Posted on Tuesday 24 February 2015

I saw Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) Saturday night, one day before the Oscars, and by Sunday night, I was rooting for it to win, even though it was in the running with some other amazing films. In Atlanta, we had [still have] a film series at Emory called Movie Mania, attended by members of the Mental Health Community and trainees at large in the many different programs in the area. It’s only a matter of time before Birdman will be on the screen in one of those discussions – guaranteed. It’s a classic, in the genre and league with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but unlike that film [or A Beautiful Mind, or Shutter Island, or the King of Hearts] – in Birdman, neither Psychosis nor any kind of Mental Health anything is ever mentioned.

As much as I would love to talk on and on about this film, a Blog is no place to ruin a movie for those who haven’t seen it. So I’ll just make a few comments. In the movies, we all cheer for these characters played by Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Russel Crowe, Leonard DiCaprio, and Alan Bates [Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island may be an exception, but you’ll have to see it to know why]. We all cheer for the protagonists, even with their often tragic endings – everyone in the audience, including the psychiatry residents who then leave the film series to go back to the Emergency room and have to deal with the out of control psychotic people brought by the police, or by distraught family and friends [see this comment on the last post for their dilemma].

The brilliance of Birdman is that it’s not about mental illness, it’s about an aging actor who is searching for an authentic connection with life by adapting a serious drama [by Raymond Carver] about the power of love and connectedness on Broadway. His real success in life had been in his role in a series of popular heroic fantasy films in which he played the caped Birdman – a superhero with superpowers – but he lead something of a meaningless life otherwise with angst and failed relationships. We learn in the opening scene that, in private, he actually has Birdman’s superpowers, hears the voice of the character Birdman, and at times he actually becomes Birdman [again in private] under stress. So Michael Keaton [who was the first film Batman], is a character who contains the psychotic dilemma without anyone medicating him or anyone enthusiasticly aiming him towards recovery. He doesn’t even have a mental illness. He’s just a guy that can’t experience his sense of being in life, and also secretly is a superhero, but doesn’t feel his life in that role either.

I’m about to tell the end of the movie. I don’t think it will interfere with seeing it, but if you hate spoilers, bookmark this post and come back after you’ve seen it. By the way, see it for sure. When you see it, first read the blurb about Raymond Carver’s life. And pay particular attention to the Edward Norton and Emma Stone characters, who, like a Greek Chorus, narrate the dilemma throughout the film in their own lives. ‘I only feel real on the stage, not in my life.’

Keaton’s character achieves authenticity by using a real gun in the ending suicide scene on the opening night of the play. He doesn’t die, but shoots off his nose. While he achieves critical acclaim, it’s a hard act to follow obviously. Looking in the mirror in the hospital, he sees his reconstructed nose which is radically different [looks like a beak]. As a matter of fact, we notice that his bandages look like the Birdman mask. Seeing some birds, he goes to the window and opens it. Later, when his daughter [Emma Stone] comes in the room and sees the open window with him gone, she races to first look at the ground far below with alarm. Then she looks up, and smiles. The end. We smile too. We’re smiling for the Keaton character who seems to have escaped as the Birdman – flying free of the mess on the ground. But what we’ve seen in truth, is a man jumping from the window of a multistory building. That is a dilemma…

When I wrote which side of the street?…, I suppose I hoped I’d be able to focus on Jeffrey Lieberman’s inappropriate and pompous rant on Medscape and avoid the British Psychological Society‘s report. But I can see I’m not going to get away with that. That is, in fact, one of the things that I find so hard about discussing this topic. No matter what I say about psychosis as I see it, I’m seen as taking a side and get hit from some other side as a <something not good>. Mention using neuroleptic medication and I’m a power hungry self-righteous ‘MDeity‘ who loves committing people. Say something about the recovery metaphor, or the down-side of diagnoses, or over-medication, and I’m suddenly a naive 60s type who thinks ‘all you need is love‘ who doesn’t understand trauma. Talk about psychotherapy, and I’m an unrepentant psychoanalyst who way overvalues "talk therapy" and "fanciful theories." At 73, I may have visited each of those pastures along the way, but it was a long time ago and I no longer remember even what they felt like. They didn’t fit for me because each of them relies on a notion of causality, and I don’t know what causes psychosis, or even if it’s a single thing. I tend to use the term Schizophrenia and its traditional subtypes in conversation, but even that has changed for me. Catatonia has been split off in a very helpful way. And there’s no question that in early days, I included cases I would now see as having obvious Manic-Depressive Illness. The ground shifts when you’re without the more solid signatures of my Internist days. But it is what it is.

So I’ll talk about that British Psychological Society‘s report in a bit. And I’ll get back to Birdman [and hope others have thoughts about it too]. First, I guess I’ll have to at least touch on the endless interdisciplinary wars in mental health. But for the moment, there’s something else. This picture is the view from my front porch right now [that has shut down our whole county, closing the clinic I was supposed to work in today], and there are things to be dealt with like logs to bring in from that smaller open shed [I know there’s laughter in Boston, but this ain’t Boston. It’s wimpy Georgia…]:
    Ferrell Varner
    February 26, 2015 | 8:43 AM

    The continuing question: Whether to exhort us to create nobility and beauty, or to accept us as we are, finding the infinite in the ordinary? I go back and forth. Interesting to hear how Birdman resonated with an analyst.

    Ferrell Varner
    February 26, 2015 | 9:54 AM

    Also, I would vote for more movie reviews.

    berit bryn jensen
    February 27, 2015 | 6:46 AM

    I’ll be seeing Birdman if/ when there is a chance to do so, as art may offer greater variation, depth, outlook, wisdom, opportunities and choice than two, more or less regimented, sides of a main street.
    As the many knowlegeable readers of dr Nardo’s openminded, manyfaceted, wise blog certainly are aware of, turf warriors may miss slower, quieter symptoms signalling momentous change, visible under their noses, if they paid attention.
    Science is too often hampered by human ambition, greed, arrogance and power, all very human, all part of the disasterous history of what professional psychiatry has wrought in its time, and continues to feed on as the hitherto major colonizer of mental suffering, lending “expertise” to cynical industries and (mostly ignorant) politicians.
    I’m reading “Foucault and the government of disability”, edited by Shelley Tremain, quoting him thus on the first page:
    “My point is not that everything is bad, but that everything is dangerous, which is not exactly the same as bad. If everything is dangerous, then we always have something to do. So my position leads not to apathy, but to a hyper- or pessimistic activism.
    I think that the ethico-political choce we have to make every day is to determine which is the main danger.”

    February 27, 2015 | 9:36 PM

    Birdman offered virtuoso directing, too. It was a truly fully realized work of art.

    I was a bit let down by the ending, but I guess the wild ride had to end somewhere. As for the mental state of the protagonist — it’s magical realism, Jake.

    March 2, 2015 | 4:46 PM

    Serious spoiler alert… don’t read further if you have not seen the film, or don’t like spoilers.

    I just saw this film in a theater. It was a pretty good film, perhaps structurally similar to many of films from David Lynch. Even thematically, it was similar to Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire, though I admit in many other ways it had a different type of style. But it had this element from Lynch that you’re not really sure of what is real, what is inside someone’s head, what is something paranormal, etc. Then you’re left with some “puzzle” to figure out what actually happened.

    I clearly disagree with altostrata in that in my case, the ending was in a sense key to the whole movie. After walking out from the movie theater, I could find three different “contexts” for her smiling:

    1. He had actually become a Birdman. The very direct assumption.
    2. She saw him take a taxi, just like in the earlier flight scene, he had actually taken a taxi. (The taxi driver ran after him, asking for a ticket.) She looked up gratefully, he had not jumped off.
    3. He actually jumped off, and just like parts of the movie were an imagination of his strive for recognizion or whatever, that though of his daugher smiling and looking up in appreciation in what he did was again one of his delusions, the last one actually. Then the movie ended.

    It’s quite nice how these explanations were woven together.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.