What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is the fictitious Broadway play at the center of the 2014 film Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). It’s the play the main character Riggan has adapted from an actual ten page Raymond Carver short story. Riggan is starring in and producing the play in order to, ostensibly, prove that he’s not just a mindless, Hollywood hack celebrity, but is a passionionate, talented, bonafide artist who needs to express himself. But what we talk about when we talk about love, not Carver’s short story or the fictional play in the film, but the notion, the slippery what of love as it’s talked about by humans, is also the heart of the film’s matter, its major theme. It’s the question the film is asking: What do we talk about when we talk about love? As Carver’s playful phrasing suggests, what love is as talked about, what it is in when we try to put it into words is no easily-wrangled beast. Try it sometime yourself, try to pin it down, love, try to wrap words around love one day with someone you think you love, and listen to those words. What’s said, I assure you, no matter how blessed your tongue, won’t be the whole of it, won’t ever contain love. What’s said, even if you possess the gifts of a William Blake or a WH Auden, will just be an infuriatingly tiny sliver of what love is to you. And most likely, what you’ll end up talking about won’t resemble your conception of love at all. Maybe it’ll be the exact opposite of it, in fact.
Before I go any further, I should mention that because the film won the Oscar for Best Picture last year, and anyone listening to this will likely already know most of the its particulars, I’m just going to skip the formalities of discussing the stunning performances turned in by the all-star cast led by Michael Keaton and Ed Norton and the remarkable technical achievement of Alejandro Inaritu’s direction, wherein the film appears to be shot in a single take without any cuts, a’la Hitchcock’s ROPE, in order to get down to the business of listening the picture as it whispers about:
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.
To set the table: The Mel character in Carver’s story says “it ought to make us ashamed when we talk like we know what we’re talking about when we talk about love.” One of the characters in the play adaptation in the film says, “Why do I have to beg everyone to love me?”
Because Inaritu’s story concerns a group of actors preparing for a Broadway play, and because its view of actors is the common conception of them as infantile, suffering from an insecurity-driven, attention-seeking, histrionic personality disorder, what the actors in the story talk about when they talk about love is not the kind associated with selfless devotion or contemptuous obsession, as the characters in Carver’s story speak about, but rather what they talk about is something resembling a bottomless pit, an insatiable monster that would consume the love of planets and universes if gone unchecked. What the characters in Inaritu’s film are talking about is being loved… being beloved… which, though it’s a fine point, isn’t exactly what most of us think about when we think about feeling love. Being beloved are the characters’ motivations, no matter how much they try disguise them or how adamant they insist on their ignorance of it.
So just about all of the main characters in the film are doing some version of the ‘look-at-me’ war dance, but Riggan, played by Keaton, is evidently preparing for the most violent battle. Riggan is an action hero actor who’s been aged out of the role that has won him the most adoration and who has since been gently shoved out of the Hollywood limelight. Casting Keaton in the role is, of course, a bit of a wink and a nod given Keaton’s own resume playing winged heroes on screen. Now, I’m not sure what Keaton’s personal caped crusader whispers to him, but in Riggan’s darker moments of vulnerability and self-doubt, he’s visited upon by his fabricated hero-self, his Birdman, who assuages his insecurities, assuring him that that he could climb back into the superhero suit anytime he wants, that, in fact, he actually is the superhero, the Birdman. As the pressures of putting on his Broadway show mounts, Riggan becomes more and more prone to these hallucinatory lapses, and his discussions with his avian self become increasingly intense. He actually sees himself as possessing the super powers his fictional character did, and those powers become greater as he becomes increasingly uncertain about the play. He tries to remain sane, tries to keep the Birdman contained, but the difficulties of doing so are tantamount to the difficulties of producing a Raymond Carver adaptation.
Ultimately what Riggan is combating is the phantasmagoric manifestation of his narcissism. The narcissist, after all, is the most insecure of all human creatures, and so tells himself, in order to remain wholly ignorant of those insecurities and inadequacies, that he is, in fact, superior to everyone around him and thus deserves their adoration. This is the crux of Riggan’s inner dialog. This is what he talks about with himself when he talks about love.
And it’s this discussion that provides the underpinning of the film. The centerpiece is Riggan’s inner dialog, but, like I said, it’s the dialog of all the other character interactions as well. The words they use to talk about it, and around it, and through it, the form their discussions take, is one not unfamiliar here on The Cutting Room Movie Podcast: it has something to do with the dichotomies of art versus commerce; with the virtuous versus the shill; with the fine versus the cheap; with the beautiful versus the lowest common denominator. On one side Riggan has the lobotomized action porn superhero spectacles of the megaplexes and on the other he has the patron saint of the understated, Raymond Carver, of quiet Sunday morning paperbacks. Whether true or not, the characters go to great lengths to convince themselves that they’ve moved past their daddy issues, that they’ve made it on the stage, that they have talent, that they don’t need superficial adulation because they’re bonafide artists expressing themselves with “complex human emotions.”
Riggan’s Birdman nearly kills him in his efforts to convince him that his real motivation for producing this artsy fartsy play is merely a pretentious ruse, a self-delusion, designed merely to win him adulation he’s been telling himself he doesn’t need, and that the most honest thing he can do is to re-adorn the superhero get-up and give the people what they want. In other words, to cut the bullshit. The Birdman needs to fly. Riggan recognizes that there’s more than just a little truth in what Birdman is telling him, that he’s been willfully ignorant of his own petty motivations, and that he secretly just wants to be the fucking Birdman and zoom around the city, above it all. The fact that his realization coincides with an important NY Times critic threatening to pan the play before she’d even seen it is no coincidence of course.
Ultimately, the war becomes too much for Riggan and he succumbs, finally un-ignorant, finally aware that he’s just been talking about love, about hoarding all of it he can get, all along. Shell shocked and battle weary, he gives in. He waves the white flag.
But it turns out his inner war was not waged in vein. His ignorance has had an unexpected virtue and has produced a bonafide work of vibrant and meaningful art, a work of art that spills metaphorical and actual blood on the stage, a work of art that, ironically, wins him the love he has sought but told himself he didn’t need.
Jesus, what cruelty is art, to be the spoil of such a violent war.
In the exhausted aftermath, as he lies in a hospital bed recovering from his battle wounds the question for Riggan becomes, is the love he’s won enough? For the artist, is any amount of love ever enough?
Joseph Christiana, May 4, 2015