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In 2012, Boris Johnson got stuck on a zipwire as he attempted to celebrate a run of British gold at the London Olympics. Dangling above the heads of the populace, the mayor was uncowed by his predicament. “Is this not rather marvellous,” he seemed to ask, gamely continuing to wave his little flags. “Am I not charming? Am I not zany? Am I not unique? Am I not triumphant even in my failure?”
You can soar above all of them, growls Birdman, in protagonist Riggan Thompson's ear, as he rises from the ground. Gravity doesn't even apply to you.
Like Johnson, Birdman is kooky, energetic, and visually arresting. Riggan, the former star of a franchise of superhero blockbusters—played, of course, by Michael Keaton the real-life former star of a franchise of superhero blockbusters—finds himself grappling with failure, flabby, and forgotten in his sixties. Starved of adulation, he turns to the stage in the hope of receiving more of it. As his grip on sanity trembles, the fourth wall is permitted to wobble and reality to fracture. Keaton levitates, and tells the soundtrack when to stop and start. The camera races down backstage corridors of a New York theatre at exhilarating speed to the sound of Antonio Sanchez's restless drums, and we reel past Sanchez himself, playing unremarked in a corner. Birdman himself, at first just a deep, hypermasculine voice, then a preposterous eagle-winged and washboard-chested body, struts and hectors: absurd, menacing and perversely captivating as the Id of Western pop-culture.
This is, according to Empire magazine, “everything you want movies to be.”
But perhaps only if you're pretty comfortable with what movies are already.
For Riggan is only washed up and a failure in the sense that he is not as rich and famous as Robert Downey Jr., and that the Broadway play his wealth and connections have permitted him to write, direct, and star in is not absolutely guaranteed success—a pitiful human plight indeed. In one sense, the film is perfectly aware that it is the story of a long tantrum, a study of privilege outraged. Riggan is humiliated at turn after turn; stalked by the preposterous embodiment of his own former glory, embarrassed by the aftermath of his delusions, and forced to march through Time Square in his underpants. But he stumbles and soars onwards into—we are to believe—a Quixotic emotional authenticity so profound all critics (both personal and professional, and usually female) can only look on in awe. His enormous entitlement is shown to be ridiculous, undignified, embarrassing—but never simply wrong. “You cannot do this to me,” Riggan moans, when he finds his drug-addict daughter Sam (Emma Stone) may have fallen off the wagon. “To you?” she retorts, disgusted before launching into a speech that is all about him. The women of this film are very prone to this: they berate, dress down, and mock the male stars—they are even permitted to land the odd point—but they seem to have little else to think about, and their ongoing lives seem too small to be disrupted by male outbursts to which they are frequently subject, however violent.
Riggan has a fondly melancholic friendship with his endlessly supportive ex-wife, Sylvia. “Why did we break up?” he muses nostalgically. “You threw a kitchen knife at me,” she replies. This will never be mentioned again. Sylvia continues to return to his dressing room to pat and soothe and urge him to be a father to their daughter (“You don't have to be a great father,” she reassures him). She does not, say, beg said daughter to get the hell away from a dangerous abuser. Indeed, when asked “What's the worst thing he ever did to you”, Sam struggles to think of anything, despite the fact that Riggan's propensity for violence against women who thwart him appears not to have faded with the years.
In a scene male writers have praised as pure wish-fulfilment, Riggan rounds on a female theatre critic, played by Lindsay Duncan. After the critic resists his attempts at charming her—after she tells him no—Riggan explodes. He grabs the notebook out of her hand, rips out her work, screws it up, and throws it at her. He circles her, puffing up his chest, getting between her and the door—finding plenty of time along the way to dismiss her writing as meaningless. Duncan's character maintains her composure and radiates scorn but goes very still and silent, making no move to seize back her property—in short, she behaves as every woman who has found herself cornered by a man who's already proved himself dangerously unpredictable. Riggan, however, is the underdog of this scene, the one to feel sorry for. Duncan's character is the Goliath to his David. Cheap sleight of hand places the critic in the wrong; she has unfairly already determined to slate Riggan's play without having seen it, and so deserves everything she gets.
“Would you have found that so bothersome if Riggan, too, had been a woman?” I have been asked. But Riggan could not possibly be a woman. There was no franchise of superheroine blockbusters in the 90's. No actress, however successful, however privileged would be shocked, shocked that the lead roles had dried up in her sixties as Riggan must be for the narrative to work.
Riggan is not the only character whose grandiosity has female casualties. Suddenly missing a co-star, he is forced to take on Ed Norton's Mike Shiner—a charismatic but volatile star of the stage. The two men square up to each other, first productively bouncing ideas off each other, then struggling for dominance. But Mike proves a liability—going off-script, getting drunk on stage, and as Empire euphemistically puts it “hitting on his co-star” (Naomi Watts.) In fact, he attempts to rape her at considerable length. This is treated so cavalierly the film actually seems unaware of what it is graphically depicting (“No, I'm serious, no, stop”, Watts pleads, struggling to escape as Norton holds her down). Much like Riggan's knife-throwing: this is treated merely as the regrettable but not very serious act of an “asshole” then never mentioned again. Soon Norton will be sleeping with young Sam, who of course was not really bothered by his crude comments on her body in the workplace — she merely pretended to be. In the latter part of the film, Norton oddly recedes from view, his violation of Watts just one more facet of his larger-than-life unorthodoxy, ultimately a problem not for Keaton's male lead not so much to overcome, as to absorb.
What has all this got to do with Boris Johnson? Only that Birdman's tale of a plucky white male millionaire who daringly takes on an establishment of his social inferiors, reminded me not only of the jaunty triumph-in-disaster of the mayor's airborne adventure but of his 2005 article for the Telegraph “Male vanity is vital...” Johnson shifts from self-mocking humility to a spirited defence of a male right to ignore every refusal, from every source—especially from women.
It is not too trivial to point out that this demented male self-confidence is also vital to human reproduction. It is the role of the male to refuse rejection, and to keep plugging on, in spite of all the evidence that he is getting nowhere, and without that male capability for self-delusion, the species would probably die out.
In fact, most women have probably long ago worked out that there is no point in telling men the truth about themselves, and coddling male vanity is a vital part of keeping the human show on the road. I think it was Dirty Harry who once said: "A man's got to know his limitations."
On the contrary: in my experience that knowledge would be so shattering that it must be avoided at all costs.
And there is the ignorance Birdman vaunts as a virtue. It's unexpected—if you've been living on some other planet for the last couple of millennia. In its final scenes, Emma Stone gazes upwards, awestruck, at the grandeur of white, wealthy “male vanity” that, however feathered in eccentricity and cloaked in self-deprecation, cannot stand the word no, cannot know any perspective but its own, can only tolerate a view of the world from somewhere up in the air — aloft.
Sophia McDougall is the author of the Romanitas trilogy, twice shortlisted for the Sidewise Award for Alternate History and set in a contemporary world where the Roman Empire never fell, and Mars Evacuees, about girls, boys and, fish-shaped robots on a partially terraformed Mars. Her short stories have been published by Jurassic Fiction, Solaris, and NewCon press. She also creates digital art and mentors aspiring writers.
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