Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's new film Birdman (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a blazing ride through the hyper-kinetic mind of Michael Keaton's "has been" superhero actor, Riggan Thomson, as he battles his own demons and a fickle public while attempting to resuscitate his fading career and his strained relationship with his ex-wife and daughter. Using a play within a screenplay, Inarritu has Riggan directing and acting in a Raymond Carver play about love and the meaning of life, as Riggan's tightly wound life of celebrity and super-status unwinds. Riggan is tormented by his ego, personified by the voice and figure of his old superhero character Birdman, alternately deriding him and telling him he is better than others. Meanwhile, Ed Norton, in superb form as the narcissistic theatrical star Mike Shiner, threatens everything dear to Riggan including his stature as an actor, the theater production in which Riggan has invested his savings and career, and even Riggan's life. The medium is the message in this film as the circuitous cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki (who won an Oscar last year for shooting Gravity), with long shots through the back hallways of the theater and the streets of New York, seamlessly follows Riggan from beginning to end of his ego-trip.
Michael Keaton's palpable, frenetic energy paired with an earthly and likable humanity as an actor makes him the perfect choice for this role as his character searches for redemption and meaning. But what makes his character Riggan surreal is the fact that Michael Keaton played Batman to great acclaim in Tim Burton's Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992). I was one of those fans who stood in the street wearing my Batman shirt outside the theater in Westwood to see Michael Keaton at the premier of Batman. A few years later, I was still under Keaton's spell when he bicycled past my boyfriend's house in Pacific Palisades and spit on the grass as he went by. I rushed into the house to inform my boyfriend that Batman had just blessed the lawn! Recently, I was dining with that same boyfriend, now my husband and father of our two teenage children, when we noticed Keaton eating at a nearby table. The word "Batman" was whispered by waiters and diners as the very genteel, trim, now gray haired Keaton enjoyed his meal. Michael Keaton will always be Batman, but now he has become something even better as an actor in Birdman, superbly human.
In Geshe Kelsang Gyatso's Eight Steps to Happiness,The Buddhist way to Loving Kindness, 2,500 year old Buddhist teachings about the 8-step path to enlightenment are revealed for modern readers. Gyatso says:
Every living being has the potential to become a Buddha, someone who has completely purified his or her mind of all faults and limitations and has brought all good qualities to perfection. Our mind is like a cloudy sky, in essence clear and pure but overcast by clouds of delusions. Just as the thickest clouds can disperse, so too even the heaviest delusions can be removed from our mind. Delusions such as hatred, greed, and ignorance are not an intrinsic part of the mind... they can be completely eliminated and we will experience the supreme happiness of full enlightenment.
Buddhism seeks to explain the nature of suffering and offers a path toward mental control to alleviate all suffering. Since Ignorance is a root of suffering, not a virtue, the subtitle of the film, "The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance" appears to be a Buddhist joke by Inarritu about his character Riggan as Birdman who is blind to his ignorance and feels super powerful though he is crippled by his lack of awareness.
The first indication of Buddhist meaning in this film is the opening with Riggan filmed from behind as he is levitating in meditation pose in his dingy dressing room. Has Riggan really trained his mind so well that he can actually float in midair? Not likely since his mind is full of chatter that we can hear. Soon we discover that the floating and other telekinetic powers that Riggan demonstrates in the film may just be a figment of his imagination into which we, the audience are invited by director Inarritu. Basically, Riggan still feels the old superpowers that were granted to him on film in his old days as Birdman. These powers exist as a delusion in Riggan's mind. But ever aware of the power of film to excite and suspend our disbelief, Inarritu SHOWS us the delusions as Keaton flies and makes explosions. We are inside Riggan's deluded mind, and it is exhilarating, just like in the movies. We also experience his ego in the visible and audible form of a large talking Birdman character that haunts Riggan, telling him variously that he is all washed up or that he is better than others and a superhero. But Riggan has no control over his mind and therefore no control over his circumstances as he spirals out of control. He tries to connect with his post-rehab daughter, perfectly played by Emma Stone, and his ex-wife, again perfectly played by Amy Ryan, but his apologies for his selfish waste of their love are not coupled with action. He can not accept their pain and give love and compassion in return. He is still more devoted to his own ego than to them.
Riggan's ignorance explodes in a moment on stage in the play within the screenplay involving a gun. He winds up in a hospital bed, a "real life" version of the character he decribes in his play that is bandaged so heavily that he cannot see the love of his life, his wife. In Riggan's case, he cannot smell the lilacs that his daughter has brought him. At this point in the film, Riggan is offered a glimpse of the true meaning of life as his daughter rests her head on his chest. She has forgiven him, and is offering her love. He has the opportunity to accept and give true love. The Play, Birdman, none of that matters. All that matters is love.
In Buddhism, true enlightenment comes from cherishing others and viewing others as supreme, above ourselves. Only in this way can we escape our delusions of separateness, self-hatred and self-importance. Riggan goes from someone who literally has delusions of superpowers separating him from ordinary people, to a humbled man who has the opportunity to exchange true love with his daughter. Does he reach enlightenment or does he cling to his ignorance and delusions and destroy himself? The end of the film is enigmatic and offers two contrasting endings at the same time: a realistic ending in which he succumbs to his demons, and a surreal ending in which he reaches enlightenment through cherishing his daughter more than himself, and even she can see him fly.
I was lucky to see Birdman at a srceening in the beautiful Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences followed by a discussion with director Inarritu and actors Ed Norton and Andrea Riseborough, who plays Riggan's backstage girlfriend in the play. The following are comments made by these talented people about the film:
Inarritu: "We don't know who we are without 'likes.' This is a disease of our society as we try to find identity."
Norton: "I love how Keaton made a pathetic character who's ego ruined him, but he still gets the audience's compassion."
Riseborough: "The film deals with relevance, and it felt relevant while we were making it."
Inarritu: "My Birdman was a Mexican Vulture on my back saying, 'What is this crap?' "
If you wonder how Inarritu can top this film, a wonder shot on a small budget in only 29 days, the director joked to the Academy members that for his next film, he intends to really cash in with a prequel to Birdman as an action film.