Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Continued thoughts on Birdman (and Gravity)

(a follow-up to this post)

More than once while watching Birdman, I felt that Gravity might have been an equally apt title for it. Two meanings of that word fit this film: the lead character Riggan is preoccupied with subject matter that has gravitas and is “grounded” (as opposed to the “lightweight” superheroes-with-wings blockbusters made for summer audiences), hence his staging of a Raymond Carver story that he associates with respectability. And visually and thematically, the film is concerned with the divide between being tethered and feeling liberated. (Is it possible to be both things at once?)

So the opening scene of the main narrative has Riggan in a state of levitation; but after this he spends most of his time in the theatre’s confining backstage spaces, with the camera tracking him at close quarters as if to make sure he won’t suddenly take wing again (and also possibly to keep Riggan’s Icarus-like alter ego away from him!). And the film’s last shot has Sam searching for her dad in his hospital room, seeing the open window, rushing to it in panic…and then doing what any of us would instinctively do in her place: she looks down. (Everyone knows the law of gravity: things/people that fall/jump from high places go only in one direction.) It is only after that, when she doesn’t see what she had feared, that she looks up…and a smile lights up her face.

This is an enigmatic, possibly pretentious, ending, open to interpretation: the way I saw it was that Riggan, having achieved the success he wanted in a sombre medium, has freed himself. He can be a superhero again (if he chooses - Birdman 4 is waiting for him), or he can do whatever else he feels like doing without worrying about expectations. And okay, if you want to be literal-minded and “realist” about it (though I don’t think the film invites us to do this – I’m a little surprised by how many reviewers seem so sure that all the supernatural stuff is happening only in Riggan’s mind), maybe he is dead – because after having achieved creative fulfillment, there’s nowhere else to go. But the basic principle about being liberated still applies.

Incidentally, I was thinking of the connections between Birdman and Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity before I knew that cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki had supervised and executed the spectacular long takes in both films. The films are polar opposites in a way, even though both feature a dizzying series of circular movements and narrative twists that lead up to a moment of truth for the main character. If Birdman’s backstage set creates a mood of claustrophobia – and Riggan is in danger of being hemmed in, of being swallowed up by his own insecurities and the need for other people’s approval – Gravity is about the opposite but equally potent fear, agoraphobia: being adrift in the vast nothingness of space, being bound to, or responsible to, nothing. Both have allegorical endings: but in Birdman, Riggan attains a very agreeable lightness of being and is free to glide away into the ether, while in Gravity Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone falls out of space into the water and then staggers back to terra firma. Two characters, two different epiphanies. 

(And am I over-reaching by pointing out that both Riggan and Ryan are in their underwear during their Big Moment? Possibly. But well, as DH Lawrence said, trust the tale.)


  1. I am quite surprised that in a piece (or movie) that was just begging for it, you did not bring up your elephant art vs termite art mention! What is Birdman if not the very definition of the Hollywood dichotomy. The constant hustle and bustle between the those that want to make money and those that want to get the stationary knight.

    And does the dichotomy even inherently exist or it is simply our construct? So if Riggin did fly away after all, then the whole Icarus and hubris analogy doesn't even apply. The bigger question here is not about whether he found his true calling or whether he made peace with one and successfully let go of the other. It's really about can this dichotomy be breached. Is there a wall that we can break down and start analysing an Iron Man movie (we did that with The Dark Knight?!) the same way we analyze all award baits.

    Aside: I always feel back in India the lines are a blur. We do swap the way we look at films between the two kind of arts. Of course some of us are all for more power to the mainstream and there is absolutely nothing like a mainstream film satiating all the art-y desires. It's less defined here. Having said that, I keep going to back to the post 90s Kamal Haasan as Riggin trying to balance all arty ambitions within the mainstream format with the whole spectrum of results. Spectacular failures to spectacular successes.

  2. Is there a wall that we can break down and start analysing an Iron Man movie (we did that with The Dark Knight?!) the same way we analyze all award baits

    Well, of course - and I'm sure some of the finest film writers around the world are already doing this, the same way that the Movie journal writers and other early auteurists in the 1960s were shaking the establishment up by making statements like (to take just one by Andrew Sarris), "...Kiss Me Deadly is more profound than Marty ... Rio Bravo is more morally committed than The Nun's Story ... Psycho will be admired long after A Man for All Seasons has been forgotten." (To our eyes, such statements might not even seem too remarkable 50 years later - but try looking at some of the sneering initial dismissals of those films as facile, mass-market entertainments when they first came out.)

    1. if Riggin did fly away after all, then the whole Icarus and hubris analogy doesn't even apply

      That isn't how I look at it. Probably didn't make this clear in my posts, but the way I see it, there are two different (and ultimately contrary) versions of the Icarus/being-liberated theme at play here. The first is where Riggan sees himself as restricted by the Birdman image and wants to break free from that by doing something "serious". But ironically, that self-conscious need for self-validation becomes another prison for him (and this is captured by the film's claustrophobic mise-en-scene and the constant moving around in circles). And in the end, he achieves a deeper, more complete sort of freedom. Don't know if that makes any sense.

  3. The last scene when Riggin jumps of the window and his daughter smiling up watching him fly reminded me of the last scene from Aankhon Dekhi where Bauji jumps off a cliff in order to experience what it feels like when one flies.