I have been trying to write this for some time. I saw this film over a month ago, and have been pondering it ever since, talking about it over dinner, on buses, reading endless reviews. Clearly Birdman (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2015) is essential viewing for those interested in masculine identity and superheroes. It is, essentially, a film about what it might mean to be a man when you are no longer able to be Batman. It should have so much to say about masculinity, aging, Hollywood, gender identity, performativity, heroism. And yet…
Of course I came to the film with expectations. I expected clever, witty, intelligence of execution. I expected self-awareness, self-mocking, and heavy Hollywood side-eye. Some of which I got. And yet…
Despite my pondering, my listening, my chatting, I still felt ill-equipped to write a review, or a consideration of the themes raised. Until, finally, I was chatting to a close friend who’s just not into comics, heroes, action movies and all my nerdery. This friend laughed as I tried to explain the problems I was having with the film. She said she found all this over-analysis funny. Now, she’s not a person to take cultural criticism lightly. As a queer feminist herself, she understands the impact media representations and marginalisations can have. She described both the over-thinking I was doing, and the film itself as (and I might be paraphrasing) ‘pretentious twaddle, but enjoyable’. Eureka!
This film wraps itself in layers of thought, imagery and cultural referencing. I liked the snide little in-jokes, the references to the current crop of heroes on the silver screen, a bit of Raymond Carver (who doesn’t?). And endless pieces have been produced exploring everything in it; I very much enjoyed this excellent exploration of the use of Carver’s work. But in the end, I must agree with Scott Tobias summation in The Dissolve ; it’s ‘pretentious fraud’.
This film throws references, apparent insights, intense emotions, witty retorts, at us until we are as spun around and groundless as our main character, Riggan. But it never gives us a toehold, never bothers to root itself, just as it never roots the camera. Why show us Mike’s sexism, Sam’s self-destruction, Laura’s desperation? It’s fun to strip away the artifices, the clever-clever in-jokes, the knowing comments on acting and performance and gender. But once you have peeled away all the layers what is left?
Nothing. This is a film without a soul, without a heart.
What this film does have though, is a gender. This, it proclaims loudly, repeatedly, is a man’s film, about a man’s world. It understands women’s place in this world all to well, and it’s even wryly funny about it:
‘Why don’t I have any self respect?’
‘Oh hunny, you’re an actress.’
But man’s place is centralised. And his place is to be a big, swinging dick. Gender and sex are conflated absolutely. Mike and Riggan’s literal and metaphorical cocks are the pendulums that keep this show ticking along. Yet, this is the source of all their problems, personally and professionally. Mike can only ‘perform’ as a man when he is ‘performing’. Riggan’s performance is the only ‘real’ thing about him.
If only the film-makers knew this. That gender is not all about sex, and sex not all about gender. What is missing from this film is any concept of selfhood. Riggan’s identity – as an actor, as a person, a parent, as a superhero alter-ego – is profoundly gendered, and profoundly lacking. Riggan is a man. Riggan was Birdman. So what? Who is Riggan? Who cares, he’s a man!