I haven’t read a lot of Shakespeare. But his language is something I can respect not only for what he’s saying but how he’s saying it. If he were alive today, I would tell him that Macbeth is my favorite of his works. And then hand him the complete series of Breaking Bad on blu-ray. Because let’s be honest, Bill and I love us some tragic heroes.
So something tells me the Bard of Avon would also like Iñárritu’s Birdman, because like Macbeth, their protagonists are suffering downfalls due to their ambition and their ego. Both Macbeth and Riggan Thomson are trying to figure out if they matter in this world, and if they do, shouldn’t they be striving to be the best? If I am here, while I am here, should I not try to achieve greatness and power?
Let’s step back for a second. The setting is October 2014. Hollywood, CA. Arclight Hollywood. I’m huddled down between two parked cars in the movie theater parking structure on my hands and my knees. My heart is pulsing. My chest won’t expand to allow air into my lungs. I might throw up. I might pass out. I--- How did I get here? How did it get to this point?
Well, I just walked out of an afternoon matinee of Birdman, where I may or may not have just had a religious experience watching a movie. For the last two hours, on the surface, I watched a film that could be described as Black Swan starring Louis CK. But what was really happening was that I was experiencing a cinematic art piece with more levels than a wedding cake. A film about ego, arrogance, recognition, relevance, art, life, death. A film that was funny then sad then funny then crazy then funny then dark. Filmed like a play but choreographed like a dance, Birdman was a matryoshka doll of allusions, irony, and symbolism aplenty. And it was speaking to me. Birdman seemed to break the fourth wall (like the type of plays it was illuminating) and was speaking directly to me. It was speaking to me in a way that no film had spoken to me in a long time. It was a reality check mixed with divine intervention all rolled into one cold hard bitch slap. Birdman was telling me that I was special and not special at the same time.
So last night, I saw Birdman win Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Director and Best Picture at the 87th Academy Awards. For the first time in a long time my opinion lined up with these highly political, self-congratulatory accolades. For once I agreed with the Academy. Birdman is that very rare occasion where the direction, the writing, the acting, the cinematography, the music and production design were all working in unison and firing on all cylinders AND the Academy recognized; something that can’t be said for some of my favorite films in previous years with The Social Network and Her just to name a few. So am I saying these 8½ pound gold statues validate this movie? No of course not. Birdman expresses to us that you don’t need to impress critics for validation and the postcard on Riggan’s dressing room mirror even flat out reads, “A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing.”
So as I sat hunched over trying to calm down and allow oxygen into my body again, I realized that Birdman had such a powerful effect on me that it had induced a panic attack. When your ego and your insecurities collide I truly believe that’s where art is made; how else is anything supposed to get done? I was given a handy dandy Venn diagram not too long ago that hit the nail on the head:
Birdman managed to sum up how I had been feeling for months and then threw it in my face for two hours. I had started to become incredibly insecure that I didn’t matter and now I had Emma Stone flat out telling me so. I was terrified that I would go my whole life and be let down by my achievements. Oxygen was returning to my body, blood was returning to my head. These things that we acquire throughout life are meaningless. Money, status, materialistic items are all the results of ultimately meaningless work. Disillusionment. Just stepping-stones on this quest for validation like they’ll actually mean something when we reach our destination. Birdman is telling us you could spend your whole life chasing a dream and once you achieve it you still won’t be happy. Birdman is telling us that we need our egos and we need to matter. Birdman is encouraging us to work to become, not to acquire. Without our ego driving our ambition, what is the point of life? How can we be grateful for our lives without becoming idle and complacent? If we don’t matter, then why are we even here?
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
*actually relayed by a homeless man in Birdman not just a pretentious insert
After having an art show that was anything but a success, I reflected on the title Alter Ego. On the surface, I was going for an allusion to the dual personality of a comic book superhero. But now it has a little bit deeper meaning to me: the altering, or changing in a character’s ego, in a small but significant way. The way we matter might be simple, but it is unquestionably significant; and “simple yet significant” should be the goal for any great design.
As I picked myself up off the ground and dusted myself off, I knew and felt that I was going to be okay. We’re all in this together. No, I don’t matter, and yes, I do matter. ∎