Posts Tagged ‘Thomas Merton’

Birdman (poster)“Birdman poster” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Birdman_poster.jpg#/media/File:Birdman_poster.jpg

Catapulted to stardom by a Batman and then killed by a snowman, Michael Keaton makes a comeback in Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “Birdman, Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).”

Michael Keaton as “Riggan” in BIRDMAN. Photo by Alison Rosa. Copyright © 2014 Twentieth Century Fox.

Michael Keaton as “Riggan” in BIRDMAN. Photo by Alison Rosa. Copyright © 2014 Twentieth Century Fox.

Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a washed-out Hollywood has-been once known for the title role in the blockbuster “Birdman” superhero franchise.  Now, years later, he has come to Broadway to write, direct, and star in “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” based on a short story of the same name by Raymond Carver.

His reason?  After years of being known for candy and bubble gum spectacle, he wants to do something that truly matters.

The average person might think Riggan insane.  He is gambling everything he has on this risky project, and this in spite of the fact that he was — and still is — widely admired for his “Birdman” fame.

Riggan RunningBut at this point in his life, he has come to understand the superficiality of worldly greatness, and that what people love in him is an image rather than a person.  His aversion to this reminded me of something Thomas Merton, the great twentieth-century spiritual writer, wrote in his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain:

The logic of worldly success rests on a fallacy: the strange error that our perfection depends on the thoughts and opinions and applause of other men!  A weird life it is, indeed, to be living always in somebody else’s imagination, as if that were the only place in which one could at last become real! (pg. 323)

michael keaton - ed nortonThe staging of Carver’s story (a deeply personal project) gives us insight into Riggan’s interest in true admirability, itself evidence of a deeper desire for admiration.  This is mirrored in the character he portrays — who, upon finding his wife in bed with another man and hearing from her own lips that she no longer loves him, solemnly declares: “I don’t exist.”

We might be tempted to see the object of Merton’s critique in this, and perhaps we are correct to some degree.  But whatever the case, we are closer to the truth of things here, because we are within the realm of personal relationship as opposed to fame and stardom.

St. Thomas Aquinas spoke of a particular effect of love called “mutual indwelling,” which basically means that the lover in a certain sense enters into and becomes part of the beloved, and vice versa.  There are various ways in which this happens, but I want to focus on one particular comment St. Thomas offers:

[M]utual indwelling (. . .) can [also] be understood in regard to reciprocal love: inasmuch as friends return love for love (…)

(Summa Theologiae I-II, 28, 2, quoted in Peter Kreeft’s “Summa of the Summa”)

Given that human beings are made for this kind of fellowship (in its various forms), I think this helps explain why unrequited affection of any kind can hurt so much: It’s almost like a deficit of being.

keaton-stoneAnd we do see this deficit in Riggan, whose manic pursuit of success over the years has led to a divorce and to estrangement from his daughter, Sam (Emma Stone).

emma stone - birdmanNor does Sam offer him any comfort in this regard.  In fact, she has this to say:

You’re doing this [play] 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.

Benefit of the doubt my friends, benefit of the doubt: Let’s not assume in knee-jerk fashion that Riggan is looking for an ego massage — at least, not deep down.  Genuine affirmation is simply about the assurance that one does somehow matter, and that s/he has a contribution to offer that is of value.  So if we pursue love (under the banner of which fall affirmation and admiration, in the proper sense of each term) with a sincere heart, we will sooner or later be led to something that points beyond ourselves.

And that’s what we will cover in part 2.  Stay tuned.

Movie poster from Wikipedia; remaining stills obtained through a Google image search

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A brief and thoughtful video on a great — and much misunderstood — spiritual writer of the twentieth-century.

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