SATURDAY FILM SCHOOL | 'Birdman' is a classic American tragedy

Citizen Kane and Birdman have a lot in common.

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Hollywood will put you on Broadway before it spits you out.

When you think of a great American tragedy in film Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941) should come to mind. Welles' classic is beloved by critics and film theorists as a visionary directorial debut; and if you've ever considered art school, its use of deep focus and original screenplay are lauded by a balding professor in a film history class near you. Citizen Kane is a character study on man who never got to be a kid, a story that both condemns and glorifies the American dream. In short, the story goes that Charles Foster Kane is a newspaper tycoon who never learns how to love, and never develops relationships outside of his material and or egotistical desires. His rise is great and his fall is even greater.

Citizen Kane is an American tragedy that dissects fame and fortune under a microscopic lens, and the more I watch it, the more I'm reminded of another great film, Alejandro G. Iñárritu's Birdman (2014), a similar character study of a man so desperate for love and admiration, he forces himself into psychosis.

On The Surface

Alejandro G. Iñárritu's Birdman is about a washed-up actor named Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton)—known for starring as the superhero Birdman—attempting to revive his career through a Broadway play he's written. (Ironically, Michael Keaton starred as Batman in the prime of his career, falling back from Hollywood to do indie-budget films.) His daughter Sam (Emma Stone) suffers with depression due to her father's absence as a child, and reminds Riggan that even when he is around, he's rarely emotionally present. Birdman is filmed in one entire take. There are digital transitions used in the film, but spectators are led to believe the narrative develops in the course of one take as a method of navigating Riggan's psychotic episode.

Deeper Meanings

Birdman suggests that a character created for business always exists in a land of business. Several characters come to mind: Tobey Maguire as the lovable Spiderman, Robert Downey Jr. making his sober, box office comeback as the metal Iron Man, and Christian Bale as Batman. These actors are offered the opportunity to become a suited money machine, a global figure beloved by comic book aficionados; what's interesting about this opportunity is the stigma silently attached to it. Blockbusters are commonly lucrative, but rarely fruitful in substance, marketed to mass audiences, as the character, or should I say, padded suit, becomes bigger than the actor. Tobey Maguire will forever be known as Spiderman and Robert Downey Jr. as the guy from Iron Man who sometimes tries to be serious. Birdman critiques the artistic merit of the superhero getup.

Michael Keaton as Riggan Thomson Birdman

This isn't to say that you can't find good performances in action blockbusters (Logan comes to mind), or that movie franchises lack merit of any kind, but in Riggan's case, there's no escaping his action hero persona; his image consumes his true nature, and as it dies, Riggan sinks deeper into insanity, unable to distinguish himself from Birdman. Like Riggan, Charles larger-than-life character consumes his image, and ultimately, his life. Charles is a byproduct of the American dream, attempting to replace his nonexistent childhood with mansions and public approval; and Riggan is a forgotten actor, attempting to disembody his character for authentic art and public approval.

Classroom Takeaways

The American dream is an invention and we're all corporate zombies. No, don't worry. It's not that bleak. Yes, both Citizen Kane and Birdman are weary of the American dream (and public personas), but they are more so cautionary tales of using fame, prestige, wives, money, and power as replacements for deeper deficiencies in our lives. The tragedy of life is that a second act isn't guaranteed.

'Citizen Kane'Orson Welles

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Shaun Harris is a poet, freelance writer, and editor published in avant-garde, feminist journals. Lover of warm-toned makeup palettes, psych-rock, and Hilton Als. Her work has allowed her to copyedit and curate content for various poetry organizations in the NYC area.


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