Saturday, January 24, 2015

Birdman's search for the good in life

Today I watched movie Birdman, starring Michael Keaton, Naomi Watts, et al., directed by the very talented Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. I very much enjoyed it from a number of different perspectives. The aesthetics of the film were very impressive: it is filmed in such a way as to seem filmed in a single take, a feat which was capably accomplished through smooth and at times fascinating transitions. What was best about the film, however, was the philosophical reflection on the meaning and value of life.


The story concerns a washed-up actor named Riggen Thomson. He played in some Birdman movies way back when, but he has since been largely forgotten. He wishes to make a return to fame, to recognition, through a Broadway play. He has written an adaptation of Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, the main character of which is a forlorn and depressed man who catches his love sleeping with another man. At the climactic end of the play, the main character, having caught his wife in the act, meditates for a moment on the pain and suffering of his life caused by his yearning simply to be loved by another. Unloved by anyone, he concludes that he is not even real, that he doesn't even exist, and shoots himself. Thus ends the play, and that is the lesson of the story: to be, truly to be, is to be loved.

What's the point of going on in the world, of striving to live in the midst of trouble and travail? The answer the film seems to give is that -- to be loved. The title credits of the film include this quotation from Carver's book:

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

This is what Riggen Thomson feels. He wants to make this play work because he wants the recognition of the New York Broadway scene; he wants this recognition, furthermore, because he wants to feel appreciated, to be feel loved. At the same time, he feels disgusted with the shallow and empty way that recognition is won in the contemporary world -- Facebook, Twitter, mindless action movies which never touch upon the human condition or upon issues of philosophical interest. He wants to prove, through this play adaptation of his, that he is an artist. But as another character says at one point during the film, he has confused love and appreciation. Moreover his daughter finds his yearning for acceptance to be misguided and futile. He has no Twitter account, he has no Facebook page, and these are the ways to be somebody in contemporary times. There is no way around being shallow and empty; ultimately, she tells him, he is unimportant and he ought to get on with life in light of that fact. But why go on living, if Riggen Thomson is worth nothing? Why go on living, if I am never affirmed?

Riggen finds moments of meaning and purpose throughout the film, particularly when he finds himself in situations of vulnerability and tenderness with other persons, whether his girlfriend or ex-wife or daughter. These are moments of genuine love. Here he feels loved, here he feels -- the audience feels it, too -- like his hectic and chaotic life might actually have some purpose and redeeming value. The problem is, however, that he and those whom he loves are too depraved and broken to enjoy healthy relationships. This means that true happiness and meaningful living is just out of their reach. They can see it, they can taste it if only a bit, but they cannot enjoy it to the full because they are so broken.

The absurdity of the situation is evident, and so it is no surprise that Riggen considers suicide at numerous points throughout the film. What way is there out of this horrific situation except to die? Interestingly, there is a very subtle and understated religious presence in the film, but it is evident that the world in which the film is set (our world in America) is post-religious, post-Christian. The building in which Riggen works is called "St. James," but no one ever considers who this saint is, or even what it is to be a saint. No one mentions God or talks about religion. During one scene, Riggen is about to throw himself from a building, and he stands at the edge of a building with a New York church in the background. The message is subtle but I think present: turning his back on the religious worldview of previous (and some contemporary) generations, turning his back on God, the modern person has no way of making sense of the absurdity of his existence. The way out is to kill yourself.

There is much here with which the Christian theologian agrees. The Christian agrees that truly meaningful lives must be lived in healthy and moral relationships with other persons. This is why the second greatest commandment, after "Love the LORD thy God," is "Love thy neighbor as thyself." Here the ancient Greek philosophical principle that the happy life is also the virtuous life becomes evident; if true fulfillment is found in being loved, well, you can't be loved and be a menace to everyone, including to yourself.

Likewise the Christian theologian teaches that we have been taught a way to have meaningful relationships with one another, that is the way of Christ, the way of love. Paul writes in Romans that the whole law of God is summed up in love your neighbor: "Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law" (Rom 13.10). We learn to love one another from Christ, who shows us what it is to love -- to be willing to sacrifice oneself even for one's enemies (cf. Rom 5.8).

But suppose your relationships are not that great, and suppose things are going badly for you. Suppose someone near you has died, or has effectively ruined themselves through poor choices. Suppose all your efforts to accomplish something with your life have failed, and you feel yourself not to be worth anything. Suppose you don't get any recognition from the people around you, and they seem not to care to know anything about you. Does the Christian theologian have anything to say to a person in such a situation?

Christianity teaches that even such a person can have a full life, and can feel the above mentioned joy of being loved, because God loves everyone. The God who created everything, who in his providence guides everything, who in Jesus Christ has saved the whole world, and who through Christ's resurrection proves that even death cannot be an obstacle to his good purposes for everyone -- this God loves me, and loves you, and loves everyone. At the bottom of everything, behind all appearances, is the ultimate rock-bottom of reality: the love of God which cannot be denied, cannot be defeated.

This is the secret to living a meaningful and purposeful life: to know that one is loved by God, and to live in the world confidently, gladly, gratefully, confident of this fact.