Tortured Artists

The movie Birdman won the academy award for best cinematography. The bulk of the story is visually told as if the viewer is following the character with a Go-Pro.  Sequences of frustration, doubt, fear, desperation, backstage tantrums and on stage brilliance and mediocrity all merged into one long voyeuristic event woven together with the haunting images of main character’s shallow alter ego hovering close by.

His present is comprised of a cramped, cluttered, seedy dressing room; long, badly-lit, dingy hallways; and the stage, where lights shine bright on his art and his vulnerability. His past hangs over him with supernatural powers soaring free, but at the same time alienating him from his humanity.

He’s struggling with a tough choice—ambition or artistry. Can you have both? Can playing a meaningless character that allows flying above the gritty streets of New York but keeping distance from what’s real be success?  Or is risking fortune and reputation in search for authentic self the way to true art?  And who’s to judge? Does someone need to be watching? Is the journey enough?  What are the consequences of failed attempts?  Is there relevance in just the doing?

It’s this internal battle that, for me, became revelatory in those camera shots as protagonist, Riggan, rushed down the dark hallways accompanied by nervous, jazz drumbeats. I couldn’t help but think of Through the Looking Glass, when the Red Queen grabs Alice’s hand and they run faster than Alice has ever run—“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else—if you run very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”

“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

As we study artists like Turner and Whistler and Van Gogh and Gaugin and even Rembrandt, take note of what it took for them to gain and keep acceptance, to earn respect and a living and note those who did not succeed in their lifetime or fell into ruin after initial success.

The pursuit of art for some is a pleasant pastime.  For some it is a way to be social.  Others find solace or excitement in discovery through the paint. For others it is a drive that is relentless. It can leave you breathless and confused and to get somewhere else you must “run twice as fast” (sometimes in your underwear) and have no idea where you are going or how you will end up. But wherever you run to, you turn around and there you are!

It can be all of those things to the same person at different times, and even on the same day.  Any wonder the stereotype of an artist is often “tortured”?

The movie is about the artist’s ego.  You can’t run from it.  You must have one in order to “say something”.  Too much and you are rendered insipid and impotent. As with everything, it’s balance–long, dark, smarmy  hallways and mystical, aerial flights of fancy.

Onward to the light of Monet and the Impressionists!

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