So I dragged my husband out to see Birdman the other day. It’s… an odd film, basically the most arthousey superhero film you’ll ever see, the sort of thing that lines up for easy critical acclaim by rehashing a bunch of not-particularly-insightful territory over themes that’ve been kicking around the art world for centuries.
Er… that intro makes me sound like I disliked the film. I didn’t, camerawork aside. (Birdman is almost entirely done as one continual shot, camera tracking the characters as they move about their world. I “get” where director Alejandro G. Iñárritu was going with this–it references life and theatre, blah blah, and becomes Important towards the end of the film–but the effect is claustrophobic and somewhat nausea-inducing, and I wasn’t a huge fan of it.)
The film is basically about the neuroses of self-involved artistic types. As a neurotic, self-involved artistic type, there’s a bunch of stuff in here about commercial success versus artistic merit; about fame and relevance; about the pain of pouring everything of yourself into creating an artistic work, only to see it excoriated by press and public; about feeling like a fraud in your own industry… all kinds of stuff that hits pretty close to home. There’s a part where Naomi Watts’ character, Lesley, is emotionally confessing to spending her entire life wanting to be an actress on Broadway, and now that she’s finally there, still feeling like she’s waiting for someone to to tell her she’s “made it.” As someone who’s always wanted to be an author, and whose debut book came out less than six months ago, I’m not ashamed to say I was bawling during this; there’s an endless mountain to “making it” that I discovered not too long ago, and some of those wounds are still pretty raw. Similarly, Emma Stone has an excruciating monologue about fame, Michael Keaton has the kind of Take That against a critic I’m sure… none of us could possibly ever empathise with ahem, and Edward Norton takes his kit off a lot. Like,
Which actually brings me to an interesting point about Birdman that I didn’t really notice until after I’d left the theatre. Basically, for a film which is essentially about the mid-life crisis of one old white guy (Michael Keaton’s protagonist, Riggan), this film is pretty… I won’t say “feminist”, exactly, but it certainly does better by its female characters than any other superhero film I think I’ve seen ever. It passes Bechdel, for starters; in the aforementioned scene with Watts’ Lesley, she’s talking to her co-star Laura (Andrea Riseborough). It’s Laura who’s the one who assures Lesley that she’s “made it”, giving an unusually sweet scene of female co-workers encouraging and supporting each other’s careers, something that’s still sadly rare in most media. Meanwhile, earlier in the film, Lesley is shown trash-talking Riggan’s ex-addict daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), while not realising Sam herself is listening; later on, however, Sam isn’t shown as returning this animosity, and in fact expresses support over Lesley’s anger at her boyfriend Mike (Edward Norton). There’s a bunch of romantic drama in there, too–Laura and Lesley kiss, Sam and Mike fuck, basically everyone is dating or has dated someone else, and there is one scene of attempted rape–but it was definitely… refreshing to see a film with a bunch of female characters who interact in non-hostile ways.
And, dayum, are there some female characters in this. Of the major characters, three or four are male (depending on if you count Birdman himself as a separate character), while five are female. None of whom ever get naked or are sexualised by the camera, even, despite the fact there are several scenes involving them getting dressed/undressed and/or standing around in nightgowns. Meanwhile, as mentioned, Norton is naked-or-mostly-naked1 for, like, half of the film’s first act, and even Keaton gets in one some shirtless action.
Take that, MCU!
And, okay. I keep calling this a “superhero” film. It’s not, really. It’s more a film about superhero films, or rather one that uses the popularity of superhero films as a backdrop over which to tell its tale about art vs. commerce. The set-up is essentially Michael Keaton playing a version of himself; an actor with an early legacy of 1990s superhero films, who is nonetheless excluded by the current Hollywood popularity of the genre. Keaton, for You Young Things, was Batman in Tim Burton’s 1990s revival of the franchise. Here, Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, the actor who depicted this universe’s version of that franchise, called Birdman.
(The fact that this film also features Stone and Norton, two other actors who’ve been chewed up and spat out by the current superhero craze, is, I’m sure, no coincidence. Even Watts has a history in early comic-to-film adaptations, care of Tank Girl.)
Keaton also, of course, plays the titual superhero, Birdman, who appears firstly as a disembodied voice heard by Riggan, then as a physical entity who follows Riggan through the streets of New York, then finally straight-on addresses the audience in a fourth-wall breaking Take That, cumulating in, “People, they love blood. They love action. Not this talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit” as the city behind him is besieged by explosions and giant robots.
If you want to know how much “conventional superhero” action there is in this film? Well. There you have it. It’s very good, and Birdman’s costume is very cool, but it’s really… not the point of the film. Actually, it’s arguably the opposite of the point of the film. On the other hand, if, like me, you’re a massive fangirl of Keaton’s “Batman voice”,2 then boy howdy does this film have you covered!
(Seriously. For the kind of guy who looks like he should mostly be in romantic comedies, Keaton does such a good DARKER and EDGIER voice. Eat your heart out, Christian Bale!)
So… yeah. That’s Birdman. The basic tension here is about fame and celebrity, art and financial success, as physically embodied by Hollywood superheroes versus the New York theatre scene. Like I said, I quite liked the film; it has a bunch of eminently quotable quotes, and is darkly funny in the way I like my comedy. So, the sort of so-depressing-you-have-to-laugh stuff you grace with a darkly ironic “… hah!”, moreso than balls-to-the-wall dick jokes.
(Though there is a pretty funny dick joke… though even that’s depressing and tragic in its own way, and is related to the aforementioned attempted rape scene.)
Still, this isn’t going to be a film for “everyone”–I think my husband found it a bit dull, for example–and, as mentioned, my enjoyment of it was definitely of the “self-involved narcissistic” variety. I’d also tentatively say it’s not quite as clever as it would seem to like to think it is. While it is a big jumble of themes and whatnot, I don’t think it really ever ties these together in any cohesive way, nor does it have much to say about any of them that delves beyond a very thin, surface reading. Which is, yanno. Fine, and cathartic in its own way, but… yeah. YMMV.
Before I go, I should talk about one more thing: Birdman‘s ending. This will contain spoilers, so… IDK. Piss off now if you haven’t seen it and that sort of thing bothers you.
Still here? Okay.
So. you may have heard Birdman‘s ending is a bit “confusing”, because what’s a pretentious arthouse film without a confusing ending, right?
The (long) set-up is this: Ageing, ex-superhero actor Riggan Thomson has come to New York to put on a Boradway play. The film is a little ambiguous as to the state of Thomson’s Hollywood career–some parts imply it’s not great, others that it’s fine, and Riggan himself is enough of an unreliable narrator that it’s never actually clear–but nonetheless Riggan sees the play as his way of proving his credentials as a Srs Actor. Riggan is plagued by both fear over his own insignificance and inability to control his life, as well as his “artistic ego”. The former is represented in the film by his fantasies of having telekenetic powers, the latter by the voice of Birdman, who both ridicules Riggan over his current situation, while simultaneously reassuring him that he’s “better than this”.
Lots more stuff happens, with Riggan and his play and the various people involved in it. Everything that can possibly go wrong with the play seems to, in fact, go wrong, but nonetheless there are hints that–despite Riggan’s belief to the contrary–it is, actually, being well-recieved by audiences (if not necessarily critics). Riggan’s greatest fear–that he will pour his heart and soul into the play’s production, only to have it ridiculed–cumulates in him locking himself outside of the stage door during a preview, necessitating a walk through Times Square, in his underwear, to get back for the play’s final scene.
Riggan is recognised during his walk, and remembered as “the Birdman guy”. Despite–or, the film implies, because of–his humilation, his performance in the play’s final scene goes down very well. Meanwhile, his journey into Times Square has been filmed by bystanders, uploaded online, and is he and his play are being talked about both on social media (his daughter, Sam, informs him he is “trending” on Twitter) and on traditional TV.
Despite/because of this–and after an encounter with a cruel-but-influential theatre critic–Riggan hits a low point, getting drunk and passing out on the streets of New York. When he wakes up, he finds himself plagued by Birdman–manifesting “physically” rather than just a voice–who lectures Riggan/the audience on fame, talent, success, and superheroes, while robots blow up New York in the background. The sequence cumulates with Riggan standing on the edge of a building, apparently about to commit suicide. He’s interrupted by a concerned bystander, but eventually jumps anyway, and is shown flying over the streets of New York a la Birdman in the previous sequence.
Riggan “lands” at the theatre (pursued by an angry taxi driver, wanting payment for his fare), and prepares for opening night. His ex-wife, Sylvia, confronts him in his dressing room, noting he seems very relaxed. Riggan confesses to her of a previous suicide attempt, wherein he attempted to drown himself and was interrupted by being stung by a school of jellyfish. The call for Riggan to reappear in the final act goes out, and Sylvia leaves. The play’s final scene calls for Riggan’s character to shoot himself, which the film has previously established as being done with a prop gun and blood-rigged wig. Tonight, Riggan is shown retrieving a real gun from his dressing room. He takes this on stage, performs his scene, then appears to shoot himself in the head for real.
Here, the film breaks for the first time from the single, continuous take of the past two hours, instead flashing up various images. These include jellyfish dying on a beach (the same image seen, very briefly, during the film’s opening sequence), and a drumming band performing on Riggan’s stage (previously seen during his walk through Times Square, but also implied as having provided the soundtrack throughout the film).
The “single shot” resumes in a hospital room, where Sam is shown visiting a recovering Riggan. He has just undergone facial reconstruction after “shooting off his nose” in the play’s final act. Critics are overjoyed! The play was a huge success, and there’s talk of it touring in multiple cities.
Eventually, Riggan is left alone, and he stumbles to the bathroom to remove his bandages; their placement on his face echoing the design of the Birdman3 costume. Riggan inspects his new nose, then says “good bye and fuck you” to Birdman, who’s sitting on the bathroom’s toilet. Then he walks to the hospital room’s window, and jumps out.
The film ends with Sam re-entering the hospital room. She calls for her father, then sees the open window, looking down and out in horror. Then she looks up, and smiles.
“Goddamn arthouse films,” my husband said me as we were walking out of the theatre. “I thought I was following most of it. Except the ending. What was supposed to have happened there?”
I shrugged. “It doesn’t matter,” I told him. “Whatever you want to have happened, that’s what happened.”
Here’s my confession: I love ambiguous endings. Love them. Like, love love. Blame watching anime when I was growing up, I guess; this was in that period when Neon Genesis Evangellion was big, so for a while there everyone was suddenly scrambling all over nonsensical narratives. Or maybe blame my mother, who, when I was a small child, took me a travelling surrealist exhibition at the National Gallery. Standing in front of paintings of melting clocks and flaming giraffes, I knew I’d found my Thing.
Other people, I’ve found, aren’t as enthused.
What I tend to find, is that many people, when encountering a “confusing” piece of art, expend a lot of mental energy trying to put together a “correct” interpretation, and get frustrated/angry/upset when they can’t. I blame shitty, modernist high school English courses.
Well, as someone who took a shitty, post-modernist high school English course, I am here to let you all in on a secret:
It doesn’t goddamn matter what the “correct” interpretation of some confusing piece of wankery is. Seriously, it doesn’t. This is just as true for Mulholland Drive as it is for Silent Hill 2 as it is for The Persistence of Memory.
The “correct” interpretation is whatever you think–whatever you feel–when you engage with the text. That’s it. Don’t worry about what the One True Interpretation is, where “One True Interpretation” is defined as “what the artist intended”. Authorial intent has been dead for nearly half a century, now. Besides–trade secrets time–sometimes the author doesn’t even have an intent. Or she has multiple intents. Or her intent is, “… meh. Whatever you think, brah. IDEK.”
Sometimes I think people are scared of ambiguity in media–particularly narrative media like film (or books, cough cough)–because they’re scared of being “wrong” with their interpretation. Certainly, there are a lot of aggro, pretentious wankers out there who’ll lecture you, at length, about the True Meaning of the unicorn in Blade Runner but, honestly, who gives a shit?4 If the unicorn means something you, that’s great, and if the unicorn means something to Ridley Scott that’s also great, but let’s not confuse these as being answers to the same question.
So. With that in mind: what the hell was up with the ending to Birdman?
Well. Here are some options I’ve thought of:
- Riggan committed suicide by jumping out of his hospital room window. His daughter sees his body on the street below, but then looks up to see something else that causes her to smile despite the tradgedy. Yanno. Like a bird or something. (Realist-cynical interpretation.)
- Riggan jumped out his hospital room window, but survived the fall and is gone by conventional means by the time Sam re-enters the room. She doesn’t find her father but, similar to the above, see something in the sky she interprets as a positive sign. (Realist-idealist interpretation.)
- Surprise! Magic is real! After saying goodbye to the psychological weight of his neurosis, represented by Birdman, Riggan uses his telekenetic powers to fly off into the sunset, enlightened. (Magical-realist/Greek-dramatic interpretation.)
- Riggan committed suicide on stage in the final act of his play. The film’s final scene isn’t “real”, and instead represents his fantasy of how things would/should have gone, as indicated by the break in the filming style.5 (I-have-to-write-an-essay-for-Media-Studies-class interpretation.)6
Or, yanno. None of the above. Or all of the above. IDK, it’s an arthouse film. Who really cares? It’s like Medea, y’know? The ancient Greek play? The author, Euripides, writes himself into a corner in the final act so just says, “fuckit!” and sends the chariot of the sun god down to rescue the titular character and whisk her away, cue curtains. It gave critics at the time the shits, because who does that, really? How is that any way to end a story (Tolkien, I’m looking at you buddy)? And meanwhile Euripides was just all like, “Ha ha losers I’m fucking Euripides I do what I fucking want! They’re still gonna be making school children re-enact this bullshit in 2,500 years’ time. why do I care what you think?”
Such is ever the way with art. Go big, or go home.
And go see Birdman, too. It’s pretty cool. If you like that kind of thing.
- If you’re wondering: there is no full-frontal dude nudity, but you nonetheless do kinda get to see Norton’s (pubeless) Lil’ Eddie. Kinda. [↩]
- Though, of course, this will always be the “Beetlejuice voice” to yours truly. If you want to know what Lain sounds like; ta-daa! Here you go. It’s this plus a Hugh Jackman accent. [↩]
- Although, LBR, they look more like Batman‘s costume. Icwutudiddere. [↩]
- Why yes. I did have to write an essay on exactly this in high school, how could you tell? This was back in the 90s, incidentally, and it was My Very First Homework Assignment I copied off the internet, after finding some newsgroup archive where someone had written meta on the topic. Awesome. Thanks, internet! [↩]
- See. I told you’d I get back to that! [↩]
- Make sure, if you’re stealing this one, oh random Googler, that you tie it back in to Mike’s themes about “realism” in acting, coupled with Riggan’s revelation of his humiliation in Times Square “unlocking his acting potential” or whatever. You’re welcome. [↩]