On "Birdman" or (The People Who Burn, Burn, Burn)
On the meteoric ascent and inevitable crash-and-burn of the tragic hero, from Achilles through Nietzsche to Birdman.
"The only people for me are the mad ones ... who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn ..."
~ Jack Kerouac, On the Road
To transcend, to rise above, begin by looking up: We all find ourselves lowly, earthbound, “in the gutter” to borrow from Oscar Wilde, but we can set our sights on something higher – we can look up to the stars. There in the heavens is where we find, in director Alejandro Iñárritu’s Birdman, the first of two images: a fiery comet blazing a path through the sky.
Look up for too long, however, and you risk being blinded by the brilliance of what you see. Come too close to that flame and you will burn up and crash back to the lowest place like Icarus after the fall. Down here, we are left with the other of Birdman’s opening images, the washed-up jellyfish laid out on a flat beach, picked at by scavenging birds.
Then we enter, suddenly, the visual stream-of-consciousness that is Birdman’s central narrative, as comic as its opening images are tragic. Adjusting to this tonal shift the first time I watched Birdman, I wondered, What is this movie? Is it the story of Riggan Thomson, has-been actor, attempting to sell himself as an artistic genius by staging a theatre production, or is it an extended metaphor for ... something? Is it satirical or sincere? On the side of “high art” or consumers of comic-book movies? Genius or a little too pleased with itself? (My answer to all these questions: Yes.)
As no doubt intended by Iñárritu, the dazzling image of that fireball rocketing across the sky remained in my mind like an afterimage as I watched the rest of the movie. The obvious thematic metaphor suggested (and by the movie’s climax confirmed) itself: Icarus, the flying then falling man. However, and in keeping with the ambiguous dichotomies of the movie, I thought of another great figure from Greek myth, one invoked by Riggan’s stubborn commitment and fierce determination: Achilles, in Homer’s Iliad.
Icarus, who flies, and Achilles, who fights, both achieve a certain greatness, and both end tragically as a result. They survive in memory as living names because of the way they rose and fell. But there is a key difference between them. Icarus fell from his great height by accident. He desired to touch the sun, but he did not intend for his makeshift wings to catch fire and send him plummeting to Earth. Achilles, meanwhile, knew very well the cost of his greatness and fame, thanks to a dyadic prophecy that offered him two paths in life:
“If on the one hand I remain to fight around Troy town, I lose all hope of home but gain unfading glory; on the other, if I sail back to my own land my glory fails – but a long life lies ahead for me.”
A long, happy, quiet life that no one will remember, or an early death in battle that keeps his name alive. To explore how Birdman connects to Achilles and his prophecy, we need to return to that comet burning ever brilliantly across the sky.
Against a darkening sky in which countless stars reliably sparkle, the streaking flame of a marvellous, reckless comet holds our attention. Awed by its journey, we wonder when and how it will end. In his literary triptych examining Kleist, Hölderlin, and Nietzsche, Stefan Zweig describes the lives of these productive, self-destructive figures as “like that of shooting stars, which flash on indeterminable paths”. They – like Riggan, the actor that Birdman’s comet represents – “flashed like meteors athwart the night of their mission ... they hurtled towards the infinite in a parabola which seemed scarcely to touch our world of actualities”.
Zweig argues that their call to greatness is a call out of the straight lines and strictures of the ordinary and into creative chaos. He writes:
“It seems as if nature had implanted into every mind an inalienable part of the primordial chaos, and as if this part were interminably striving – with tense passion – to rejoin the superhuman, suprasensual medium whence it derives.”
Zweig goes on to write that although this is a drive that lives within us all, we may not all, in every moment, feel or recognise this urge, and many of us suppress it efficiently with adherence to social norms. Seeing this call answered by the great figures of our time, and answered so bravely and brazenly, inspires our admiration for them. We are all stars glowing in the sky, some of us more brightly than others, many of us trying to glow as brightly as we can. We watch in amazement the burning streak of the shooting star that dazzles us with its brief but brilliant pass through our sky.
This is how Achilles appears to King Priam (inspiring more fear than awe) as the warrior rushes eagerly into battle against the Trojans, “blazing like the star / that rears at harvest, flaming up in its brilliance, / far outshining the countless stars in the night sky”. Fire is the Achillean element; his fury and determination burn passionately, and his armour shines “like a raging fire or the rising, blazing sun”. It is not enough for Achilles to glimmer like all the other “countless stars” – he is determined instead to burn brightly and briefly as a glorious comet tearing across the sky.
In Birdman, Riggan believes that he is – or he could be – one of these comets, a person of greatness who burns brightly, and he intends to do so for as large an audience possible. “I’m trying to do something important!” he insists to his cynical daughter. “This is my chance to do some work that actually means something!” But the doubt expressed by his daughter also informs the question we ask ourselves as we watch Riggan attempt to rebrand himself as a profound artist, writing and directing a stage play he will star in, fighting with a cast who threaten to undermine what he believes is a work of genius:
Is he glowing brilliantly in the ascent, or are we watching him crash and burn?
“The daemonic’s curve,” Zweig tells us, writing of the impulse that drives singular figures along their meteoric course, “is the parabola”:
“[A] steep, impetuous ascent, an uprush into limitless space, a brusque change of direction, followed by a no less steep, a no less impetuous decline ... [The] life of the daemonic terminates in an explosion or a conflagration.”
Riggan knows what awaits him at the end of his artistic road, just as Achilles flies into battle knowing what he will win and what he will lose. In the gains column – fame and glory. In the losses column – everything else. In one poignant scene, Riggan is in his dressing room, wearily and stubbornly carrying the weight of his self-imposed duty to put on his play. “The previews were pretty much a train wreck,” he tells his daughter, listing the burdens caused by his project, which he knows will only grow:
“I’m broke. I’m not sleeping ... at all, and this play is kind of starting to feel like a miniature, deformed version of myself that keeps following me around and hitting me in the balls with a tiny little hammer.”
Meanwhile, his daughter is visualising the eons of Earth’s history by drawing, across a roll of toilet paper, a series of dashes representing the six billion years that have passed since the planet was formed. A single square of paper at the end of the roll represents the relatively insignificant period that is human history. It is a calming reminder “that this is all our ego and self-obsession are worth”. She needs this sense of smallness, of an anonymous place in a much larger picture, like a fleck of paint in a grand painting, to avoid the feeling that too much responsibility rests on her world-weary shoulders.
Here we have the Achillean dichotomy, presented in two extremes: a worldview that embraces insignificance and anonymity for the stability and peace it brings, or a terrible burden of solitary, individualistic effort to stand out from the masses and leave a remarkable legacy. Faced with the same choice offered to Achilles, Riggan decides the same way the Greek hero does. There is no grand announcement; careful observation lets us in on the direction Riggan’s mind is set. He says, “I was a shitty father, wasn’t I?”
“No,” his daughter says. “You were ... You were fine.”
“Yeah, that’s right,” he mutters. “I was just fine.”
His derision at the concept of being something so moderate and pedestrian as “fine” is clear on his face. Then, he absent-mindedly takes the square of paper representing the history of our species and wipes his mouth with it. That’s what he thinks of being just another one of them. He will be a shooting star even if it kills him. Knowing the maxim about the inevitable fate of “what goes up”, the meteoric figure still refuses to slow their momentum or smooth the extreme curve of their trajectory. Their fate, they believe, is the price of greatness.
Why would anyone live such a life? Why would anyone follow a path they know will end in tragedy? Why, specifically, does Riggan allow himself to burn up as he tears towards possible greatness and certain self-destruction? His daughter has a theory – she tells him, with painful candour, “You’re doing this because you’re scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don’t matter.”
I suspect that while Riggan’s daughter is essentially on the right track, the motivation, for many, is a little subtler. More than fearing that they don’t matter (many of them are beyond any need of convincing of their own importance), they fear that no one will know that they mattered. The anonymous toil of the unknown scribe, farmer, cleaner, parent, or friend is vital, but it is rarely recognised. The tragic, meteoric figures scrabble through their brief lives to secure assurance that after they’re gone, their work and their life will have meant something to those who remain. They feel urgently compelled to make a lasting, positive change and to earn acclaim for it.
This is why the unstable and unpredictable life of the “daemonic” figure is so appealing to them. Although their fate is, as Zweig rightly tells us, to end “in an explosion or a conflagration”, it is the consolation of those on this meteoric path to know that the person “whose life has been a tragedy is vouchsafed a hero’s end”. In some sense, it is the ending that all this great living, its pain and joy, its work and reward, is about: securing a final act and a legacy that justifies the burned life. Herodotus affirms this in his account of the battle of Thermopylae, where he writes of the remembrance awarded to great warriors:
“... Leonidas fell, the man who had proved himself the most valiant of all, and with him those other famous Spartans whose names I have learned because I think they also proved themselves to be worthy men ...”
Riggan knows he will burn out in the end, his flame extinguished; before that, however, he will burn so brightly that he will outshine all the other stars and leave the afterglow of his journey impressed on their vision. He is determined that his name – like that of Achilles, and Leonidas, and all the other “worthy” people – will be known and remembered, at any cost.
It is important not to let the self-serving aspect of this nature devalue the incredible good and the inspiration to others that come from a life lived in this way. In the end, whatever narcissism might be involved, the lives of these figures are efforts to be more than merely passive or self-serving. In the Iliad, Hector offers us a motto for such a noble life. When he sees that he is about to die at Achilles’ sword, he thinks, “Let me not die ingloriously and without a struggle, but let me first do some great thing that will be told among men hereafter.”
We mere mortals have always loved our gods and superhumans, filling our myths with figures grander than we imagine we can be, achieving more than thought achievable by any ordinary person. That passion for stories of heroism hasn’t left us, though our tales have changed in recent centuries. Today, we look to the Byronic antihero for thrills and guidance, the jerk-genius who behaves in ways we would sometimes like to and yet rarely allow of ourselves.
Riggan is certainly a megalomaniac, and yet his utter devotion to his play – while never fully exculpating him – endears us to him. He is prepared to be the bad guy in the service of “art”. When he needs a terrible actor out of his play, he has a lighting fixture fall on his head. Whether Riggan loosened its fittings earlier, knowing where the man would be sitting on stage, or used telekinesis (as he believes he did, convinced he has superpowers), the point is that he admits after the fact, “I made it happen.”
Making things happen is part of what we admire in such people. They write, direct, and star in ill-advised productions; they explore uncharted lands; they experience what has remained unknown to everyone else. We want and need explorers of the fringe – but as the fruits of their work increase the closer they approach the limit, so does the risk of falling over the edge. Such risk is an inherent feature of this way of living and creating. Riggan knows the necessity of this, screaming at an ill-disposed critic, “None of this cost you fucking anything! You risk nothing! Nothing, nothing, nothing ... This play cost me everything.”
Like fire itself, people who “burn, burn, burn” are both brilliant and dangerous. By the light of the Promethean gift, humans have been able to light up their world, but there is no light (as Christopher Hitchens was fond of quipping) without heat. Fire warms and burns, sustains life and consumes it. Stefan Zweig writes of the tragic creative-genius that “fire became their element; flame, their mode of activity; and their lives were perpetually scorched in the furnaces which alone made their work possible”.
What, in the end, is Birdman saying about all of this? Which way of living does it recommend or warn more strongly against? Is the movie lionising or satirising the tragic genius? Does Riggan burn brilliantly or does he burn out? The answer seems to me to be the same for all my previous questions about this wonderful, bizarre, singular movie: Yes.
Lacking a tidy resolution, let me conclude instead with Nietzsche’s expression of what he was and what that would demand of him. This kind of self-understanding might be all the consolation that can be offered to the meteoric hero burning a course towards a tragic end:
“Yes! I know whence I came! Insatiable like fire, I glow and am consumed. Light, all that I seize; Ash, all that I leave: This is what I am – a flame.”
• Birdman, dir. Alejandro Iñárritu (2014)
• On the Road, Jack Kerouac (1957)
• The Struggle with the Daemon: Hölderlin, Kleist, Nietzsche, Stefan Zweig (1925)
• The Iliad, Homer (circa 8th century BC), trans. Robert Fitzgerald (1974)
• The Iliad, Homer (circa 8th century BC), trans. Robert Fagles (1969)
• The Histories, Herodotus (circa 430 BC)
• “Ecce Homo”, in The Gay Science, Friedrich Nietzsche (1882) [My translation]