Birdman (or, the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)


It’s a little hard to talk about a film as loaded with expectation as the eight-Oscars-nominated film Birdman. It is so universally adulated, so discussed, so talked about in the most rarefied circles of criticism that any attempt to get a word in edgewise is either seen as the derivative ramblings of sycophants or contrarians. So how should one go about it?

The way I shall try to do it is to consider two questions. First, crucial to a film’s objective worth: does the film have something worthwhile to say and does it say it well? Second, and more important to the film’s subjective experience: did I enjoy the film?

Neither question is independent of the other, of course: a meaningful film can contribute to the sense of enjoyment (even if it often doesn’t), and an enjoyable film doesn’t have to be particularly meaningful (your average well-choreographed action flick). But it’s possible to consider both questions separately, and perhaps come up with a unified conclusion at the end.

So, how does Birdman fare on this binary scale? To answer the second question first: yes, I enjoyed it very much. Birdman is a film of many layers, and one of these layers is black comedy. At the surface, Birdman can be enjoyed as a kind of satire of acting culture. Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a washed-out former superhero actor who tries his hand at theater. There’s an element of cringe comedy watching his production encounter various issues, and him humiliate himself over social media. He’s surrounded by a cast of misfits: a desperate and insecure actress (Naomi Watts), a self-important but tactless attorney (Zach Galifianakis), an obnoxious and inappropriate method actor (Edward Norton, in a largely hilarious but also affecting performance). The film gets darker and starts getting more ‘important’ in the second half, but the first half is actually awfully good comedy.

The film is also shot in quite a unique fashion – it’s essentially almost entirely edited to seem like it’s one long continuous shot. The camera follows the character around, employing clever tricks to connote the passage of time and space, but always returning to the grounded humanity of its characters. It’s a technically magnificent achievement and one that is just viscerally fun to experience.

So to sum, the film was enjoyable on one level – it was funny and fun to watch. What of the second question – did the film manage to say what it ostensibly wanted to say?

Spoiler alert: The Oscars typically don’t nominate films that they feel have little thematic depth. At its heart Birdman is a dense psychological study of Riggan’s desire to be free – but what that freedom means is unclear to him. As the star of a series of stunningly successful superhero flicks, Riggan could have continued to make buck and retire rich; instead, he wants to return to pursue his dream of being a successful actor and director of the stage. He wants to be acknowledged not as a washed-out relic of past success, but a serious auteur in his own right. That single-minded focus leads him down a path to ruin – the previews of his play suffer some catastrophic mishaps, a snobbish critic promises to destroy his play without having even watched it, he pushes away his girlfriend and daughter, and he descends into a state of mental fugue where he hallucinates having telekinetic powers and flying around the city, and where his alter-ego Birdman, the superhero character he used to play, taunts him about his failings.

Here’s the real spoiler alert: He wants to be free, to be authentic and admired. And at the end of the film, it is suggested that he succeeds in attaining his goal. On opening night, he is struck with a sense of strange clarity. He is re-energized, and delivers the performance of a lifetime. But in the penultimate scene of his play, where he is supposed to act out killing himself with a prop gun, he uses a real gun instead. He shoots himself, but only succeeds in blowing his nose off. This act of theatrical authenticity earns his play rave reviews. He wakes up in a hospital room, head wrapped in bandages, and he sees his ex-wife and daughter, who are nice to him again, and he finally silences the Birdman alter-ego.

And yet, the film’s final moments are mystifying, ambiguous and frustrating – for he appears to leap off the window of his hospital bed, presumably finishing what he started on stage by trying to blow his head off. His daughter sees her father missing and rushes to the window and looks down, but instead of the horror we expect, she raises her head and smiles.

What the hell happened there?

An ambiguous film is often frustrating until you figure it out, but a good film provides enough contextual clues for the determined viewer to make their own meaning. Birdman has that essence – that thing that it wants to say, but not so directly that apprehending it is a trivial exercise, nor so intertextually opaque that it becomes an intractable enigma only understandable to a film PhD. Birdman is content in leaving its message a wrapped present for the viewer, to unpack slowly of its own accord, and its style of magic realism, its clues and scenes, have a robust enough internal logic to make sense, in a fashion.

So what about that ending?

Here’s my personal opinion for posterity and future self-reference:

I personally prefer a happy ending. There are analyses that argue that the whole ending sequence, or even the whole movie itself, is just one long fever dream that Riggan experiences shortly before he dies from committing suicide. Many of these analyses base this on the supposition that the long uninterrupted shot is meant to portray Riggan’s subjective experience, that the camera is merely an extension of Riggan’s perceptual reality. As the shot finally breaks between his onstage suicide attempt and him waking up (by an eerily beautiful montage of evocative shots of nature, particularly one of a meteor that streaks through the sky), that suggests that shooting himself is a break in that perceptual reality, viz. that he is now in an alternate mode of consciousness preceding death. This is especially so given that the “good ending” portrayed is too perfect – Riggan gets literally everything he wanted, and is both free from Birdman and famous in his own creative capacity. Is this ending scene a wish-fulfillment fantasy of a dying man?

I disagree. I’m not convinced that the long shot represents Riggan’s subjective experience, because the shot also departs from that perceptual reality to dwell on other characters, of whose experiences Riggan would have no way of knowing. Furthermore, the camera shows Riggan’s hallucinations as well as the reality behind those hallucinations; for example, he imagines himself flying through New York, but is revealed to have actually just taken a cab. Thus, the camera gives us an uninterrupted feed into the film’s (and not just Riggan’s) reality. In fact, like in the Shining, the long shot suggests an active and deliberate agency behind the camera, as though an unseen but not omniscient hand is bringing the viewer along for the ride, showing the viewer what they want the viewer to see. This hand is a silent narrator, whose presence brings an added and crucial texture to the film: the film is not showing Riggan’s subjective experience, but the unseen narrator’s subjective experience.

Why is this important? Because if the narrator’s experience is subjective, the narrator is the one who dreams up the reality of the film. This lends the film an air of magical realism – where the magic comes from the dreamlike quality of this unseen narrator’s subjective experience. Who is the unseen narrator? I see it as a kind of demiurge of the film’s world, the storyteller, the veritable Aesop of this particular fable. Who the narrator is is not important, only that the narrator has a story to tell – that is what is important.

Thus, what is more important is not the hardnosed reality of what actually happened in the hospital room, but what the events that transpired meant, thematically, metaphorically, spiritually. I choose to believe that by leaping from the window, Riggan is expressing his freedom in the most authentic way he can – for now he can fly like Birdman, but on his own two wings, and not as Birdman. Riggan didn’t literally jump, the unseen narrator figuratively experiences his jumping as a metaphor for his self-actualization. By the same token, Riggan may not have literally shot his nose off on stage – he just mastered his own insecurities and gave the performance of a lifetime, and the shot is a metaphor that suggests that he made the ultimate symbolic sacrifice for his art, and in the process shot of that part of his anatomy that fettered him to his persona as Birdman.

His daughter’s smile – that genuine, rapturous smile – cannot be explained away as a fevered delusion. It must denote a happy and authentic ending for Riggan.

What does this mean for the film’s message? Is the film celebrating Riggan’s material sacrifice for artistic accomplishment, even at the expense of his human relationships? What does it mean when Riggan calls himself “nothing” and claims that he “doesn’t exist”, something that his daughter also angrily tells him? Is that a nullification of his own avaricious ego to achieve artistic absolution? The casting off of petty concerns of fame and fortune to pursue that zen-like submission into the pure essence of performance? What do the meteor and jellyfish symbolize? Perhaps this: there is the recurring theme of man’s smallness in the grand scheme of things, which applies to Riggan – his ideal of authentic freedom is impure until the end, where he realizes that to be authentic is to surrender himself to the void of ego-nullifying nothingness, and the shots of nature, interspersed with the seedy humanity of New York, serve to highlight that distinction. (Also, the meteor could be a pun on the fact that he is a falling – and shooting – star). Riggan describes himself as attempting suicide by drowning, but being stung so hard by jellyfish that he has to give up. Are the jellyfish that painful reminder that the desire to kill oneself is ultimately selfish pandering to one’s ego? Finally, what does the film’s subtitle, “the unexpected virtue of ignorance” mean?

There are so many layers and textures to the film that I can’t help but run off at the mouth speculating. But I guess that’s my long and rather too involved answer to the question: Does Birdman have something to say, and does it say it well? Hell yes, and in so many different ways. And I’m still trying to find answers.

I give this movie: 4.5 out of 5 wigs


2 thoughts on “Birdman (or, the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

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