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Essay

Birdman: A Secular Parable

By May 8, 2015 One Comment
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Birdman, the 2014 winner for best picture, tells the story of a washed up former super hero actor trying to make a come back by directing and starring in a broadway play. Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu—who directed the trilogy 21 Grams, Amores Perros, and Babel—the film is meant to look like it was shot in one take as the camera follows the actors out of rooms, down hallways, out into the street. Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thompson, a 60 something actor with a superhero alter ego. Riggan constantly hears the voice of the growly Birdman. “How the f**k did we end up here?”—this opening quote defines the film. Sure, there are multiple themes that run through the images and dialogue—postmodern hyper-reality and simulacra, a critique of social media and what it means to have an existence in the digital age, what’s real and what’s not, even an inner Hollywood conversation about what constitutes real acting. All of it is almost too much to process in two hours. To me it’s the opening line that sets the trajectory and establishes the theme. Beneath the drums, the fast paced dialogue, and in your face “this is what this film is about” moments… there’s the simple question: How did we get here? What are the insecurities, the desires, that drive us to make the choices we make? What costumes and masks do we feel the need to wear? Who or what are the inner voices that push us along?

Watching the film we discover that every character is driven by some form of insecurity, some inner fear that causes them to desperately press on. They are all trying to live into the “thing that gets said about a thing”—the narratives, labels, and twitter feeds that define what’s real and what exists. The title sequence opens with this quote:

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.”

― Raymond Carver, A New Path to the Waterfall

On Riggan Thompson’s mirror there is this quote: “A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing”. Ironically, there is much that is “said” in this film. Trying to pay attention to the dialogue is difficult because it’s fast and sometimes the drums drown out what’s being said. But maybe the point isn’t what’s being said? Maybe the point is that this mess we call life, with all of it’s insecurities, fears, and anxious longings, is in itself a beautiful thing. Maybe the point is to make peace with our circumstances—to be beloved, but more importantly, to love…to burn ourselves out with an intense, passionate, love for this life and the people we encounter as we make our way.

Or what woman having ten silver coins,if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’

 

Jason Lief

Dr. Jason Lief teaches courses in Christian education and youth ministry. A Northwestern College graduate, he served as the chaplain for Pella (Iowa) Christian High School while earning a master’s degree in theology from Wheaton College Graduate School. He also completed a doctorate in practical theology from Luther Seminary. He previously taught theology and youth ministry at Dordt College for 10 years. Dr. Lief is the author of “Poetic Youth Ministry: Loving Young People by Learning to Let Them Go” and "Christianity and Heavy Metal as Impure Sacred Within the Secular West: Transgressing the Sacred.”

One Comment

  • Sara Tolsma says:

    My husband and I saw Birdman in Kansas City shortly after the Oscar nominations were announced. The film generated hours of conversation but neither of us felt like we “got” all the film was saying. So we watched it again, this time with friends, which generated even more conversations. When I saw this post I forwarded it to all of the friends who watched Birdman with us. Here are some of their comments:
    “Thanks for passing this along. Jason nailed it.”
    “Excellently said. Thanks for sending this along.”
    “Very helpful!”
    “Great insights”
    I suspect this post will regenerate our conversations around this film. Thanks for your insight, Jason. And for reigniting our conversations!

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