Art and Magic
Art is first and foremost about magic. That magic exists under several different masks, beginning with God, love, truth, or the unknown. All art is a reflection of a process of connecting with magic. It is the reason why every religious artifact was made, and why every work of art was created. Human beings need tangible evidence of this connection with magic to make sense of the universe, and it is why Art exists. Art provides a fleeting answer to the mystery of it all.
Magic can be seen everywhere throughout various masterpieces of human expression.
- It rests between the finger tips of Adam and God on the Sistine Chapel.
- It is why Obi-Wan tells Luke to “Use the FORCE.”
- It is in the perfect proportion of the Fibonacci sequence.
- It is that thing behind the mask that Captain Ahab truly hates.
- It is Moby Dick.
- It happened at the bottom of the 10th, in game six of the 91 World Series.
- It’s the Holy Grail, the Lost Ark, the Maguffin, Rosebud, Stonehenge, Bigfoot, UFO’s, and the reason atheists need to prove that there is no God.
- It’s when Dylan went electric, and when Hendrix played the Anthem at Woodstock.
- You could hear it when Benjamin screamed Elaine, and in The Sound of Silence at the back of the bus.
- It’s why Martin Luther King had a dream, Citizen Kane ran for office, and Pete Townsend smashed his guitar.
- It is Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite, the half eaten cookies left for Santa, and Steven Hawking’s “mind of God.”
- It is The Doors of Perception, Light my Fire, Venus of Willendorf, Lascaux cave paintings, and “the horror, the horror.”
- It’s why in the secret compartment of his ring he fills with an Underdog super energy pill.
- It’s the first and second rule about Fight Club, Batman’s utility belt, and Henry Fool’s manuscript.
- It’s an Everlasting Gobstopper, Harry Potter’s forehead, and why there’s no EARTHLY way of knowing, which direction we are going.
- It’s why there’s no place like home, not the thing you fling that counts, and how it’s only a flesh wound.
It’s also the reason this list could go on, and most certainly is the central theme in Birdman, or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). Whether the authors are aware of it is beside the point. Birdman is the greatest sermon on what it means to create and experience art. If the Academy voters still consist of artists, they’ll vote it Best Picture.
Magic in Birdman
Riggan Thomson is a washed up superhero actor in the process of trying to create a play that, “means something.” Throughout the film we witness his internal dialogue with his muse/nemesis the Birdman, the movie persona that made him famous. The Birdman is both hero and villain of the story, and Riggan communicates with him whenever there is conflict. Just as with most superhero storylines, the hero confronts the villain using his powers, but in this case, Riggan is confronting the problems in his life using Art. While connecting with his muse we see Riggan levitate in his dressing room, move a vase of flowers, and drop a light on an actor he wanted out of his production. After an argument with his daughter Sam, Riggan comforts himself by magically spinning an object in front of him. Riggan’s conversations with his “imaginary Birdman” are a metaphor to the internal dialogue artists experience while in the process of connecting with inspiration. The cliche, “Everyone is his own worst critic,” is recalled as we witness the Riggan/Birdman soliloquy. But Birdman isn’t just a critic, he also fuels Riggan’s ego to help create his play that, “means something.”
As things spiral out of control in Riggan’s production of What we Talk about, When We Talk About Love, (another obvious reference to a magical truth) his superhero powers continue to escalate. At one point in the film, Riggan’s alter-ego Birdman literally says to him, “You are a GOD.” And, what is Riggan talking about when he confronts the theater critic with a flower saying, “Do you even know what this is?” It is magic of course, but critics can’t live in a world of magic, they live in a world of labels and judgement.
The Magic of NOW
Among the many great technical achievements of the film is director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s use of long takes almost seamlessly strewn together to bring an element of live theater to the movie. Creating these long sequences required precise choreography, and displayed a sense of urgency in the actors performances that translates to incredible intensity. This urgency is created in part because the actors have to hit their marks, both literally and figuratively within the performance, or an entire shot would have to start over. This razor thin precision demands the actors to have a deeper understanding of their performances and has created a new form of storytelling. This new experience challenges the viewer and actors to a degree that hasn’t been seen in film for a long while.
In our supersaturated age of digital film making, the ability of special effects to create anything imaginable has curiously produced the opposite effect of magic, numbness. There is no wow factor, no sense of mystery or suspense because now everything happens inside a computer, and the audience knows it. Jaws wasn’t intense because the special effects of the shark were amazing, it was the unknown magic of the deep that created suspense. In Alien, Ripley Scott showed only a glimpse of the monster, and it was terrifying. By almost eliminating a key element of film making, the cut, Iñárritu was forced to invent new ways to progress his story, and has in turn brought the wow factor back to film. Alfred Hitchcock first experimented with this idea of the uninterrupted take in Rope, but Birdman has taken it to a new level.
The element of the now is also addressed by Birdman’s consistent references to social media and celebrity. These motifs are interwoven between statements about the dualities of art vs entertainment, fame vs prestige, and love vs admiration. He is confronting the real love vs the admiration of the public, the fame of his past character vs critical prestige, and a battle of high art (theater) vs entertainment (Hollywood). These battles are thematically carried out by Riggan/Birdman against other characters in the film. Value, power and worth are tallied by the the films characters in twitter followers, youtube views, and box office weekends. Being relevant, as echoed by Riggan’s daughter, is measured by trending on twitter as she tells her Dad, “…believe it or not, this is power.” Again, a statement about the public fascination with the now, and the magic of a spontaneous event captured.
Birdman and the Cosmos
Riggan’s relationship with his daughter Sam, is a key element to understanding the end of the movie. Throughout the story, the pair are an example of a millennial generation gap. Pessimism abounds in the Emma Stone character until the last scene of the movie. She is perfectly cast, as a living breathing “Big Eye” Margaret Keane painting that’s lost her innocence, but wants it back. In the final scene, Sam returns to the hospital room to find her dad gone and the window open. We watch from outside the room as she walks to the open window, searches below to see if Riggan has jumped. She tilts her head up to view something in the air that beams a glow of admiration across her face, then cut to black. The open ended final shot leaves the decision up to the viewer whether he jumped, literally turned into the Birdman and flew away, or something else. As the character in the film least likely to embrace the idea of magic, Sam is visibly transfixed, and moved by what she sees. Her idea of magic has been realized, and whether it is the power of twitter to propel fame, or the magic of art, is left to the audience to decide. Like all great works of art, the element of the unknown is the bridge between the real world, and the cosmos. Birdman is great art.