Art captures reality in its most real state, while at the same time transcending reality, to a dream-state, or perhaps even divine. The belief the artist must have can be narcissistic to the point of megalomania, or manic, or methodical. What it can’t be is fearful, doubting, or panicked.
Birdman is the story of an actor who made his name playing a comic book-like superhero in the early 90s, but who now recognizes the emptiness of that life. And, what better way to open a movie about such a powerful social critique than with a quote from Raymond Carver. That’s what I thought when I read that quote, that is the first thing we see on the screen.
It’s ego. It’s arrogance and pride and self-destruction and art. It’s something that’s inside us all but so few of us dare touch the madness necessary to actually embrace that creative side because to touch it is to know madness and there’s a good chance that we never come back from it.
My younger brother James is the CEO of a multi-million dollar company. He and I were chatting one night about how I was depressed. He can’t embrace those emotions the way I have to. He has to maintain the kind of sanity required to run a company.
As an artist, as a filmmaker, I have no such restrictions. My restrictions are restrictions from restraint. In fact, in order to create art, I have to live in the madness. I have to let myself feel the sadness of Katie (the dream girl from high school) and how she died in a car accident on the way back to school her sophomore year of college. I didn’t go to the funeral. I’m still mourning her.
I have to feel the outrage of the injustices I see in the world around me.
I feel that swell in my chest as I watch the sun set off the coast of southern California, caused by the pollution of heavy industry and clogged freeways.
Or I have to weep whenever I hear Connie Dover’s version of Shenandoah.
Birdman captures that madness in the form of the imagination of Riggan as he reckons with the impossible reality of creating beauty while still being a frail, ego-driven human.
He wants to fly. He wants to blow things up and be recognized and loved. He wants someone to believe in him as much as he has to believe in himself in order to create his art.
I’m watching the Blu-ray of Almost Famous around the same time as I watched Birdman. Almost Famous is about the rise of the band Stillwater. But, there’s another character in the movie, a groupie called Penny Lane. On my second viewing of the movie, I saw Penny Lane as an extravagant actor, trying to be larger-than-life, flowing over, embracing the unreality of the creation of art. In other words, I thought she was mildly delusional.
It wasn’t until the 3rd viewing that Penny Lane’s madness isn’t about being mentally ill, but about that ending of the trance that is the transcendent place all art comes from. Its about being filled with a spirit that is inspiration. It’s about finding the muse that allows for the creation of music.
Maybe it’s an external power, a possession by some metaphysical entity that is just beyond our current laws of physics. Or, maybe it’s the conscious unconsciousness as suggested by Carl Jung. Whatever it is, we now recognize that necessary place of creation as madness.
Riggan touches the madness. He lives there. Birdman is about Riggan trying to maintain his ability to matter to the rest of the sane world.
The moment when that belief becomes irrelevant and he knows this is the when he has to fly, in spite of his being just a man, or sink into the oblivion that is irrelevance, then even his fragile humanity becomes part of his creation and he does the best work of his life. Then, he is recognized by everyone. Then, he can truly fly.
[image from: http://moviepilot.com/posts/2014/10/16/new-york-film-festival-2014-birdman-movie-review-2349850?lt_source=external,manual]