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Art on Film: “Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance”

Birdman review

In a series of blog posts, The Art League explores the intersection of film and art and what it means to be an artist, starting with the 2014 film, “Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance” starring Michael Keaton. 

Shot as one continuous, frenetic take which winds through the dark, labyrinthine back hallways of a Broadway theatre production, Birdman creatively explores the universal struggles of “art-making”. Apprehensive, anxious drums punctuate discussions of authenticity, success, personal insecurities and everything in between. Nearly every character in the film struggles in their own way to succeed, to “make it.” From the well-respected theatre critic to the stage crew behind the scenes, we see their attempts as creatives trying to legitimize themselves and establish themselves as masters of their craft. The energetic, asymmetrical beats bounce off the brick walls and tumble into small spaces, where we find these conversations.

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
~Raymond Carver

At the center of this production is Riggan Thomson, an older Hollywood actor made famous by his previous role as the popular action hero “Birdman.” He has chosen to produce, direct and star in his own adaptation of Raymond Carver’s series of short stories “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”– an undertaking he has convinced himself, and perhaps only himself, will revive his career as an actor, but most importantly gain him legitimacy as an artist.

To interviewers and critics, Riggan unabashedly promotes this image of himself as a true auteur, the “real deal”, despite his internationally-known identity as a mainstream “celebrity”. He is desperately attempting to redefine himself in the art world, to distance himself as much as possible from his identity as a Hollywood superhero. Ironically, Riggan uses his celebrity “powers”, i.e. money and connections, to indulge himself in this project. Throughout the film, we come to understand that no amount of money can buy artistic legitimacy.

The greatest obstacle for Riggan to overcome both artistically as well as personally is his own self-doubt. He is plagued by an incessant inner dialogue between himself as Riggan Thomson, and the character of “Birdman” who is attempting to sow doubt throughout the process in an effort to pull Riggan back into the safer, more predictable world of mainstream popular culture, where success is easier to attain for him. He doubts that he will ever be able to pull this more meaningful production off, but there remains a side of Riggan that pushes through this critical voice and is able to keep working.

Drawings from the movie, Birdman
Drawings from the movie, Birdman

Nearly every artist has experienced a similar struggle. Regardless of the amount of support, both emotionally as well as financially, creating art can be a journey of hard truths and self-doubt. Artists or not, we all hope to connect with the world around us as we would like to be seen or understood. However, the human condition remains, confining our own hopes and aspirations only to what we are willing to embrace, as well as sacrifice, in order to achieve. This is at once both a motivating and daunting fact.

While we should all aim to challenge ourselves as artists and push the boundaries of what we think we are capable of achieving, we must also be willing to endure the growing pains of such a journey. This film is a microcosm of a much larger, shared experience. Perhaps we can find and share effective ways of quelling our fears and doubts if we are able to first address them.

How have you experienced self-doubt as an artist, and what methods have you used to overcome it?

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