With Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) winning the Best Picture Oscar, a lot of people are pointing out the fact that three of the last four Best Picture winners are about movies, or the act of making them. That's not including 2011 winner The King's Speech, which was about the art of performance. That Hollywood loves itself a little too much is an obvious, and probably valid, conclusion to draw. But the deeper question to ask is why films like Birdman resonate so strongly.
If you haven't seen the film it might be best to skip this article because I'm going to discuss the conclusion in some depth. But if you're determined to push on, here's a quick primer: Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, an ageing actor best known for playing an iconic superhero in a 90s film franchise, called Birdman (wink wink, Michael Keaton is best known as the star of Tim Burton's Batman). The film finds him struggling to stage a Hollywood production of a Raymond Carver book, and takes place almost entirely backstage. Told cleverly and surreally with editing that follows characters through days or weeks without a single observable cut, it's an incredibly well-made film that deserves its artistic recognition.
The film mixes in magic realism elements to the story — we see Thompson able to levitate objects and even fly, but only when others aren't around, so that it's not obvious if what we're seeing is in his head or not. Riggan is presented as a man who believes he is special, and his whole life has revolved around maintaining and reinforcing that belief. The film blurs the boundaries between reality and events that might be happening only in Thompson's head, especially in the climactic scenes. (Major spoiler alert: At the end of the film, he floats off into the air like Icarus rising up to the sun, while his daughter watches on).
Birdman is like many films in which a (primarily middle aged male) character confronts a vast emptiness of meaning at the heart of their life. In other films, these characters have generally find that meaning in their family or their community or romantic love (think James Stewart's character in It's a Wonderful Life, or Bill Murray's character in Groundhog Day). What makes Birdman different to those films is that family and love aren't presented as solutions to this problem at all - in fact, it's the community around him that causes his stress.
Riggan is not capable of loving or caring for the people in his life because he's too wrapped up in his own needs. The conclusion of the film (Spoiler alert: Riggan attempts suicide on stage, which draws media attention and places him back in the media spotlight and gives him the attention he craves from his family and friends) places him back at the centre of the universe — all is right again from his perspective because the world notices him again. Instead of community and family providing meaning, it's recognition.
It's a problematic conclusion in a number of ways, not least because of the way it could be seen to validate suicide as a means of getting attention. But it's also worth questioning the narcissistic idea that recognition, or attention, could even be seen as a solution to the problem of finding meaning in life.
Sadly, I think that it's a message that people are increasingly taking to heart in the wider world. On Facebook and Twitter we're encouraged to value our input into a conversation in terms of 'likes' and 'retweets', or the number of friends and followers that we have. The smaller metric of love between family and immediate community has been replaced by a larger metric of influence - you're not important unless you get a reaction from others. It's a phenomenon that gives rise to everything from internet trolling to Buzzfeed-style journalism. It drives people's anxieties in their careers — 'Am I having an impact', 'Can I achieve performance targets' — and in their personal lives — 'How many people have you dated?', 'How many places have you visited?'
Birdman asks us how far we would go, how much we would compromise to get attention? It's ending, in that sense, is a cheat. Riggan could do another superhero franchise film and get all the attention he craves, but his art draws him to the smaller stage project. The film finds a way to give him everything that he craves, as problematic as that solution is. Unlike other films about finding meaning it doesn't seek to invalidate narcissism as an answer, but reinforces it.
Family, love and community may no longer have the hold on people's imaginations that they once had. But through the eyes of someone who still finds in those things a purpose and meaning to life, Birdman is a sinister warning against seeking meaning through fame. One wonders, however, if that's the meaning that audiences are taking out of it.
Michael McVeigh is the editor of Australian Catholics magazine.