I finally got out to see Birdman, the astonishingly good film for which Michael Keaton has received a richly deserved Academy Award nomination as best actor. Keaton plays an aging actor who was famous in a series of superhero films a couple of decades ago and is now trying to recharge his career (and give meaning to his life) by directing his own stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s terribly depressing short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.
What stuck in my mind as I left the theater was the resonance between a pair of powerfully emotive scenes — one in which Keaton’s drugged-out daughter, played with remarkable elan by Emma Stone, shouts at him that he is afraid he is nobody, and the other in which the condescending young co-star played by Edward Norton is dragged from his tanning bed, where he turns out to be reading a copy of Labyrinths, a collection of essays and short stories by Jorge Luis Borges.
I think director Alejandro González Iñárritu is having a little fun. Although we see the book in Norton’s hand, its significance is never discussed. So let’s take a moment to connect the dots.
Labyrinths includes Borges’s haunting dystopian tale The Lottery in Babylon, which imagines a society in which one’s position is determined entirely by luck. A new lottery is held every 60 days, so that you can go from being proconsul in one round to being a slave in the next. Knowledge, too, is left to chance. The books in Babylon are all understood to be inaccurate, because the Company, the shadowy organization that may or may not exist but everyone believes runs the country, is said to order scribes to introduce tiny errors, evidently at random. A bottle of wine might hold a good-luck charm or a snake. A man may commit a murder, and others will suspect that the Company commanded it, for no better reason than as a reminder that bad fortune as well as good rests on luck.
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Back to Birdman. Doesn’t the rant by Keaton's daughter deliver essentially the same message? You were world-renowned once, she says, and now nobody has any idea who you are. It’s just luck. Bad luck, but still luck, like everything else.
The message is cleverly pre-modern and post-modern at once. It’s all luck. The gods bless you or curse you for unfathomable reasons of their own, leaving you no control over your destiny (pre-modern), and in the end your striving is bound to fail, because of the power relations in which you find yourself mired (post-modern). Even the film’s denouement suggests that the turning of the wheel of chance matters far more than our striving.
Is Iñárritu offering some larger political comment? I’m not entirely sure. Take an example: In the debate over income inequality, there are plenty of politicians and pundits whose view seems to be that if you’re poor or working class, no amount of striving will get you ahead. The corollary is that those who have much don’t entirely deserve what they’ve got. This view, too, is pre-modern (luck; the will of the gods) and post-modern (power relations) at once.
Note that the argument doesn’t entirely match Iñárritu’s vision — not, at least, if we are meant to see the connection with Borges. In the world of the fictional lottery, one changes social and economic position constantly. Yet Stone’s contention that her father has become nobody and, no matter what he does, is going to stay nobody maps nicely on the notion that once you fall behind, hard work and determination will never suffice to catch you up with the rest.
Maybe I’m reading too much into what is, after all, intended as an entertainment. Don’t worry about what may or may not be the film’s deeper politics. My analysis is entirely speculative. Birdman is a wonderful film, and if you haven’t seen it, you should. The acting is magnificent, and the film editing (which the academy mysteriously overlooked) is incredible.
Still, I hope no one will think me a spoilsport if I at least offer the hope that the message at the core of the story will prove mistaken.
Stephen L. Carter, a Bloomberg View columnist, is a professor of law at Yale University.