The first frame in Birdman has Michael Keaton levitating in mid-air, in a meditational posture. At other times the camera lingers on a golden head of the Buddha. What is going on? Is Birdman, as some have claimed, a Buddhist film?
There is other evidence for this. In the midst of his panic and egoistic frenzy, Regan utters meditation phrases. There is the credit for Thich Nhat Hahn, a Vietnamese Gandhi-like figure, at the close of the film. The director Iñárritu has said that everything in the film is scripted and, apart from the various clues in the story, there is also the ending that’s suggestive of liberation, which is the central message of Buddhism.
It seems safe to assume that the Buddhist throwaways are deliberate. So does a Buddhist analysis of Birdman throw any light on this most puzzling of films?
I wanted to like Birdman, and I did like parts of it, but the overall effect left a bit of a bad taste in the mouth. It is a beautiful, comical, brave but shallow film, and somehow it’s a lot less than the hype suggests it is. I wasn’t sure why for a while, but in writing this article it got a little clearer. Ultimately it can’t escape the contrivance it uses to get off the ground.
The story itself is slight; it’s given wing by terrific performances and cinematography. It depends entirely on fascination not so much with the central character, Riggan, as his ego. That I think is where I began to struggle with it.
For highly worked pieces – which is what Birdman is – to function, form and content must align. So we follow Reagan through the claustrophobic corridors and briefly lit stage sets. It’s brilliantly done and is obviously meant to reflect thoughts ricocheting around the tunnels of the ego.
Riggan’s panicky, destructive flailing through these tunnels is the embodiment of a mind in torment, lost in delusion. This is a central concern of Buddhism: that the ordinary mind, in its distractions and self-driven madness, is deluded. Also, that the deluded mind is sunk in greed and “aversion”. Delusion, greed and hatred are the three fires of Buddhism, and these epithets characterise Riggan’s epic monomania and sensitivity, his fantasy world of anger and fear. The hallucinations we see through the film are integral to this, allowing both literal and metaphorical interpretations of his psychic battle.
I struggled with the characters too. For one thing, they are imperfectly realised. That’s deliberate, of course. They are meant to be impermanent, meant to have no existence outside Riggan’s ego. It’s only in their brief visits outside the theatre that they have any independent reality, and then it’s slight, if at all. So they come and they go and they disappear. They are projections, and have no power.
This is made plain on the roof scene when Mike Shiner admits to problems with his libido; his secret pain is that he can only ‘exert himself’ in the theatre. In other words, only in the life Riggan gives him.
Impermanence, lack of self and suffering are the central pivots on which Buddhism turn. Liberation occurs when the self is overcome, and it is at this point that compassion and wisdom flower. Birdman’s final scenes are deliberately ambivalent about this. Has Riggan jumped? Has he escaped? Has he learnt to value the people around him?
These are all good questions and probably central to the film. But the problem is I’m not sure we care. Because the characters are so insubstantial, and the focus is weighted so heavily on Riggan’s ego, it’s difficult to see anybody else from their own side. When Sam looks out of the window, it is not her we see but a projected version of his daughter that Riggan wants the audience to see.
In this sense, the film is shallow and vain, entirely solipsistic. And perhaps in this sense, Birdman is a Buddhist film. It reflects a very Western fascination with Eastern religions, in which the self is not so much liberated as ennobled, given grace.
This I think gets to the heart of my problems with Birdman. A few guys and I sometimes get together to watch films. A couple are pros in the film business, and I found it telling that it was the pros that were the most enthusiastic for Birdman. The others were not so welcoming – in fact, one guy even fell asleep. Technically brilliant it may be, but Birdman’s conceit leaves it without a leg to stand on.