Last weekend I sat in an absolutely packed IMAX theater to see Interstellar, one of the biggest, loudest films I’ve ever been to. And it was incredible.
The next day I had a very different movie-going experience. A friend and I sat in an empty theater with a noticeably smaller screen and watched Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) by ourselves. And it was incredible.
Birdman stars Michael Keaton, the Batman with which I have the least familiarity, as Riggan Thomson, a Hollywood star who made a name for himself playing Birdman in a trilogy of successful superhero films. His Birdman days behind him, Riggan sets out to prove himself a genuine artist by directing and starring in a Broadway adaptation of the Raymond Carver story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”
The film is funny and sweet, extremely technically proficient and incredibly thought-provoking, but beyond all that it stands as both a love letter and a raging indictment of entertainment.
Entertainers take a deluge of criticism here, whether they are the big budget stars like Thomson who make millions on mindless, CGI-laden drivel or the bleeding artists who tout some unquantifiable perception of realness like currency. They all thrive on the adoration and praise of the masses more than the love of individuals. They claw their way up pedestals to stand in a spotlight above us all despite the futility in trying to be anything more than human. They are nothing if not flawed.
And the entertained fair no better in Birdman, a massive flock of gaping mouths hungry for blood. The crowds of New York City, whether they love or hate him, consistently commoditize Riggan. To them he isn’t a human, he’s an opportunity for a selfie, a quick laugh from a viral video, a future anecdote waiting to be boasted of at a cocktail party. You get the impression that those sitting in the theater to see Riggan’s production don’t even want to be entertained so much as they want to be able to say they were there.
And between the entertainers and the entertained are the critics. Where they lack the motivation, skill or luck to create something of their own they possess an ample smugness that prevents them from ever truly enjoying something created by someone else. They circle art like vultures, waiting for any slip up or slight that might inspire a clever one-liner or provide a soapbox from which to brandish their wit.
The portrait Birdman paints of entertainment is one of broken people cobbled together to trick the all-too-willing public into believing that they are something bigger and grander than a bunch of broken people cobbled together. It’s a trick. And often enough Birdman had me questioning what end could possibly be worth the ugly, diabolical means of concocting this thing we call entertainment.
But then, just as cynicism threatens to rule the day Birdman reminds you why we seek to entertain and be entertained.
Because it can make us happy. Because it can instill us with a sense of wonder and awe. Because it can show us a new perspective. Because sometimes at the end of a hard day you just want to watch a live studio audience laugh at a goofy guy doing goofy things.
And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Emma Stone, who plays Riggan’s daughter Sam in the film, perfectly encapsulates the genuine and cynical sides of the coin Birdman flips. Acting as Riggan’s assistant after getting out of rehab, Sam hangs around the theater watching a seemingly never-ending parade of egos and insecurities inflate themselves in the name of art, knowing all the while the ordeal is perverted and futile. And yet, in one moment, even she can’t help but be overwhelmed by the grandeur of the Birdman.
No matter what we enjoy in the way of entertainment it’s probably safe to say that we all think a majority of what’s paraded in front of us is dumb. But every once in awhile something special comes along, something fantastic and smart and invigorating that makes us forget about how absolutely assanine the concept of the entertainment industry, and just how much sway it holds over our culture, really is. That special 1% that puts a smile on our faces where the other 99% makes us roll our eyes.
Birdman is a story about the ways entertainment can rule our lives and the ways entertainment can enrich them. It’s a story worth seeing.