There’s a story about these guys, Jack and Murray, who head out to the countryside to visit The Most Photographed Barn in America. They follow the signs and arrive at the barn site, finding a visitor center, an observation deck, droves of people with cameras, the actual barn up on a little rise. “No one sees the barn,” Murray notes. “Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn.” Jack says nothing as more tourists arrive, snap pictures, buy postcards. Murray continues. “We’re not here to capture an image, we’re here to maintain one,” he says. “Every photograph reinforces the aura.”
That story is from White Noise by Don DeLillo, an author who largely concerns himself with the same exploration of modern celebrity at the heart of Iñárritu’s Best Picture-winning Birdman. And that aura, so built up around the little red barn that the mass awareness begins to eclipse the individual identity, is not at all unlike the celebrity in which Michael Keaton’s actor Riggan Thomson finds himself trapped. The “public Riggan” — an image maintained in tabloids and represented by the superhuman Birdman — is so overwhelming that it obscures the real Riggan, the artist beneath the public persona, threatening to further that obscurity by tempting Riggan with Birdman 4. Plenty of films address Hollywood and modern celebrity in this way, and we’ll mention a few more from this past year in a moment. It’s Riggan, though, who most fully and tragically shows how impossible it is for an artist to escape the machinery of fame.
As the aging actor struggles to pull off a production of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Riggan encounters this aura again and again. A simple lap around the theater after he’s accidentally locked out of the stage door wearing only his underwear becomes more, becomes construed as a performance of some kind. It’s captured on camera, replayed, replayed. “Why do actors have to resort to this?” asks a newslady on an Access Hollywood-type program. She is, of course, talking only about that other Riggan, the public one, in such a way that “access Hollywood” really becomes a sickeningly perfect descriptor for such a show — the Hollywood Riggan is the most easily accessible. Riggan’s daughter, who has a sort of unique vantage point on both sides of her famous father, frames the viral video in another way: “Believe it or not, this is power.”
While DeLillo’s novels capture perfectly the plight of such figures as Birdman’s Riggan (White Noise with the photographed barn, Mao II in comparisons between cameras and weapons, Underworld in recalling both by stating “taping-and-playing intensifies and compresses the event”), his New York Times piece “The Power of History” gets more directly to the point:
Things flash and die. A face appears, a movie actor’s, say, and it seems to be everywhere, suddenly; or it is an entire movie that’s everywhere, with enormous feature stories about special effects and global marketing and tie-in merchandise; or it is just an individual’s name that haunts every informational nook, and you can’t figure out who the person is inside the name or what the context is that gave such abrupt prominence to the name, but it never actually matters and this is the point.
So, with this in mind: what’s up with that meteor thing? At the start of Birdman, immediately following the opening title sequence and immediately prior to our introduction to Riggan, Iñárritu gives us an image of a burning starlike object plummeting from the sky:
The “falling star” imagery is there, sure, maybe paralleling the has-been Riggan; that phrase is often used to describe actors and artists who have since faded from the public eye. But it’s the dying star, specifically, the supernova, the body that DeLillo says will inexorably “flash and die”, that plays into Riggan’s attempted suicide with greater effect. The brighter a supernova burns, the faster it dies — as with Riggan’s Birdman persona shining all the brighter to darken the true artist. Likewise, a supernova only shows forth as it goes away. Riggan’s performance in What We Talk About thus only breaks through into artistic notoriety at the ostensible moment of his death, once his personal pain manifests itself onstage, once he opts not for obscurity but for oblivion. And right on cue, that image from the beginning of the film of the dying star engulfed in flame appears again after Riggan attempts death.
However you interpret the partially ambiguous conclusion of Birdman, the sense remains that Riggan cannot survive without the aura of fame and the public reinforcement of who he is; one might go so far as to say that public perception will not even allow him to die, that the public/superhuman/Birdman Riggan is so powerful that the true Riggan can’t even take his own life. He hopes to flee from the public Riggan and impact people through his art, and his suicide attempt is one of desperation at the futility of that flight. This may inform why the film is structured as one unbroken, continuous shot, giving Riggan absolutely nowhere to run to escape the almighty camera. In Birdman there’s nowhere to hide.
Other auteurs have addressed fame and celebrity and media scrutiny over the past year, most recently David Cronenberg in the substanceless whiff Maps to the Stars. The better comparison is David Fincher’s Gone Girl, which forces Nick Dunne under a similar public lens (admittedly not one of fame but of infamy). “They dislike me, they like me, they hated me, and now they love me,” Nick laments. He has the aura, too, and after it’s been instated upon him by photographs and headlines it becomes harder and harder to get the old Nick back. As the most urgent and scathing examination of this, it’s fitting that Birdman receive as much recognition as it did at last night’s Academy Awards. There won’t be anything quite like it for a while.
Except, of course, for this: