Monday, 1 August 2016
Birdman (5 Stars)
"I don't exist. I'm not even here".
Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a Hollywood actor who had a string of successes in the 1980's playing a superhero called Birdman. He refused to make a fourth Birdman film because he wanted to be known as a serious actor. That didn't work. 30 years on he's spent all the money he made, and he still craves to be recognised as a serious actor. Now he's making one last attempt. He has adapted a play by Raymond Carver, "What we talk about when we talk about love". This is a return to his roots. Back in 1972 Riggan starred in a high school play. Raymond Carver was in the audience, and he wrote a note on a napkin for Riggan praising the honesty of his performance. This was what convinced Riggan to become an actor.
"Birdman" is a film with many different levels of meaning, but I'll concentrate on one thing. Riggan Thomas is a man playing a part. I don't just mean the part he's playing on stage. He spent part of his life as a Hollywood actor, and now he's a Broadway actor. He was the same man inside, but he was attempting to present a different part of himself to the world.
Everyone goes through phases in his life. That's normal. However, I doubt many people have undergone as many drastic changes as me. In part it was because of the big moves in my life, from England to Germany to America to England to Germany, in one big circle. However, there are signs of change at other points in my life. There were deliberate breaks with my past that were unnecessary, if judged objectively. I have always been driven by the urge to make a new start and re-invent myself. Like Riggan Thomas, I've always been the same man inside, but I chose different cities and different stages to reveal different parts of myself.
I lived my first few years, until I was eight, in Little Aston. I grew up surrounded by parks, the old grounds of Little Aston Hall before they were split up. I grew up with nature. I knew the names of the birds and the trees. When my family moved to Walsall I made no attempt to keep contact with my old friends. I made new friends in my new street and my new school. I even presented myself differently. My interest in nature and wildlife was gone. I was soon known as someone who was interested in science and science fiction. I was a very modern boy.
At the age of 11, almost 12, I went to grammar school. This coincided with my family moving again, this time to Aldridge. Once more I broke contact with my old friends. There was one boy, Richard Lee, who went to both my junior school and my grammar school, but in grammar school we drifted apart. In junior school we had a bond because we were both fascinated by science. In grammar school I was different. I concentrated on learning foreign languages, and in my spare time I immersed myself in religion and philosophy. I read the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita and the Bible (in that order). I was fascinated by Norse mythology and Roman mythology. I read books by Franz Kafka, Friedrich Dürrenmatt (a more spiritual author than most people assume) and Friedrich Nietzsche.
Some of my different personas overlapped with one another, temporally. I lived in Aldridge but went to grammar school in Walsall. This gave me the opportunity to lead a double life. At the age of 16 I began to date girls. With very few exceptions, the girls I went out with lived in Aldridge, not Walsall, so my school friends knew nothing about them. At school I was the brilliant pupil who finished top of his class in every subject. Today I would be called a nerd, but in my school days I was called a swot, which was an awful insult. I tried to hide this when I was dating. I never let my girlfriends know how intelligent I was. I deliberately dumbed myself down to be popular with girls. In retrospect I think this was foolish, but it must have succeeded, because I had a long string of girlfriends in my mid to late teens. They weren't the smartest, but they all looked pretty hot.
When I went to university at the age of 18 it was another break with the past, or at least a partial break. I went to university in Birmingham but carried on living with my parents in Aldridge, a 40 minute bus journey from the university. This was supposedly in order to save money, but another advantage was that I could keep up my double life. I carried on dating girls who lived in Aldridge, but university was a new life for me. I broke off all contact with my previous school friends. At university I had many friends, or at least many people who wanted to be my friends. I never opened up to them. They looked upon me with awe, because I was so much better in my course than any of them. Surprisingly, they respected me for it. In school the other children despised me as a swot, but in university the other students admired my intelligence.
I spent the third year of university in Berlin. This was perhaps the most drastic period of self-reinvention in my life. All my life I had been a good boy, someone who obeyed rules and regulations down to the letter. In Berlin I wanted to be bad. I admit that I wasn't very good at it. Basically it boiled down to me telling people I was bad, but there was nothing behind it. I told people that I often got into fights with people I didn't like, but it was all lies. I didn't just change my personality, I changed my name. I introduced myself as Frank, modelling myself on Frank Cornelius in Michael Moorcock's novels. It was a weird year.
When I returned to Birmingham for my fourth and final year of university my double life became a triple life. I got a job with a local radio station, Radio Wash, and I was a DJ called Eric Bloodaxe. The shows were broadcast from 10pm to midnight, but they were pre-recorded earlier in the day. I played punk rock. I did my best to imitate John Peel, my favourite DJ at the time, by speaking with the same deep voice as him. Ironically, my shows were broadcast at the same time as his, so I was luring listeners away from him. None of the students at university knew I was Eric. Nobody in Aldridge, not even my parents, knew I was Eric. Sometimes I was with a girlfriend in the evening listening to the radio and she would say, "Mike, that DJ sounds like you". I would reply something like, "Not really. My voice isn't that deep".
After university I moved to Germany. It was a brave thing for me to do. Maybe foolhardy is the more correct word. I had a job waiting for me, but when I stepped off the train in Stuttgart I had nowhere to live. As was typical for me, I broke off all contact with my friends at university and in Aldridge. It was a completely new start. I lived in Germany for 19 years, which was a long time for me to stay in one place. I married. I settled down. I played the role of a good husband and family father to perfection. I also became the highly efficient manager of a small electronics company, a role I greatly enjoyed. But after 19 years I had itchy feet and needed to move on again. It's true that the main reason for my departure was problems in my marriage, but my departure followed the pattern of my earlier moves. When I left my wife I didn't just get an apartment in the next street or even the next town I moved all the way to America. Yet another new start.
I'm not sure what sort of image I projected in America. At work I was a hard-working computer programmer, but I had very few friends. When I left America I can't really say that I left everything behind, because I had nothing to leave behind. My three years in America were too short to re-invent myself. I was a bland, uninteresting person. It's doubtful that anyone even remembers me.
Back in England I played my most demanding role of all. It's true that I was suffering from depression when I returned to England, but when I began to feel better I pretended that I was still unwell. I fooled everyone. I could turn the tears on and off at will. Over a period of 15 years psychiatrists repeatedly judged me unfit for work. If I had wanted to work I could have done, in the early years at least. As time progressed I grew increasingly comfortable with my life of inactivity, and as a result I really became the person I was pretending to be. I didn't receive much money in sickness benefits, but I didn't spend much either, so I always had enough. As a famous man once said, "The man is richest whose pleasures are cheapest". During this time I re-invented myself as a film fan. This started in 2003 when I bought my first DVD player. Being able to watch films in high quality stored on shiny little discs was incredible to me. After years of watching fuzzy video tapes DVDs seemed miraculous. This was when I became fanatical about films. At first I simply bought and watched many DVDs. In 2010 I began to write this blog. In 2013 I joined a film group, of which I later became a host. My friends in England knew me as a film fan. If they'd known me any time before 2003, in any of my previous lives, they would have described me a different way.
Last month I returned to Germany again, after a long absence. I'm back in Münchingen, the small village just outside Stuttgart where I lived until 1997. It's unusual for me to return to a place that I left. What's also unusual is that I intend to hold on to my friends in Birmingham. I'm certainly not the same man that I was 19 years ago, but I don't yet know who I am. I need time to create a new identity. All I can say is that I'll always be the same person inside. I'm a deep thinker. I analyse everything, whether it's religion or politics. I'm tolerant of everyone else's opinions, in fact I'm more tolerant than anyone I've ever met. I love intensely, but unfortunately too intensely. I give so much that people feel uncomfortable with me, they think that someone who is so self-sacrificial must be faking it, he must be doing it to hide his greed.
In "Birdman" Riggan's critic was Tabitha Dickinson, a writer for the New York Times who hated him simply because he was different. I have had a few critics in my life, commenting on my performances. My biggest critic was Brigitte, my wife from 1982 to 1997. She didn't understand me at all. My love overwhelmed her. She couldn't accept such an intense love as genuine. She was certain that I was being unfaithful and had other lovers, even though she never found the slightest proof of her suspicions. The more I loved her, the more she hated me in return. If she had been able to love me I wouldn't have left Germany in 1997. My life would have taken different turns. I wish I could have stayed with her, but I have to accept a lot of my personal developments since leaving her as positive. Now I'm in the awkward position that she wants me back, but she still doesn't understand why I left her. What should I do? Should I re-invent myself as the self-sacrificing lover once more, accepting the fact that I might be abused all over again?