A major risk: what liberal arts students can learn from Birdman


As a senior Media, Culture and the Arts major at a tiny liberal arts school in what Forbes calls the most overpriced city in the U.S., the questions I'm asked most often are: “How do you like New York?” “What are you going to do with that major?” I’m sure other King’s students can relate to this. It’s confusing to the point where we start to question our choices. Many of my friends are nurses by now, living in their own (read this) houses. I could have done the same thing. Then the comment from my grandmother that “We always need nurses!” could apply to me too. But I’m doing something different; I'm pursuing a different path. And sometimes I wonder if the world needs more of me. In the film "Birdman" (2014), Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) wonders the same thing. What makes him different? What makes it worthwhile to risk everything for what he loves? He’s an actor – what makes his art worth it? I won’t repeat all the colorful plot details of the Golden Globe winner (Best Actor, Best Screenplay), but in summation, former cinema superhero Riggan attempts to revamp his career and his familial relationships by writing, directing and acting in a Broadway production. He hopes that this risky venture will help him prove, both to others and to himself, that he is a genuine artist and not merely a floundering, out-of-date amateur.

Throughout the film, Riggan is plagued with questions from his popular, charismatic and lucrative alter ego, Birdman, until he nearly kills himself. Birdman is simultaneously the force driving him to create his show and his worst critique. He is pressured to go back to making easy entertainment instead of fighting to make vulnerable, under appreciated art. It seems as though wherever he turns, things are going wrong, from interactions with his estranged daughter to the ups and downs of creating his show. In it's brutally honest depiction of an individual struggling with competing desires, Mexican director Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s ("Biutiful," "Babel") latest film relays something important about faith and the road less traveled that resonates with anxious King’s students.

Whether the above question about my career is asked excitedly or cynically, I have probably answered it a thousand times. The problem is, sometimes I forget the answer and wonder if I ever really knew it. I forget, as Riggan did, why I go out “on stage” every day. Competing desires within me pull me in different directions. And when I do go out on stage (i.e. go to class), I am sometimes laughed at for pursuing a major with no clear-cut career results. Friends back home ask, “You watch movies for class?” Intentionally or not, they usually put me into the you-have-easier-classes-so-of-course-you-like-them category.

Sure, sometimes my classes feel easy because I love them so much, but then I have to explain why I do it, and that’s the hard part. Most King’s students can’t predict what exactly we will do when we graduate. Riggan may seem insane (he does talk to himself fairly often and walk through Times Square in his whitey tightys), but he remains faithful to his craft and dedicated to his artistic pursuits.

Faith is the evidence of things unseen. Studying (or practicing) the humanities requires faith. It requires faith not only in your art, but faith that any art could be worth doing. When is it more than a hobby? When is it worth four years of education and hefty tuition prices? Regardless of major, all King’s students are breaking the mold. We are different people at a different kind of school in a different kind of place. We don’t even have dorms, for crying out loud! So why take this idiosyncratic leap of faith?

“You risk nothing….this play cost me everything,” says Riggan to a heartless theater critic. Riggan speaks from the depths of our great city. New York City is a place that demands more than just an answer to Hamlet’s famous question. Once you, as Riggan does, decide “to be or not to be,” you must then decide how to be it. King’s, after all, has been known to say that education is not telling us what to think, but rather how to think.

Sure, not all of us know exactly what we will do when we graduate. We don't have a clear blueprint for our futures. We don’t know what our job titles will be, but we can know the kind of person we hope to be in them. Maybe that’s part of understanding Birdman’s subtitle, “the unexpected virtue of ignorance.” Maybe that virtue is faith. Isn’t that the essence of our relationship with God? If we knew exactly what would happen in the future, it wouldn’t be faith but pure reason. If Riggan lived on reason, he would have taken the money from his blockbuster action movies and never risked another moment of his talent. But he knew there was something else in the world, something worth pursuing (though more difficult to explain). I think most King’s students share that epiphany. It just might take a quirky film about a great artist haunted by a mediocre entertainer in a bird suit to remind us that hope is indeed a thing with feathers. The film closes with an epigraph by Raymond Carver, the writer Riggan risks so much to perform for:

And did you get what / you wanted from this life, even so? / I did. / And what did you want? / To call myself beloved, to feel myself / beloved on the earth.

King’s students, if you want to be beloved, you already are. Have faith.