Arts, Movies, Column

Life Is Not Cinema: What We Can Learn From ‘Birdman’

We separate social life from work life, work life from virtual life—we try to live in multiple worlds, only to inhabit one incompletely.

How much of our life is staged? Where do we hang our curtains? Who is our audience? The movie Birdman was filmed so that the cuts would be invisible, a series of long shots stringed together seamlessly. The boundaries between mental and physical, public and private disappear, as the characters move from the stage, to their rooms, to the streets.

Going to see Birdman last week was meant to untangle the knotted mess that midterms had created in my brain. Far from a sunny escape, the film brought on a series of existential questions. It got me thinking about our tendency to compartmentalize life into isolated units and environments, ignoring how these “compartments” all belong to a single thread of reality. Instead of striving to be consistent and coherent, we create binaries and false choices. We separate social spaces from work spaces, work spaces from virtual spaces, and we do not realize how trying to live in these separate worlds makes us inconsistent people.

Birdman follows the story of Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a down-on-his-luck Hollywood actor hoping to transition his career to plays. Riggan is arguing with his ex-wife after a show when she points out he confuses admiration with love. He derives value from the audiences and reviews, she says. By basing his private image on his public persona, he is valuing an anonymous mass of people over those individuals closest to him (his family and colleagues).

How often are our actions driven and justified by an invisible audience? Which space do we actually live in? Platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are stages where we broadcast edited projections of ourselves—these projections often have remarkably little to do with what we claim to be our core beliefs. These platforms can be used to document reality, but more and more we find ourselves manufacturing a reality instead, making the world an audience for the persona we create.

Edward Norton’s character in Birdman, Mike Shiner, is a pretentious Broadway actor who can only feel authentic and real on stage, displaying nearly sociopathic tendencies outside of the spotlight. His ability to improvise and create emotions is what makes him so good at what he does. In one scene, the audience gets some laughs when Shiner gets out of bed on stage with a boner. Shiner later jokes about not being able to get one when he’s actually going to have sex.

He is an example of an individual who inhabits this public sphere and a staged reality before his own. This happens when we don’t spend enough time by ourselves and with ourselves. When we are always connected with and accessible to others—whether it be virtually or physically—it is hard to reflect on and distinguish between other peoples’ expectations and our own. It scares me to admit that the other day when a friend asked me for movie recommendations, I immediately went on Facebook to look at my list of movies that I had “liked.” It’s almost as if I trust this projection of myself more than my own brain. My staged reality was more real and reliable.

It took me a while to realize that what had gotten to me about the movie had less to do with the characters, their arcs and aspirations, and more to do with the editing and structure of the film. When I think about memories, I think in terms of fragments, montages of images, and nostalgia. But when I think about what I am feeling and living at the moment, it is a lot like director Alejandro Gonzales’ long shots. I am living through a sequence of emotions, thoughts, and spaces, with real and imaginary elements in constant movement. It is scary because there are no cuts. There are no transitions. There are no ellipses. We carry the same load from one space to the next, and when we find ourselves inauthentic in one take, it’s bound to carry over.

Featured Image Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

October 29, 2014