The existentialist in Birdman

I couldn’t help but to recall Sartre’s famous words, “existence precedes essence”, after digesting Iñárritu’s almost psychedelic Birdman.

The story follows one Riggan Thomson, a retired actor who used to play a popular superhero, Birdman. Riggan decides to reignite his fading career by directing and starring in a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. However, he is constantly tormented by a coarse, commanding voice in his head that is Birdman; or rather, a parasitic vestige of him. Throughout the film, Birdman taunts and derides Riggan, incessantly telling him that he deserves better for the very fact that he once played that marvellous superhero.

It is this voice that drives Riggan to long for that lost stardom, for the illusory prestige birthed by a cult of celebrity. He wants to be heard, to be known, to be appreciated for the talents he believes himself to possess. Most of all, he wants to be remembered, and be through all generations, admired and revered. Slowly, we begin to see this obsession turn into a fear of being forgotten. Riggan becomes afraid of petering out into an indiscernible memory and of being divested of all that makes him him.

Riggan had developed a sense of awareness – that life eventually amounts to nothing, and that, at the end of it, our existence would have mattered as little as that of a speck of stardust. Riggan does not accept this and so, desperately, he tries to defy the inevitable. If immortality in being is unattainable then he shall have to settle for immortality in thought; that is, to be remembered for something extraordinary and find eminent residence in the universal tome of history.

As it was, Riggan appeared to have cared more about his existence than the things that comprised his life. He felt it more important to let his name survive him than to simply enjoy the production and live in however ephemeral a satisfaction. He knew that his essence, everything that comprises his being, would be extinguished completely by death, and that there would be no point in building it up or reveling in the culmination. Faced with such an inevitability, he then willingly allowed his existence to precede his essence.

This is but one of the many, many ideas that can be deciphered from the film. Speaking of which, another worth mentioning was its bold and blatant satirical assault on the state of cinema: “People, they love blood. They love action. Not this talky, depressing philosophical bullshit.”


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