The theme of human identity, the difficulties in finding it or protecting from the negative impact of the society is one of the leading topics analyzed in all form of the modern art. The modern world poses many significant threats to the person’s identity as it is constantly bombarded by the mass media, advertising, television, etc. Nowadays there are much more ways in which the society and other people can influence the person’s ideas, principles or even damage his inner psychological world. The film Birdman: or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu explores the theme of human identity in the modern world and the way this identity can be altered under the impact of the environment.
This movie tells a story of an actor who once had been very popular due to his roles as a superhero called Birdman, but now Riggan, the protagonist of this film, is almost forgotten by the public. He desperately wants to return his popularity and risks everything by deciding to make a Broadway adaptation of Carver’s play. Riggan does not have enough money to pay popular actors and make everything run smoothly. He experiences problems with his leading actor Mike Shiner who appears to be very talented but eccentric and nervous. He tries to come to terms with his ex-wife and daughter Sam who used to be a drug addict. However, his main problem is Birdman that lives in his head, talks to him and even goes out to have a proper conversation with Riggan. At the end of the film Riggan decides to commit a suicide on stage, but fails and shoots off his nose. Unexpectedly the play becomes a huge success.
Nearly all the characters in Birdman suffer from duality in their social and professional lives. They cannot cope with the difficulties that surround them and choose to pretend and have various masks for different situations. It often results in significant psychological problems, like in case of Riggan where from the scientific perspective the audience certainly observes some maniac disorder or schizophrenia. Riggan cannot accept the way his life is as he always returns to his past recalling the time when he was extremely popular. This behavior does not have any positive influence on his identity and it turns out that Birdman who constantly speaks to him urges Riggan to return into the past and abandon all his efforts to make the play successful. It is obvious that Riggan consulted psychiatrists as when Birdman comes he repeats phrases that look like clichés from such psychological consultations. However, it does not help him at all as deep in his heart Riggan agrees with Birdman. At the final scene of the film Riggan seems to put an end to his talks with Birdman, but in fact he becomes Birdman. He acknowledges and accepts his torn identity, but in a way that was not expected by the audience.
Similar problems with identity torture Mike Shiner. He is considered to be one of the best Broadway actors and even film critic Tabitha whose coldness is famous in all New York theatres believes that Mike’s performance is always brilliant. Mike’s current situation is opposite to Riggan’s, but it turns out that they experience the same problems. Mike is so much focused on his stage life that he starts thinking that only theatre is real and the rest of his like is a fake. He says that he never pretends on stage as only there he is able to feel real emotions. These problems with identity result in splitting with his girlfriend Lesley who is also an actress in this play. However, sincere affection and respect seem to show him the way out of this crisis. When he get very close with Sam, Riggan’s daughter, he happens to remember how it is to be real not only on stage, but in everyday life. One of the crucial scenes that mark Mike’s way towards uniting his selves is the episode when they play truth-or-dare. Mike always chooses truth as he is not afraid of Sam and feels quite comfortable in her presence. In this way Mike creates the prerequisites for solving the identity problems that used to make his life very difficult.
Riggan’s daughter Sam tries to leave her drug addiction in the past and becomes free from it, but sometimes she does not manage to do it. She does not want to communicate with the people from her past, so she spends almost all her time in the theatre helping her father with things like buying flowers or checking his arrangements. “The great revelation is Emma Stone, her Sam a potent fusion of cynicism and bruised candour, finished off with that extraordinary smoky voice” (Romney). She is one of the most interesting and multidimensional characters in Birdman, and she is the only one who is able to construct her new identity independently. Although she also experiences certain difficulties, it is clear that finding a new harmonious self is one of her primary goals. In one episode Riggan suddenly enters a room and sees his daughter making tiny dashes on the toilet paper. She explains that it was a task done in the rehab that helped the patients to understand how young (and thus probably silly) the humanity is. This scene proves that Sam is likely to overcome all her difficulties as her desire to do it comes from within. It is opposite, for example, to the situation with her father.
The duality that is the cause of the above-mentioned identity problems is also expressed in the subtitle of the film “the unexpected virtue of ignorance”. Riggan tries to prove that he has enough experience and knowledge to make the play successful, but in fact he is absolutely ignorant both in case of the theatrical nuances and his own personality. He does not know what to do next. However, this situation can appear to bring good. The play is warmly received by New York critics and Riggan finds the lost harmony with his inner world. The concept of ignorance is not likely to be negative here. It rather symbolizes the unspoiled essence that exists in the soul of every person and helps him to live harmonious life.
Magic and its connections with reality is an integral part of Birdman; however, magic should not be understood directly here. In case of this movie the filmmakers treat magic as something that can be created both by human consciousness and person’s artistic potential. The character of Birdman in fact is not as magical as it may seem. It is the embodiment of many complex processes that occur in the human psyche. The relations of the true self with the outside world are so difficult to understand that the creators of Birdman should have employed broad knowledge of both psychology and philosophy to make the audience believe Riggan. “Birdman is a hard movie to embrace unconditionally – it feels too knowing, too immaculately timed a display of mastery to really breathe” (Romney). Therefore, fantasy and magic in Birdman are not produced by divine or mythical creatures, but are artistic representation of human desires, thoughts and emotions.
The filmmakers employed a variety of methods to make the movie more impressive and interesting. Some film critics argue that the methods used by the cameramen in Birdman are very innovative and perhaps even revolutionary as “a single elaborate tracking shot, in the manner of Hitchcock’s Rope” makes the experience of walking along the narrow corridors of the theatre backstage really dizzy (Romney). The episodes showing the stage and the theatre odium do not only render the visual information, but reveal the real nature of the actors’ and audience’s experience. It is especially evident in the scene where Riggan, almost naked, has to enter the theatre though the front door. While he is coming along the aisles, his perspective is changing. On stage he finally turns into an actor, both metaphorically and literary. Music and sound also play a very important role in Birdman. The filmmakers combine both diegetic and non-diegetic sounds that create a realistic atmosphere of New York life in general and the night glamour of theatrical Broadway. The soundtracks composed by Antonio Sanchez perfectly fit into the plot and allow the audience to make closer connections with the characters and their lives.
To conclude, solving identity problems is one of the crucial themes discussed in Birdman. Nearly all characters, including Riggan, his daughter Sam and Mike Shiner, an actor starring in his theatrical adaptation, try to live through identity crises of different complexity. However, they manage to find the proper solution either using their own inner resources or with the help of other people. Moreover, the filmmakers make use of fantasy elements, specific music and camera methods to strengthen the main ideas of the movie. Birdman is a film that offers a deep analysis of the human identity and its nature, but warns the audience that there can be no solutions that would work for everyone.