Is this Some Kind of Joke? Surrealist Tragicomedy in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman and the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man
As if belonging to another film, a meteor falls through the sky in the curious opening seconds of Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014).
Comedic surrealist films taunt us with images that invite intellectual and emotional interpretation but resist any definitive significance. These films aren’t overtly funny. Instead, they rely on comic undertones as a kind of conceptual scaffolding onto which other themes, ideas, and emotions may become attached. What emerges is a construction that is beautifully grotesque and perhaps even grotesquely beautiful. The viewer is ultimately left unable to say anything decisive or conclusive about the film and the comedy it contains, and yet, in this astonished speechlessness lies the value of such works.
Existentialism tends to be a theme of surrealist comedy. This aspect is often exemplified either by a protagonist’s inability to negotiate their existential relationship with a rapidly changing reality, or by the cinematic depiction of a reality in which objectivity, certainty, logic, and reason are essentially of little consequence. In other words, at the point of existential crisis, the protagonist doesn’t know how to feel about reality and is unable to truly determine which parts of his life ought to be significant. The lines between the real and the unreal, between the abstract and the concrete become blurred, and in that uncertain hinterland occurs the protagonist’s struggles for consistency and significance — struggles that are simultaneously comic and tragic. Surrealist comedy invites the viewer to the absolute threshold of laughter and then undercuts its own humor with contemplation of grim and unsettling ideas. In doing so, surrealist films induce in the viewer an emotion similar to that of its protagonists: dread tinged with confusion and a kind of exasperated willingness to laugh at the sheer absurdity of life and existence.
Two films in which surrealism’s complex use of comedy is most evident are Joel and Ethan Coen’s A Serious Man (2009) and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014). Both films feature male protagonists whose personal and professional lives are crumbling around them, leading each of them to question the meaning of their respective existences. The emotions of the protagonist are induced in the viewer through cinematic form. Paradoxically, however, these same formal qualities also prevent the viewer from fully relating to and empathizing with the character. This interplay between distance and closeness allows the tragic nature of the character’s life to appear absurdly comic. Both films enhance this emotional tension by placing the viewer in a position from which it’s hard to distinguish between the real and the unreal — essentially mimicking the characters’ own struggle within the film’s diegetic world. As I will show, it is during the openings of these films that we especially feel off-balance and pulled in different directions by seemingly incompatible elements.
Birdman follows Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton), a faded Hollywood actor best known for playing the eponymous superhero, as he struggles to mount a Broadway adaptation of a short story by Raymond Carver. The film covers the period of theatrical previews preceding the opening of the play. In this interval, Thompson is frequently tormented by the harshly critical internal voice of his younger self in the role of Birdman, often suffers visual and auditory hallucinations during which he performs feats of levitation and telekinesis, and experiences extended conversations with visible manifestations of Birdman. The film’s depiction of Thompson’s psychological degradation blurs the lines between the real, the oneiric, and the hallucinatory in a way that prevents the viewer from knowing which parts of the film to read seriously and which parts to consume in a more lighthearted manner. Incidentally, these fantastical depictions of Thompson’s hallucinations also happen to be the points at which the film is most comical, and yet it is in these moments that Thompson’s psychological disintegration is most intense. Is the viewer invited to laugh, or, rather to grimly contemplate the struggles of existence? As with all other aspects of surrealist films, there isn’t a single definitive reading. Encouraged to do both at the same time, the viewer must navigate a liminal zone between comedy and tragedy. What is tragic is also comic, and in the tense uncertainty between the real and the unreal, this comic scaffolding enables the tragic aspects of existence to be understood perhaps more profoundly than would have been possible without a humorous undertone. What takes place isn’t so much a mixing of tones as it is an ungraceful wrestling of opposing ideas — a sight that is as funny as it is sad.
The film opens with a quote by Raymond Carver. Its constitutive red letters gradually appear on a black background in an unpredictable order and in time with the equally unpredictable rhythms of an improved jazz percussion.
And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.
The meaning of these statements isn’t direct and obvious, but they suggest existential themes — love, life, and purpose. Immediately succeeding this quote, the viewer is shown a high-angle shot of a flaming meteor descending from a sky filled with ominous black clouds. All we hear is the meteor’s roaring whoosh and a brief sound clip of what appears to be classical music. The camera is almost imperceptibly shaky, as though its slight movements were being influenced by the meteor’s rumbling descent. Then the film abruptly cuts and we now see Riggan Thompson levitating in the lotus position, wearing nothing but his underwear in his backstage dressing room. This scene’s silence is abruptly punctuated by a narrative voiceover, at which point the camera slowly tracks into the room and approaches Thompson’s back. The voice, which we later learn belongs to Thompson’s auditory hallucination of Birdman’s criticisms, says: “How did we end up here? This place is horrible .[…] We don’t belong in this shit hole.”
Riggan (Michael Keaton) levitates in his undies in a scene at once ridiculous, grim, and intriguing.
In his essay “The Artificial Night,” Adrian Martin argues that: “
[S]urrealism, in the truest sense, is not a mere immersion in fantasy life — the world of dreams, or pure imagination. It seeks what André Breton called absolute reality or the marvelous. The properly surreal realm is that of daily life — but daily life freed from the stranglehold of the ‘reality principle,’ and invaded by forces of love, the unconscious and what Schuster calls the ‘the indestructible nature of the interior poetic voice.’ Surrealism is not about escaping into the imaginary; it celebrates the (sometimes fleeting) triumph of the imagination in a world battened down by misery, oppression and repression (191).
Birdman’s subdued and grim opening almost perfectly represents Martin’s statement. A film’s opening typically sets the tone and lets the viewer know what to expect, yet it isn’t so easy to determine what Birdman will be about. What does the meteor have to do with Thompson? This event isn’t directly addressed in the film’s diegesis. Is Thompson really levitating? There is an ominous undertone that is intensified by the juxtaposition of the brief shot of the meteor (which might as well be from an apocalyptic film) and the shot of Thompson’s levitation, which is at once fantastical and grounded in quotidian life. This room, in addition, elicits a slightly claustrophobic feeling. At the same time, the viewer senses the emergence of a narrative question that is comical and yet profoundly inquisitive about the unsatisfactory quality of Thompson’s existence.
In her review of the film, Christy Lemire notes that it mixes conflicting themes, tones, and aesthetic qualities, including the “technically astounding yet emotionally rich, intimate yet enormous, biting yet warm, satirical yet sweet.” Of the voiceover narration that recurs throughout the film, she remarks that that it “gnaws at Thompson grotesquely about matters both large and small.” This ongoing interaction between opposites is what reinforces the uncertainty experienced by both the film’s protagonist and, at one remove, the viewer. It also endows the film with an uneasy comic sensibility that heightens an existential crisis. What emerges from this interplay of incongruous images — including conventional and unobtrusive camera movements, muted lighting and ominous tones, oddly mysterious and contemplative opening quotes, sound and silence — is a decidedly surreal hesitation between comedy and tragedy that leaves us unable to know whether we should laugh or not.
Martin distinguishes between two categories of surrealism: “historic” and “eternal.” The former comprises the mostly European films produced in connection with the avant-garde movement of Surrealism in the years between the First and Second World Wars. “Eternal” surrealism, on the other hand, refers to the ongoing, globalized evolution of surrealist cinema, which assumes new forms and strategies and continually re-adapts itself to changing social and individual realities (190-95). Martin notes that in both historic and eternal surrealism, the pursuit of the marvelous is best exemplified by the profound tension between mundane and imaginative, dream-like qualities. Mirroring this characteristic in his first “Manifesto of Surrealism,” while referencing a poem by Pierre Reverdy, André Breton writes that the marvelous image is a “pure creation of the mind,” an image that “cannot be born from a comparison but from a juxtaposition of two more or less distant realities.” He goes on to explain that “the more the relationship between the two juxtaposed realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be — the greater its emotional power and poetic reality” (20). These qualities starkly imbue Birdman’s opening — both in the juxtaposition of distant and incongruous elements and also in the tension emerging from the conflicting presence of the real and the fantastical in the exact same space.
A comparable surrealist spirit undergirds the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man. The film stars Michael Stuhlbarg as Larry Gopnik — a Jewish physics teacher living in Minnesota whose life crumbles around him both professionally and personally, which eventually leads him to question love, religion, his faith, and the chaotic meaninglessness of his own life. Reflecting as it does the Coens’ penchant for dark comedy, the film’s humor is more pronounced than in Birdman, yet its examination of grim existential themes is just as intense. A Serious Man’s overall depiction of reality is less fantastical, and its dismissal of objectivity, certainty, logic, and reason isn’t quite as obvious. Gopnik’s academic work involves finding mathematical laws and principles with which the universe can be explained and predicted. It’s oddly poetic, however, that much of Gopnik’s life is a chain of unpredictable events, each of which damages his conception of the meaning of his own life. It is also fitting Gopnik’s brother (Richard Kind) spends his free time filling out a notebook, which he refers to as The Mentaculus, a “probability map of the universe.”
Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) teaches his students how to master the probalistic universe through mathematics.
It is said that comedy is all about timing, and this is exactly what is most amusing about A Serious Man. The unexpected timing of unfortunate and absurd events creates a sensation that cause and effect aren’t so intimately related in Gopnik’s world as they are in the viewer’s world or, for that matter, in any other fictional world. This incongruous relationship between cause and effect is perhaps best evidenced by events like Larry Gopnik and Sy’s (Fred Melamed) simultaneous but unrelated car crashes, Rabbi Nachtner’s (George Wyner) tale about a dentist’s chance encounter with a seemingly divine dental revelation whose significance is never really explained, Gopnik’s amendment of a student’s grade which almost fatalistically leads to an ominous call from his doctor, and Rabbi Marshak’s (Alan Mandell) cryptic quoting of Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” lyrics. It is in such ways that A Serious Man subtly subverts objectivity, certainty, logic, and reason, and it is in such ways that the comical aspects of this film become most evident.
What is tragic about these events, however, is that each of them can only occur within the context of a normal and serious man’s worsening existence. Each of these comic moments is underscored by the protagonist’s (and by extension the viewer’s) tragic realization that one’s life is never more than a few events away from chaotic disintegration and purposelessness. What one expects to happen is rarely what does. And what one does doesn’t guarantee an appropriate change in one’s existential circumstances. Unlike Riggan in Birdman, the protagonist doesn’t appear in the opening, and yet the opening condenses and encapsulates the themes and tensions present in the rest of the film, and thus foreshadows Gopnik’s narrative arc.
The film opens with a quote by Rashi, a 12th century French rabbi. It immediately appears as white text on a black background and reads as follows: “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.” Unlike Birdman, this quote’s meaning is more direct, and its relationship with subsequent narrative events stands a chance of being just as direct. However, the thematic significance of this quote mimics that of Birdman insofar as it also raises existential themes, albeit in a manner that is less suggestive of struggle and more of a passive and fatalistic acceptance of what life forces you to endure. Accompanied by a harp and an occasionally shrill and intrusive violin, the quote gradually fades away and we see white specks falling against a black background. This image, too, slightly fades after three seconds and we are shown a very high-angle shot of a man walking during a nighttime snowfall through a serene village street with his horse and cart. We then cut to a frontal medium-shot of both the man and the horse, at which point the man says, “What a marvel … What a marvel.” The man arrives at what is presumably his house and converses with his wife, as he explains why he has arrived late and how he was helped by a mutual friend.
She suddenly stops as she realizes that the mutual friend who helped her husband has been dead for three years. “God has cursed us,” she says. The camera pans to show us the door as the husband and wife hear several booming and reverberating knocks. The films cuts to a frontal medium-to-long shot of the husband and wife’s faces and slowly tracks inward as they come to terms with the potentially ominous consequences of having invited a dybbuk (a malicious spirit) into their household. The husband opens the door and we settle on a medium shot of a bearded man’s face. The alleged dybbuk enters the house, sits down, and faces the wife, at which point we now observe a shot/reverse-shot pattern alternating between a high-angle depiction of the wife and a low-angle shot of the alleged dybbuk. This discrepancy in angles reinforces a power dynamic in which the wife assumes control as she looks down upon the man she accuses of being a malicious spirit. The alleged dybbuk laughs heartily. The music has stopped once again. The husband explains why the wife believes this man to be a dybbuk before then explaining that he does not believe in such things as he is a “rational man.” As this alleged dybbuk defends his existence as a normal human, the wife stabs him through the chest — the man screams as the camera slowly tracks backward from a close shot of his startled face. For approximately six seconds, there isn’t a single sound to be heard. The alleged dybbuk begins to laugh heartily as more ominous music progressively increases in volume. The dybbuk gets up, opens the door, and leaves into the ongoing snowstorm. The outside world’s cool blue tones now bleed into the room’s warm orange tones, at which point the husband proclaims: “We are ruined.”
We see a static shot of the husband and wife as the former ruminates on the potential consequences of their actions. The camera slowly pushes in from outside as the wife walks toward it. She shuts the door as she says, “Good riddance to evil,” at which point the film cuts to a black screen with one final boisterous and echoing boom of the shutting door. The film then progresses into the opening credits as the ominous violin is gradually replaced by Jefferson Airplane’s rock song “Somebody to Love,” and the film proper eventually emerges from this black screen to, comically enough, the inside of the ear of Larry Gopnik’s misbehaving son as he listens to music during a Hebrew School class.
While the Coens playfully maintain that this prologue has no relation to the rest of the film, there are nonetheless thematic commonalities between it and the narrative events of Gopnik’s life. In his essay “The Tempest Speaks: Liminality in A Serious Man,” Steve Zemmelman contends that the prologue connects to the recurring Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” motif in that it reflects Larry Gopnik’s normal sense of order becoming increasingly disrupted by outside forces. He notes that the tragic series of events in Gopnik’s life are indicative of “what can happen when ‘the wheel falls off the cart,’ as [the husband in the prologue] says happened to him on the road that night, or ‘when the truth is found to be lies,’” lyrics from the Jefferson Airplane song that bookend the film (17).
Roger Ebert proposed that “maybe because an ancestor invited a dybbuk (wandering soul) to cross his threshold, Larry is cursed.” In addition to the ambiguity of the relationship between the prologue and the rest of the film, there is the added uncertainty caused by the ongoing interplay between opposing themes and aesthetic choices. From a visual point of view, there is the opposition between the warm and cool color tones in the mise-en-scène and cinematography. There is also a use of many types of cinematic shots in what is a very short scene — alternations between high and low angle shots, frequent changes between static and moving images, and alternations between close and medium and long shots. From an auditory perspective, there is a stark contrast between the gentle and shrill music, and there is an unpredictable alternation between the presence and absence of the non-diegetic music.
These formal incongruities gesture, albeit quietly, toward a surrealist feeling that tinges the overall mix of comic and tragic themes. In “The Artificial Night,” Martin points out that surrealists in the “historic” camp hailed cinema as a “privileged gateway to the realm of fantasy, the unconscious, dream and desire,” and viewed the cinematic experience as “an immersion in an ‘artificial night’, a strange, unearthly, liminal zone suspended midway between fantasy and reality” (193). This aspect of A Serious Man’s opening is best exemplified by the fact that neither we as viewers nor the husband and wife are certain about the nature of the alleged dybbuk’s existence. And while it may seem that there’s nothing funny about this opening, it does manifest its own comic sensibility in two inconspicuous ways. First, it does so in that it has no blatantly essential bearing on the rest of the film. It seems out of place and it thus mimics the tenuous connection between cause and effect that is characteristic of Gopnik’s life. Second, it becomes slightly comical when the dybbuk laughs at having been stabbed by the wife. In his landmark Anthology of Black Humour, André Breton cites Sigmund Freud as he explores the redemptive qualities of comedy. Freud wrote that “[H]umour is not resigned, it is rebellious. […] The humorous attitude … refuses to undergo suffering, asseverates the invincibility of one’s ego against the real world and victoriously upholds the pleasure principle” (161). Breton, for his part, writes that dark humor “is par excellence the mortal enemy of sentimentality” (873). The opening scene is partly comical because it refuses to take its own grim tones quite so seriously or with any sentimentality: the dybbuk (who is arguably the prologue’s central figure) takes neither the accusation made against him nor his own stabbing with the emotional solemnity one would expect.
Numerous surrealist films, from David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977) to the examples I have singled out, give us fictional characters whose lives are the battlegrounds for deep-seeded existential tensions. While defying any definitive response to their conflicts, they pull the viewer into an oscillation of distance and proximity that doesn’t necessarily guarantee an objective stance through which something meaningful and significant can be parsed. Birdman and A Serious Man exemplify a conflict between overtly tragic existential themes and less conspicuous comic undertones. While viewers wouldn’t perhaps immediately group these films within the history of surrealist cinema, they embody and exude a surrealist tendency to be self-subversive, and to never say one thing without also saying the opposite. In these films, comic undertones act as a counterpoint against which the tragic nature of the characters’ existential struggles can be better understood. Perhaps herein lies the role of comedy wherever surrealist works put it in conflict with tragedy: whereas tragedy unravels a character’s mental and emotional stability and reveals the fears, dreams, and nightmares beneath their conscious awareness, comedy opposes this disintegration by reinforcing the ego’s unwillingness to suffer. Is laughter thus resistance to suffering? The accommodation of suffering without sentimentality? Either way, both the film’s viewer and the characters exist in a liminal zone between tears and laughter, a zone from which the beauty and perils of each can be observed with a kind of unsettling and terrifying objectivity.
Breton, André. Manifestoes of Surrealism. University of Michigan Press, 1972.
Breton, André, and Mark Polizzotti. Anthology of Black Humour. Telegram, 2009.
Ebert, Roger. “Coens Retell Book of Job in a Quiet Minneapolis Suburb.” Roger Ebert.com, 7 October 2009, https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/a-serious-man-2009.
Freud, Sigmund. Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious. Translated by James Strachey. W.W. Norton, 1963.
Freud, Sigmund. “Humour” (1927). The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, edited by James Strachey et al., Hogarth Press, 1971.
Lemire, Christy. “Birdman.” Roger Ebert.com, 17 October 2014, https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/birdman-2014.
Martin, Adrian. “The Artificial Night: Surrealism and Cinema.” Surrealism: Revolution by Night, edited by Michael Lloyd, Ted Gott, and Christopher Chapman, National Gallery of Australia, 1993. pp 190-95.
Richardson, Michael. Surrealism and Cinema. Berg, 2006.
Zemmelman, Steve (2013). “The Tempest Speaks: Liminality in A Serious Man.” Jung Journal: Culture and Psyche, vol. 7, no. 3, 2013, pp. 16–24.