This is the companion piece to the Birdman, or (The Techniques of the Postmodern Text) wherein I discussed the structural aspects of Birdman that fit it neatly into the postmodern artistic movement. Here I want to explore the broad themes that often pop up in postmodern texts and exemplify how they make an appearance in Birdman.
Chaos and cacophony
Postmodernists are infamous for embracing the many, many voices and inundation of information of our current age. Birdman’s plot is specifically about the growing chaos Riggan Thompson has to navigate as he moves through preview performances of his play to the opening night. He is attempting to force an order on this chaos, but the more he struggles against the chaos, the more chaotic things become. The pinnacle of this chaos is when Riggan locks himself out of the theater in only underwear and socks and must make a dash around the long block to the front of the theater, making his way through crowds, a marching band, and costumed characters. The only control he can finally impose is in his choice to shoot himself on stage, a cynical and unrepeatable choice.
Cacophony is specifically represented in the not-so-subtle jazz drum score that becomes a diegetic part of the film. But most importantly it presents itself through Riggan’s auditory hallucinations/fantasy of Birdman. Birdman offers a continually critical voice on Riggan’s choices, denigrating the theater and Riggan’s plans for redemption while trying to push him back towards the big screen blockbuster franchise of Birdman.
Subversion of authority
Who defines great acting? The worth of a celebrity? Of a human being? The film sets up a few sources of authority only to tear them down. First is Mike, Ed Norton’s character, who is originally painted as a much more authentic actor than Riggan in the scene where Mike coaches more realism and engagement out of Riggan’s performance. But Mike’s authority on great acting gets dinged when Mike breaks character to yell at Riggan for replacing his gin with water during a preview performance, garnering boos from the audience. Allowing the scene to fall apart because his real drinking and drunkenness was curtailed by the director seems an absurd choice–the audience looses all sense of the “reality” on the stage as they are obnoxiously reminded that these are mere actors. Mike obliterates his authority on realistic, authentic acting when he achieves an erection on stage and proceeds to try to have sex with his girlfriend and acting partner in front of a full audience. He comes off as absurdly out of touch with himself and a total douchebag to boot.
The Times theater critic ends up being a second authority in Riggan’s quest for respect. Her authority gets subverted in a few ways. Most obviously, Riggan himself tears down her style of criticism after she threatens to kill his play no matter how good it might be. So first off we see her as a vindictive woman whose power to define theater in New York has gone to her head. She is not objective. Instead she sees her job as a way to crusade against Hollywood acting and the emptiness of movies. Riggan’s tirade against her amplifies this through its secondary undermining of her craft as a critic. When she offers a glowing front page rave about Riggan actually shooting himself in the face, the absurdity of her expectations of realism and authentic acting on the stage completely destroy her authority.
Ultimately, the authority on Riggan’s worth seems to be the fans, whether they come via Birdman, Broadway theater, YouTube, or Twitter.
The comedy presented in Birdman comes almost entirely from absurdity–the sense of meaninglessness, unexpectedness, or marked lack of reason present in how these characters respond to the situations they find themselves in. There are no jokes in the traditional sense, but there is some slapstick and a touch of farce. For example, one of the funniest scenes is when Riggan and Mike get into a fist fight. Elements of absurdity: Riggan attempting to re-take control of his production by hitting Mike in the jaw is nonsensical, Mike is heavily tanned and clothed only in his skivvies after coming straight from the tanning bed he made the production purchase, they put up their dukes in an antiquated style of fighting, and finally they are completely inadequate fighters, finally just rolling around awkwardly on the floor.
Anxiety, alienation, and ennui
Riggan’s emotional and psychological life is clearly the focus of the film. He exhibits the psyche of postmodernism clearly: the anxiety of whether he’s doing the right thing attempting this play rather than just signing on for a Birdman 4, the anxiety about his own relevance and importance, the alienation from his daughter Sam. And while Riggan seems to be in a very particular situation as a celebrity and actor, his struggle with meaning is meant to mirror everyone’s. Sam highlights this when she rants:
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 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.
Sam gives a kind of postmodern manifesto in this speech, describing the existential angst everyone feels as they attempt to make meaning of their lives.
Sam also exemplifies the ennui portion of the postmodern psyche. Ennui here can be defined as a boredom or listlessness coming from a lack of meaningful engagement and the anxiety created by that lack of meaning. Riggan doesn’t seem to be bored by his own anxiety–he seems genuinely engaged with it. Sam on the other hand seems much more cynically detached and listless. She has a past of drug addiction, but even her decisions during the time-frame of the film seem to stem from her boredom. She sits on the edge of the ledge of the theater balcony two stories up from the street, daring a fall to end her existence. When Mike comes along she challenges him to a game of truth or dare and openly flirts with him. It seems an act of boredom more than an authentic progression of attraction. But she also seems at peace with the transitory nature of significance in today’s world.
Riggan continues to struggle to find relevance, significance, and meaning in his life. The audience sees his struggle as absurd–a fight with no winner.