the heart of the film. Iñárritu draws us into the world behind the curtains of Broadway not because he wants to give us a lesson in film studies and poke fun at Michael Keaton’s own past as the caped crusader, but because he wants us to wrestle with our own shortcomings and recognize the struggle of this miserable troupe of actors as something real and honest. In a way, the film’s artificiality in the form of silky smooth tracking shots and precisely orchestrated blocking of scenes serve to highlight the simplicity of what is at stake: people and their lives. It’s a mess. It’s never easy, but you have to go through it and there is no backing away. And so, as an audience, we are given access to each confrontation, Iñárritu’s camera holds tight on the tired, worn out faces of Riggan, Mike, Sam, and others.
There’s very little sense to our lives and in the way they unfold in Raymond Carver’s writing. The scenes between Riggan and his ex-wife tap into this convoluted mystery called life, and the equally convoluted mystery of most relationships. Both Riggan and Sylvia still love and respect each other, but perhaps they don’t respect themselves, and that has broken their bond. Riggan, half-stunned by a preview of the play gone wrong, asks Sylvia: “Why did we break up?” To which she replies, in typical Carver fashion, “Because you threw a kitchen knife at me. And an hour later you were telling me how much you loved me.”
These interactions are not too distant from what we’ve seen in Iñárritu’s other films, particularly his Trilogy of Death (Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel), where characters are consumed by the passing of time. In the game called life, they are victims of circumstances. Perhaps, what life is all about, argues Iñárritu, is reacting and, in some cases, learning to embrace the ever-shifting nature of these circumstances which then lead us to decisions which in turn motivate our actions, our feelings. Riggan, for example, found himself victim of fame and success early on in his career. His response to this change eventually determined how his life would unfold later on. In Birdman, we see Riggan fight to stay relevant, but in the process of fighting, as he’s on the brink of giving up, he sees a glimpse of hope. Is it still love? Or is it something else entirely? Iñárritu, like Raymond Carver, doesn’t give us any answers. But, there is hope. We just have to look up.