A closer look at… Birdman

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Birdman is rated 15 for strong language, sex references. The film is available on DVD.

The Scoop

Actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) was once a Hollywood icon, known for playing airborne superhero Birdman. But his career since has been a disappointment, and the only attention he gets is from Birdman fans wanting a picture with their reluctant, ageing idol.

In an attempt to claw back some credibility and do something he deems worthwhile, Riggan is directing and starring in a Broadway adaptation of the Raymond Carver short story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. But backstage, the company is in chaos. Riggan may have got co-star Laura (Andrea Riseborough) pregnant, while another actor is injured by a falling spotlight. Leading lady Lesley (Naomi Watts) persuades Riggan to bring in her boyfriend, critical darling Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), as a replacement, but his volatile antics only destabilise things further.

The play’s producer Jake (Zach Galiafianakis) is struggling to hold everything together, while Riggan’s daughter and manager Sam (Emma Stone) seems on the verge of falling apart. Worst of all, Riggan is plagued by a sinister voice – the voice of Birdman, in fact – bent on ensuring that his failures and his vanities are never far away.

Dig Deeper

  • Did you enjoy the film, and why or why not? Was anything about it shocking or surprising to you? Is it comparable to anything else you’ve seen?
  • What did you make of the film’s unusual shooting style, and what impact did it have on you as a viewer? How does the percussive soundtrack add to the effect? In your opinion, was the one-shot effect a ‘gimmick’, or a suitable way of telling the story? How might this technique be connected to Birdman‘s themes and ideas?

‘Birdman is an indictment of the Hollywood production machine. . . Iñárritu is not kidding even a little bit about the argument that superhero films are fascistic and soul-destroying.’ – Critic Andrew O’Hehir

  • What satirical argument does Birdman offer about Hollywood films, and the kind of entertainment which is currently popular? Does it offer a comparable critique of ‘talky’, highbrow plays and their filmic equivalent? Does it offer any alternative vision of the kind of art we should be making?

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  • How did you react to Riggan, and to Michael Keaton’s performance? What does Birdman represent to Riggan, and why does he hear his voice? How much sympathy or empathy did you feel towards Riggan, and why?
  • How did you feel about the rest of the cast, and their characters’ various entanglements? Did any character or moment stand out to you in particular, and why? Did the film’s blackly comic tone and surreal elements stand in the way of its emotional power, and why or why not?
  • How did you feel about the way in which the film ended? In a film like Birdman, how important is it to know what ‘literally’ happened? What might be some possible interpretations of what happens in the final scenes?

‘Tomorrow night he’s going out on that stage and risking everything. What will you be doing?’ – Mike

  • How does the film present theatre critic Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan)? Is it always the case that critics don’t risk anything in offering their opinion of a piece of art? What value, if any, do arts critics have in our society – and how might critical engagement itself to be a creative, risky act?

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‘You’re an imposter. They’re going to find you out.’ – Birdman

  • What does the film have to say about imposter syndrome, and the difficulty of seeing our accomplishments as legitimate? What kinds of accomplishments does our society hold up as validating for an individual – and what happens if we still don’t feel legitimate after attaining these? Is it possible to feel truly satisfied with our achievements in life, and if so, how?
  • Why does Mike Shiner find it possible to feel ‘real’ onstage, but not in his own life? Do any of the characters manage moments of authenticity or vulnerability, and how do these come about? How important is ‘being real’ in our own lives, and does this phrase still hold any meaning?

‘In one second, people have 800,000 likes or followers and for some that is achievement in itself – but it’s delusional. The immediacy of social media can easily distort the reality of one person.’ – Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu

  • How does the film explore issues around fame, power and popularity in our digital age? How has the internet affected our ideas about what it means to be famous, influential or popular, and how might it shape our sense of what’s worthwhile? How does ‘the immediacy of social media’ affect us as a society and as individuals?

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‘That’s what you always do. You confuse love with admiration.’ – Sylvia (Amy Ryan)

  • How has ‘confusing love with admiration’ affected the way that Riggan behaves towards others, especially his ex-wife and daughter? What might motivate someone to pursue fame, achievement or popularity at the cost of their personal relationships? What real distinction is there, if any, between love and admiration?

‘You’re doing this because you’re scared to death that you don’t matter. And you’re right.’ – Sam

  • How helpful might you find the exercise Sam learned in rehab, reflecting on the big picture of human insignificance in order to minimise personal pain? Might a belief in the ultimate significance of human life be more helpful here, and why or why not?
  • Why does Birdman take aim at both Riggan’s vanities and his insecurities, and to what extent are these two sides of the same coin? What might this tell us about human nature? What kind of things might this ‘Birdman’ voice be saying to people in our society, and is there any way to get rid of it?
  • What do you make of this epigram, which opens the film, and how does it inform your understanding of Birdman? To what extent is the need to feel loved the defining human desire? How might it shape our choices and priorities in life, and can it ever be truly fulfilled?

Birdman_courtesy_Fox_Searchlight

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Sophie Lister

Damaris resources bring films to new audiences, start conversations, and enrich lives. Find out more at www.damarismedia.com Here at the Damaris Film Blog, we publish regular discussion guides to help you make the most of the latest cinema releases.

203 thoughts on “A closer look at… Birdman”

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