‘Birdman’ and Sorokin on Our Sensate Culture

birdman

The following is a reprint from Volume 4, Issue 2 of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine: “Sensations of Reality.” You can subscribe to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine by becoming a member and you’ll receive a host of other benefits as well.

Birdman: Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance is filmmaker Alexander Inarritu’s recent acclaimed cinematic masterpiece. The film follows washed-up actor, Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) and his desperate grasping at straws to resurrect his faded film fame by creating a Broadway theatre adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story. The film immerses you into Riggan’s petty narcissism, inflated ego, and alter-ego: Birdman. Baptized into Riggan’s psyche, we are forced to reckon with his repugnant self-obsessiveness and fame-whoring; and therein, we are forced to look in the mirror, at ourselves as well as our present sensate culture. The film deals with more than just Riggan and his Birdman alter-ego aims. The film is an indictment of the narcissism embodied by both low-culture celebrity click bait and high-culture super-realism. The sensate culture that drove Riggan Thompson into a desperate suicidal search for relevance, fame, and attention is in fact our culture—one that is seriously in need of meaning, love, and intimacy.

The sensate culture that drove Riggan Thompson into a desperate suicidal search for relevance, fame, and attention is in fact our own.

Birdman is immersive and claustrophobic in a way that is only comparable to films like Das Boot or Alien. The story is shot in real-time with precious few discernible cuts. Set in the Broadway pre-production world, we are enveloped in Riggan’s sad and pathetic world.

Riggan Thompson’s star is falling; obviously so, when a middle-aged man is imagining himself levitating while wearing tighty-whites. It is oddly reminiscent of Breaking Bad’s Walter White, just trade Walter’s RV for Riggan’s green room. And like Walter, Riggan has a few secrets.

He hears the voice of his alter ego, Birdman, in his head. Birdman is the comic book superhero he used to play, the one that made him a star. And now, Birdman is taking over Riggan’s thoughts, causing him to hallucinate super-powers of levitation, telekinesis, and flight. Birdman spurs Riggan to reclaim his former comic book character’s superhero glory. But in real life, Riggan isn’t anything like the superheroes we champion. Riggan has notched a failed suicide attempt—he couldn’t follow through with it because, oddly, jellyfish covered his face. Riggan’s life is also devoid of any intimacy. His ex-wife, Sylvia, caught him sleeping with another woman and divorced him. His relationship with his daughter, Sam, is strained and awkward. His relationships with fellow actors and members of the production are superficial and utilitarian, bent toward his desire to curry the favor of the masses over attaining real connections with any one individual. All these failures add up for Riggan. His career is fading, and with it, everything else he holds dear. It’s a sad story, weighty with meaning.

Much has been written about Birdman since its release. The film’s main character and final scene have inspired much ink and keystrokes. Still, the film is at least as much about its cultural setting (that is to say, our present culture) as it is about Riggan and Birdman. Yet, very little has been written about the culture of it. Set in present-day Times Square, it’s easy to get lost in the Broadway world.

One of the few scenes that take place out in public says much. Riggan is accidentally locked out of the theater and stumbles through Times Square in his underwear. It’s humorous but not the craziest thing ever seen in Times Square. The difference here is who is at center stage. It’s Riggan, and people recognize him. Onlookers grab their cell phones to capture a viral video of Birdman bumbling his way back to the theater. That footage quickly goes viral, and shortly thereafter, Riggan and his daughter have this interaction:

RIGGAN: Listen to me. I’m trying to do something important.

SAM: This is not important.

RIGGAN: It’s important to me! All right? Maybe not to you, or your cynical friends whose only ambition is to go viral. But to me . . . to me . . . this is—God. This is my career, this is my chance to do some work that actually means something.

SAM: Means something to who? You had a career before the third comic book movie, before people began to forget who was inside the bird costume. You’re doing a play based on a book that was written 60 years ago, for a thousand rich old white people whose only real concern is gonna be where they go to have their cake and coffee when it’s over. And let’s face it, Dad, it’s not for the sake of art. It’s because you want to feel relevant again. Well, there’s a whole world out there where people fight to be relevant every day. And you act like it doesn’t even exist! Things are happening in a place that you willfully ignore, a place that has already forgotten you. I mean, who are you? You hate bloggers. You make fun of Twitter. You don’t even have a Facebook page. You’re the one who doesn’t exist. You’re doing this because you’re scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don’t matter. And you know what? You’re right. You don’t. It’s not important. You’re not important. Get used to it.

Riggan stands devastated.

SAM (CONT’D) Dad . . .

She looks at him sympathetically, but not knowing what to say . . . she exits.

The sad irony of this scene is that Riggan desires the same thing he criticizes in the loathsome viral culture: relevance. Sam calls him out on it, and it lances him to the core. From this point, the story continues with Riggan’s conversation with his ex-wife; we learn of his infidelity and failed suicide attempt, as well as his confession of the Birdman voice in his head. It leads to the climactic discharge of his gun onstage, during his train wreck Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story.

What Does a Dead Russian Sociologist Have to Do with Birdman?

Pitirim Sorokin was a Russian sociologist who immigrated to the United States in 1923. In 1930, he chaired the sociology department at Harvard, at age 40. Sorokin is best known for his magnum opus, Social and Cultural Dynamics (SCD hereafter), where he outlines his theories on the sociology of Western civilization. SCD outlines how Western civilizations move through three simple stages: ideational, idealistic, and sensate.

In ideational culture, reality is spiritual, and the material world is a temporary shadow of the transcendent spiritual reality. Here, the material world is passing away. Truth exists, and divine command and revelation are important and valid sources of truth. Culture and art tend to emphasize transcendence over immanence.

In idealistic culture, reality is both material and spiritual. The material and spiritual worlds mutually inform and elaborate upon one another. The West has experienced brief but fleeting periods of idealistic culture—notable for Sorokin would be the ancient Greek era of Plato and his Forms.

In sensate culture, reality is purely material. There is no external reality with which to define or understand ourselves outside of the material world. In a sensate world, pleasure, comfort, safety, sex, money, power, and fame are paramount. Art de-emphasizes narratives and refocuses on stimulation.

Sorokin’s social cycle follows this pattern:

Ideational > Idealistic > Sensate > Decadence > Downfall > New Ideational or Idealistic Era

Sorokin was clear that Western civilization had been in a sensate cycle for five centuries:

“The organism of the Western society and culture seems to be undergoing one of the deepest and most significant crises of its life. The crisis is far greater than the ordinary; its depth is unfathomable, its end not yet in sight, and the whole of the Western society is involved in it. It is the crisis of a Sensate culture, now in its overripe stage, the culture that has dominated the Western World during the last five centuries. It is also the crisis of a contractual (capitalistic) society associated with it. In this sense we are experiencing one of the sharpest turns in the historical road.

“Shall we wonder, also, at the endless multitude of incessant major and minor crises that have been rolling over us, like ocean waves, during recent decades? Today in one form, tomorrow in another. Now here, now there. Crises political, agricultural, commercial, and industrial ! Crises of production and distribution. Crises moral, juridicial [sic], religious, scientific, and artistic. Crises of property, of the State, of the family, of industrial enterprise, of the republic and monarchy, autocracy and democracy, fascism and communism, nationalism and internationalism, pacifism and militarism, conservatism and radicalism. Crises of truth, of beauty, of justice, of righteousness. Crises of the whole system of values of our culture. Each in a rich variety of forms and with varying degrees of power, but endlessly rolling, its roar reverberating in every daily newspaper.”[i]

In this passage composed in 1934, Sorokin presciently describes our present secular materialism. Because the material world is all that exists for us, science and technology become surrogate gods. We worship today at the temples of Steve, Elon, and Tony.

In addition, sensate culture is marked by a four key elements: tragic dualism, chaotic syncretism, quantitative colossalism, and diminishing creativeness.[ii]

Tragic dualism is marked by human self-contradictions. Man is noble yet no better than the animals. Man is carbon and water but for some inconsistently discernible reason, he is also dignified. There is massive confusion about what exactly constitutes humanity. The militant animal rights movement and the sexual revolution are both evidential of this tragic dualism at work in our sensate culture.

Chaotic syncretism can be thought of as a pie baked with undigested entrails from disparate worldviews. It is like what Tacitus said of Rome in the days of Nero: “The common sink into which everything infamous and atrocious flows like a torrent from all quarters of the world.”[iii] In a syncretistic culture, we practice a supermarket theology where the shopping cart is your head and heart. We run up and down the aisles taking artifacts from mutually exclusive worldviews pretending it is okay because truth is relative and pragmatism is god. If it works, it is true; if it is true, it works. Who cares about tautologies when it makes me happy? Consider the annoyingly infectious chorus from Pharell’s song Happy:

“Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth (Because I’m happy) / Clap along if you know what happiness is to you (Because I’m happy) / Clap along if you feel like that’s what you wanna do (Because I’m happy)”

Quantitative colossalism is the endless rehashing the same ideas and leads to diminishing creativity. It is the perpetuation of diminishing creativities and repetition of the same trite tropes. It is quantity over quality. Consider the sheer volume of films today that are sequels, prequels, reboots, or spinoffs from pre-existing movies. Think for a second how many hours and dollars have been stolen from you by some of these atrocities:

Indiana Jones IV. Jaws IV. Rocky V. Dumb and Dumberer. X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Stars Wars: The Phantom Menace.

Movies such as these got made because the studio knew our culture is undiscerning enough to pay for it:

Expendables (1, 2, 3). Alvin and the Chipmunks Franchise. Scary Movie (I-V). Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. The Scorpion King (1, 2, 3). Anaconda (1, 2, 3). Police Academy (II-VI).

The question remains, what does a dead Russian sociologist have to do with Birdman? It’s found in Birdman’s pre-climactic conversation between father and daughter. Both Sam’s and Riggan’s respective cultures are sensate in their own unique way. Sam’s culture is marked and measured by views on YouTube or the Facebook like count. Riggan’s movie career was built upon a movie franchise entirely marked by its sequel-filled quantitative colossalism and diminishing creativity. Riggan seeks to distance himself from that by reinventing himself—but how does he go about this? By adapting a pre-existing narrative into the Broadway mold.

Riggan is so conditioned to seek the favor of the crowd that he cannot recognize his production is rooted in the same vanity he derides in Sam’s Twitter/Facebook/blogging culture. He has traded sensate pop culture for sensate high culture, and he is willing to fire a loaded gun at his face to solidify the faceless and disembodied acclaim he so desires.

The cultural backdrop of Birdman is our own and it is sensate in nature. YouTube. Social media. Viral videos. Endless sequels rehashing the same narratives with no development (Star Wars Episode VII: A New Hope… err, I mean, The Force Awakens). We too have reduced purposeful existence into the pursuit of fleeting materialism and affirmation at large. We have forsaken truth for pragmatism, making the pursuit of personal happiness the ultimate goal. We are riding the waves of Sorokin’s cultural stages, finding as much enjoyment as possible in our sensate world. Here in our sensate (and borderline decadent) culture, Birdman offers a warning: There is danger ahead. We have traded conscious places of worship for unconscious ones (malls, stadiums, theaters, arenas, spas, theme parks, resorts, etc.).

According to Sorokin’s social cycle (Ideational > Idealistic > Sensate > Decadence > Downfall > New Ideational or Idealistic Era), where will the cultural waves take us next?

Regarding Riggan’s climactic closing scene of his production, theater critic Tabitha Dickinson writes:

“Thompson has unwittingly given birth to a new form, which can only be described as super-realism….The blood that has been sorely missing from the veins of American theater.”

Dickinson’s review ironically and sadly extols the unexpected virtue of narcissism.

While at first view, Birdman is a commentary on one man’s isolation, brokenness, and narcissism, a deeper look reveals the problem is far more systemic and widespread. The problem is us. The problem is me. The problem is a not a new one. There is nothing new under the sun; as it says in both in Judges 17:6 and 21:25, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” When we remove the transcendent and immanent Divine King from culture, we can expect the sensate inertia of civilization. Without the King’s loving rule, we run amuck. We turn to whatever culture can give us, even though it leaves us wanting.

At the cultural level, the need today is the same as it was in the Garden: God’s covenant keeping people must make and shape culture consistent with their image bearing. Only the Gospel can exonerate us from errors like Sam’s and Riggan’s (and our own). Our culture is riding the waves outlined by Sorokin, and it will bob along to that end without divine intervention. The church must have both faithful presence and tactile engagement of broken cultural elements and institutions. Without this interaction our culture shall continue to plod along like Sisyphus.

At the individual level, only Jesus can bring lasting redemption to the intimacies marred and broken by the Fall. Intimacy is the opposite of narcissism. Sam and Riggin sacrificed intimacy for fame. How often do we do the same thing? We are made in the image of our Triune God who has been in intimate community with Himself for all eternity. We were made to have families, create culture, and expand the knowledge of the One whose image we bear. We must pursue embodied relationships flowing out of our image bearing identity and rooted in the Gospel. Known and being known, first by our Creator and then by others, is what we are seeking. It is what Riggan was seeking. Yes, we are very similar. It is so easy to settle for whatever culture hands us.

Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out Seth’s graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.

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[i] Sorokin, Pitirim. “Social and Cultural Dynamics,” Porter Sargent Publisher, Boston, 1957, pp. 622-623.

[ii] Sorokin, Pitirim. “Tragic Dualism, Chaotic Syncretism, Quantitative Colossalism, and Diminishing Creativeness of the Contemporary Sensate Culture,” The American Catholic Sociological Review Vol. 2, No. 1 (Mar., 1941), p. 3.

[iii] Jones, John. “A Series of Important Facts Demonstrating the Truth of the Christian Religion,” Rowland Hunter, London, 1820, p. 155.


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