Birdman: The Spirit of This Time

I’m Birdman.This and next month’s blog post respectively discuss the spirit of this time and the spirit of the depths—two ideas found at the beginning of C. G. Jung’s The Red Book. If the spirit of this time has to do with consciously embraced attitudes and values, the spirit of the depths concerns relatively unacknowledged or unconscious energies and potentialities. For Jung the ideal scenario is to have the two spirits in dialogue with one another; the result of domination of either spirit over the other is madness. The film we are going to look at in the present post exemplifies what happens to the spirit of this time when cut off from the spirit of the depths.

One of the most critically acclaimed movies of 2014, Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a dark satire about the perils of human ambition. The story concerns actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) and his attempts to resurrect a career most widely identified with his starring turn years earlier in Birdman, Birdman 2, and Birdman 3. Riggan has written, directed, and produced a Broadway play based on Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” and the film takes us through the play’s rehearsals, previews, and opening night. All the while Riggan not only contends with external challenges having to do with his fellow actors, his daughter, and one particularly obstreperous Broadway reviewer but he also must deal with his own internal problems such as hearing voices and experiencing hallucinations.

These schizoaffective voices and hallucinations are linked to Riggan’s earlier successful run as Birdman. In fact by the end of the film he believes he is Birdman, possessing the ability to fly, a heightened discernment of right from wrong, and the entitled sense that normal rules need not apply to him. It is as if Riggan has been identified so often by others with his performance as Birdman that he, too, has finally come to identify himself with the character.

Psychologically we might say that Birdman is not Riggan’s alter ego but his persona with which he unfortunately has become identified. In Jung’s Map of the Soul Murray Stein writes that the persona is the mask a person wears in public, i.e., the attitudes and behaviors displayed so as to better meet social demands and expectations (111). The persona is worn, then, to achieve specific ends and gain approval or admiration. Ideally, though, the persona is only one aspect of an individual’s personality and can be taken off when out of the public eye so that a fuller relationship to oneself and others is possible. Riggan’s inability to separate from his persona when and as needed is suggested by the following paraphrased statement from his ex-wife: “That’s how it always was with you – always confusing admiration with love.”

On a collective level the persona arguably corresponds to what Jung calls the spirit of this time. In The Red Book he writes “the spirit of this time would like to hear of use and value” (229). In other words the spirit of this time shares with the persona the adoption of beliefs
and behaviors which are valuable precisely because they are useful in the achievement of a certain end. Belief in the power of scientific reason and individual ambition and innovation exemplify this spirit.

Poet and playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe had his most famous character Faust declare “What you call the spirit of the times / is fundamentally the gentleman’s own mind, / in which the times are reflected” (Faust I, lines 577-79). In Birdman the internal monologues and external actions of Riggan Thomson reflect the unhealthy or pathological extremes which so often characterize the spirit of the times today. According to Jung these extremes include haste, arrogance, and self-righteous or heroic commitment to truth and advancement. Such characteristics can be found in the manic pace of most scenes in Birdman, the arrogant, grandiose, and entitled behavior of Riggan and other characters, and the willingness to go to any lengths to create something human and real on stage.

Such willingness to go to extremes is lauded at the end of the film even to the point that a new term is coined for this powerful approach to acting: super realism. However, viewers may be forgiven for feeling that Birdman itself as a film though well-crafted and powerful is a bit too cleverly told. Jung writes that “The spirit of this time considers itself extremely clever like every such spirit of this time” (237). Birdman perhaps is too much a product of this spirit and therefore strives too hard through innovative camera-work and storytelling to gain the audience’s admiration. What it communicates it does so a bit too much on the nose. The next blog post continues with the superhero theme and investigates how dialogue with the counterpart spirit of the depths helps heal the pathology of the spirit of this time.

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