My name is Caleb Michael Sarvis. I’m a writer, a thinker, and currently a self-reflective incubator. Welcome to a blog series in which I’ll be analyzing both the practical and interesting ways imaginary characters can play in fiction, including The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien, 2014’s Best Picture Winner Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), and other short fiction.
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
The role of the imaginary character as both a means of interest and functional character is evident in the screenplay for Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) written by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. and Armando Bo. Throughout the screenplay, Riggan Thompson, the protagonist, continually argues with his imaginary counter-part, Birdman, who appears to represent the younger, happier version of Riggan. Riggan is a fifty-five year-old actor that used to play the superhero Birdman in a franchise similar to that of Ironman or Captain America. However, present day Riggan has written and is currently directing and starring in a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s story “What We Talk About when We Talk About Love.” His motivation, as written, is to receive specific recognition as an artist and revive an elevated from of relevancy from earlier in his career. In short, he doesn’t want to be known as “the guy that played Birdman,” or worse, simply as “Birdman.” The imaginary character in this piece, Birdman, serves as a constant reminder to Riggan (and the reader), that his quest for relevancy outside of that franchise is something of an impossible goal, and he should return to Hollywood where he can make easy money doing what people expect from him. Riggan is Birdman, no matter how hard he tries to separate the two identities. As much as he’d like to distance himself from his past (Birdman), he finds that he’s unable to because the past will always be hispast. The tension between Riggan and Birdman really boils to the surface after a scene in which he and Mike, his co-star, exchange blows in a dressing room. Mike represents what a “real” actor is supposed to be. Dedicated, a little pretentious, and willing to go as far as it takes to get into character. In this scene, the two wrestle in the hallway before Mike breaks free and speaks to Riggan,
What are you gonna do? You gonna get rid of me? Huh? What do you think my friend Tabitha is going to write in the Times after you get rid of me?
Riggan stares at Mike, paralyzed by the truth. Finally, he turns and marches to his dressing room, and we follow him…
(Pg. 70, Scene 33).
This use of “the truth” by the writer is key for our understanding of the interaction between Birdman and Riggan in the following scene. The friend mentioned, Tabitha, is the top critic for the New York Times. She represents Riggan’s deepest fear: that he’ll be seen as fraud from Hollywood, an aspiring artist that doesn’t make art. Her review will ultimately dictate whether or not Riggan receives the artistic recognition he desires so much. If he is to succeed, he needs Mike, no matter how much of a pest he is. This reality, and the fears accompanied with it, are given voice by Birdman in the following scene,
… Riggan slams the door shut and paces in a rage. He glares at a make-up box on the table and, points his finger at it, and sends in flying across the room.
You are lame, Riggan. Rolling around with that third rate actor in an 800 seat shithole like this.
Breathing in, I feel my rage. Breathing out, I embrace my mental formations.
You’re going to let that poncey theater fuck threaten you?
Riggan continues breathing deeply with his eyes tightly closed. He smiles a tiny artificial smile.
Breathing in, I am calm. Breathing out, I ignore my mental formations. This is a mental formation. This is a mental form—
Stop that shit. I am not a mental formation. I am “you”, asshole.
(Pg. 70, Scene 34).
Reality operates on several planes in this scene. One, Riggan needs Mike if he’s going to succeed, despite Birdman’s claims that Mike is beneath him. A second truth is that Birdman speaks very much Mike’s (as well as “everyone’s”) own personal thoughts. He is not a mental formation that Riggan can simply wish away through some breathing exercise. Through the action described at the beginning of the scene, we can see that Riggan has the ability to move things simply by pointing at them. This sort of telekinesis exists throughout Birdman, and the reality of this ability is woven in the existence of Birdman, the imaginary character. Riggan smashes things continuously by pointing at them, and he only does this when he’s alone in a scene, though this aloneness includes the presence of Birdman. This decision by the writer to confuse the existence of Riggan’s powers creates direct conflict with what Riggan wants. He uses the powers as a means of catharsis, of short-term resolution, but if he has powers then he must be Birdman, no? This could be the justification for his hiding the powers from those other than Birdman. You’re not a drug dealer if nobody catches you dealing drugs, right? That’s what Riggan would like to believe. The argument that began in this scene continues onto the next couple of pages, and reveals the conflict central to the entire story,
What are you trying to prove? Huh? That you’re an artist? You’re not.
Riggan points his fingers at a chair and sends it flying.
Fuck you, coward! And fuck those critics that made you quit. Our franchise grossed billions worldwi—
And billions of flies eat shirt every day! So what? Does that make it good? (Beat.) And I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but that was 1992! Look at me! (He takes off his shirt.) This is what’s left! (Grabbing his neck.) This! (Grabbing his chest.) This! (Totally exploding.) I’m fucking disappearing!I’m the answer to a fucking Trivial Pursuit question.
(Pg. 71, Scene 34).
When Riggan says he’s “fucking disappearing!” we are given insight to what is plaguing him: relevancy. This quest to prove he’s an artist is simply a veil of his biggest fear: that he doesn’t matter, that he doesn’t exist without Birdman. We get brief glimpses of this beforehand, when his daughter Sam says something to the same affect to him, but Sam is a disgruntled daughter. She’s a recovering addict and her statement is reactionary, so the reader doesn’t deem it as credible until we are in the scene above. Birdman calls Riggan a coward because he won’t embrace what he really is, the same guy that played Birdman all those years ago. Riggan is working hard to separate himself from Birdman, because he blames Birdman for his faults in life; faults that include missing out on his daughter’s childhood, cheating on his ex-wife, and never taking his life seriously before now. Riggan is a coward because despite the way the public sees him, he is reluctant to pair himself with Birdman. In the same scene, we see his argument with Birdman escalate and reveal that kind of truth,
What part of that don’t you get? You’re fucking dead.
We are not dead. We’re—
Stop saying ‘we’! There is no ‘we’. I am not you. I’m Riggan fucking Thomson.
No. You’re Birdman. Because without me, all that’s left is “you”. A sad, selfish, midcore actor, grasping—
Riggan points his finger and sends the poster flying, spearing is on a coat rack, piercing Birdman right through the heart. Finally, silence. Until…
What the hell did you do that for? I liked that poster.
A confused Riggan looks over to the wall, where the lamp on the floor is creating a shadow of his figure. Only in the shadow, it appears as if Riggan is wearing the Birdman costume. Stunned, Riggan slowly lifts one arm and in the shadow we see a wing.
(Pg. 72, Scene 34).
The emphasis on the “we” here gets to the heart of the problem. Riggan doesn’t want to own his past mistakes. Not only do those mistakes belong to Birdman, but starring in the Birdman franchise was itself a mistake. In a sort of symbolic gesture, Riggan uses his telekinetic powers to pierce the Birdman poster and in effect, killing him; however, we see that Birdman’s voice is still present in the scene, and instead of killing him, Riggan may have given him more power. As mentioned above, the very existence of the telekinesis, a super power, only lends to Birdman’s claim that he and Riggan are undeniably one. The closing action of this scene describes a merging of the two identities. Riggan looks to hisshadow, and we see that it “is wearing the Birdman costume.” He “slowly lifts one arm and in the shadow we see a wing.” If Riggan is, by his claim, a separate being than Birdman, then why does hisshadow have a wing? Because it is impossible to separate the two, no matter how much Riggan desires to do so, and it’s the imaginary character, Birdman, that’s always there to remind him of this reality.
In Birdman, Riggan cannot find resolution until accepts this truth, and as we approach the climax of the story, we are given a sense of acceptance. Before Riggan goes on to give the performance that all but seals his reputation as a real artist, the writer places him in a situation in which he must reconcile his differences with Birdman. Riggan wakes up on a porch after drinking himself to sleep the night before, and too hungover, or too week, to do anything, Riggan turns passive towards Birdman’s actions,
Riggan keeps walking. Birdman, insistent, chases, until suddenly he begins to flutter off the ground.
Do you hear me? You can do anything! You’re an icon!
Desperate, Birdman flies a bit higher around him.
You’re bigger than life. You save people from their boring, miserable lives…
The camera pans to the street in front of them. People carry out their everyday routines. There is a deli, a souvenir shop, a small bank…
BIRDMAN (O.S.) (CONT’D)
… You make them jump, laugh, cry, shit their pants… All you have to do is snap your fingers and…
Riggan snaps his fingers, once, twice, and the bank suddenly explodes. The sound is so loud that it seems to belong to another movie. The earth shakes. People run. Dust all over. Fire. An unsteady camera pans back to Birdman.
That’s what I’m talking about! That is cool! Explosive! Big, fast, loud!
(He turns directly to the camera and talks about the audience.)
Look at them. They love that shit! They starve for blood and action, not this artsy-fartsy-philosophical bullshit!
We hear a loud roar, and the camera pans to discover a huge alien about to crash a cab against the asphalt. Birdman uses his powerful blow to send the alien flying away.
And when you shout” whooaa!” …
(Riggan shouts “Whooaa!”)
…it explodes in the eardrum of millions. Your power is unlimited.
Riggan slows down his pace, as he starts to listen.
(96-96, Scene 50).
While combative throughout the screenplay previously, Riggan chooses not to respond to Birdman at all in this scene. He makes one vocal statement, though he’s really just following a command here. (In the filmed-version, Riggan actually screeches like a bird). As Birdman speaks, Riggan’s imagination gives life to his words. A Marvel-esque action sequence unfolds, and it appears Riggan might actually be contemplating the idea of making another Birdman film. The two most important moments in this scene, however, are very subtle. Birdman says, “They starve for blood and action,” and Riggan “slows down his pace, as he starts to listen.” This is Riggan’s last real interaction before the final showing of What We Talk about When We Talk about Love. What we learn right before his final scene is that Riggan decides to use a real gun on stage, and when his stage character commits suicide, Riggan actually shoots himself, but not before saying “I don’t exist. I’m not even here. I don’t exist. None of this matters,” (106, Scene 55). This is Riggan’s resolution, where he accepts an indisputable reality. He doesn’t exist, because he isBirdman. There is a fade to black and subsequent last scene, the meaning which can be debated another time because Riggan’s survival is not the subject here. Riggan’s motivation, however, is. Birdman, and Riggan’s inability to separate himself from him, is the natural antagonist. Not the outside world, but rather, the very real inside world of Riggan. Like in The Third Policeman, the conflict is one of interiority. It wasn’t until he acquiesced and listened to Birdman that he accepted that truth, and thus found his own resolution.
Iñárritu, Alejandro. Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).
2014. PDF File.