“So I can’t blame the film for ending more ambiguously, even if to me the true conclusion [that the ending is a dying dream] feels obvious–and to its credit, there’s room to read the ending as something much stranger and wilder.”
-Abigail Nussbaum, in Five Comments on Birdman
Warning to the reader: this letter to Onion is essentially four essays on Birdman that are biting each other’s tails and building on each other’s points – meaning, as a whole, this is nitpick-y and very long. You have been forewarned.
As a character, Mike Shiner is a miniature lesson in Birdman‘s storytelling strategies.
He is superficially the sort of character audiences are taught to believe – enormously talented and (though somewhat of a dick) genuinely passionate about his art. We don’t want to look so hard for double-speak or sarcasm in the positive aspects of his character. The sort of things Mike Shiner says in earnest (his defense of actors; of theater; of prestige) are not the things we’re used to seeing through a sarcastic lens – at least, not in our media.
That being said:
His crusade in the name of hyper-realism generates precisely the type of Hollywood “pornography” he and Tabitha love to hate. In the gin debacle, he turns a sober theater audience into the equivalent of a Times Square crowd – cell phones out, heckling and cheering – so that by the time Riggan strides off-stage and the curtain crashes down, they are booing and whistling and clapping and having an exuberant time. Look at those eyes light up as Mike tears apart the scenery. Enough of that talky philosophical bullshit. After all – as theater, the gin debacle may be a failure, but as entertainment, it’s top-grade stuff.
When Mike tries to have sex with Lesley on-stage against her will, he seems equally convinced that this could only bolster their performance, instead of turning it into something altogether very fucked up. I quote Mike: “Let’s really do it, let’s really fuck… it’ll be so real!!”
Clearly, really doing a thing on-stage, instead of acting it, does not make it a performance to top all others. Quite the opposite, really… Birdman makes this point several times.
(When Mike, instead of having real sex with Lesley, pops up with a real bloody nose and a real hard-on – which, mind you, is exactly what his character would have if his scene actually was real – the audience reaction to these touches of hyper-realism is laughter.)
The third moment of hyper-realism on that stage is when Riggan shoots himself.
When he does this, the stage does not respond favorably. It literally transforms into a surrogate Times Square. Right down to the ubiquitous Statues of Liberty and Spidermans and Iron Mans and other costume-characters strolling and dancing across the boards – in case we didn’t catch the metaphor the first time around, I guess.
There are obvious reasons for Riggan suicide. I’m not questioning that. But I do think that on a structural level, there’s an additional reason worth paying attention to: Birdman tells him to do it.
“Listen to me. Let’s go back and show them what we’re capable of. We have to end it on our own terms, with a grand gesture. Flames. Sacrifice. Icarus. You can do it. You hear me? You are…”
And the sentence that is never completed is, of course, “you are Birdman”.
Up till that point, Riggan has been trying his damnedest to drown Birdman out. He recognizes Birdman for the voice of egotistical/megalomaniac insanity that he so obviously is. It’s only in the last half hour of the film, when Riggan is at his lowest, that he has a lapse – the voice of Birdman is possibly too comforting then. And so, later that evening, he has done a complete one-eighty in his notion of what the voice of Birdman really is.
SYLVIA: Are you okay? You seem, I don’t know, you seem abnormally calm.
RIGGAN: I am calm. I am great actually. You know… I get this little voice that talks to me sometimes. Tells me the truth. It’s comforting. It’s kind of scary but it’s comforting.
SYLVIA: I’m going to pretend you didn’t say that.
It’s clear where I’m going with this, right?
Riggan is low. Riggan is down. Birdman swoops in and trumpets his horn in favor of the Hollywood-style wham-bam. He tells Riggan to cut through this theater bullshit with a grand gesture, to go out with a bang. And Riggan, instead of doing the usual thing of telling Birdman to shut the fuck up and leave off with the crazy talk — Riggan absorbs it. Riggan is now phrasing Birdman’s ravings as comforting truth. So he goes on-stage for his final scene, armed with a real gun. He performs the film’s third on-stage moment of hyper-realism: a real suicide. The audience cheers wildly. And in the process, Riggan’s actions turn theater into spectacle, transform the stage into a surrogate Times Square. Costume-character versions of Iron Man and a Transformer battle it out on-stage over the body of Riggan’s suicide as the theater audience claps and whistles.
It is a shifting of genres that happens in under a minute – the rules of theater swapping with the rules of Hollywood. This is pretty blatant, I think.
And then Riggan wakes up in the hospital. He is alive.
His life has shifted into the happiest possible of Hollywood endings.
We are in a very different type of movie now. Birdman the film actually pulls off that rarest of stunts: in its moment of climax, it completely hops genres (first metaphorically, to prepare us for the shift, and then literally), sarcastically changes the rules of what sort of movie it is now, and leaves it up to the audience to notice.
And I do have lots more to talk about here before I think I can present this conclusion as convincing (details to nitpick; supporting points to make; things to hammer home, oh yes), but before I dive into that rabbit hole, let me quote a poem by Dorothy Parker. It is a useful parallel to how I think about the ending of Birdman:
Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea;
And love is a thing that can never go wrong;
And I am Marie of Roumania.
– Dorothy Parker, Comment
* * *
Some preliminary thoughts:
Laura disappears precisely three times, as far as I can tell. The first time is immediately before the first preview, as she walks faux-seductively away from Riggan. The second time is in Lesley’s dressing room, immediately after their kiss (the camera pans to Mike Shiner, and when it pans back to Lesley, Laura has vanished). The third time is right after Jake catches Riggan during his freak-out. All three times, it’s simply that the camera moves one way, and when it moves back Laura has silently disappeared and none of the characters remark on it. We, however, are certainly meant to notice it.
There is also at least one moment (there might be more, I’m not sure) when Sam appears, when she should not be able to.
I’m thinking of the moment after the preview where Riggan is in his underwear. The camera lingers on that empty hallway to Riggan’s dressing room – both doors – for forty seconds. We would definitely see (and hear) if anyone but Riggan entered the room. Nobody enters but Riggan. And when he does, Sam is already there in his armchair, waiting for him, despite the fact that she must have been downstairs a moment ago, watching the play from the sidelines, because she comments on his performance very specifically. In other words, if we try to read Birdman purely as realism (or even as magical realism), Sam teleported into his room.
But Birdman is not realism and I do not argue for it as magical realism. Lesley does not hallucinate Laura’s presence, and Sam does not have powers of teleportation. The main reason for these appearances and disappearances is to remind us that we’re watching a movie – a movie that makes a deliberate point of its artificial construction, and baits us with this constantly and deliberately. The camera pays out visual information in a way that toys with us on purpose, so that we end up wanting to jerk the screen around to spot the hanging wires behind the magic tricks. We want to shout “wait, where is she? She can’t have just appeared/disappeared, right? I mean, what is this, a post-modern flick or some shit like that?”
Well duh it’s a post-modern flick; one of the characters actually talks right to the audience about the type of film they’re watching at the moment, which is about as post-modern as you can get.
A crucial difference between realism/magical realism/science-fiction/etc. and post-modernism is that while they can often use the sames tropes, they use them very differently. And they use them to say, and imply, very different things. The structure and the goals are fundamentally poles apart.
Being firmly post-modern, Birdman doesn’t just bring our attention to its scaffolding as a film; it uses the scaffolding to play jokes. So the ending doesn’t come quite as much out of the blue if you notice this habit of playing jokes within the scaffolding earlier on – since, by then, the ending is playing by rules of established precedent.
Consider the music. It’s another bit of (usually unquestioned) scaffolding of film-making which, in Birdman, is made humorously self-conscious. There are three types of music in Birdman, and all three twist our expectations of how they’re supposed to operate. The drum score is most definitely the movie’s actual musical accompaniment – by which I mean, it is non-diegetic and serves the purpose that a film score is usually asked to serve: it gives the mood to certain scenes, accompanies the action, and helps set the tone of the film.
So the two moments when it suddenly transforms into diegetic sound and we actually see the drummer: these moments are pretty damn attention-grabbing – and the second moment even more so because it is utterly surreal (he’s banging away unnoticed inside the theater’s tiny kitchen).
The second variety of music is the accompaniment to the Raymond Carver play. This one gets interesting because there are at least two times when Riggan’s actions start out accompanied by what seems to be a more conventional style of non-diegetic film music… until the point-of-view shifts around, and we find ourselves actually watching a performance of that goddamn Raymond Carver play, and we realize that the music was technically diegetic all along.
And now, a joke within this particular piece of scaffolding: one of those moments – a third, fake moment – starts out non-diegetic and stays that way.
It’s when Lesley slips into Riggan’s room to cheer him up (right after Laura disappears for the third time, as a matter of fact). We hear beautiful classical music (by Gustav Mahler) which, within the film, is at first quite muffled and sounds like it’s coming from behind the door of Riggan’s room. Is he listening to the radio? Or does he just have a magical movie score that accompanies his tragic/heroic moments?
No matter. Lesley opens the door and slips inside. The music grows louder, no longer muffled by the door – it assumes its place as proper film-music to the scene between Lesley and Riggan. And it’s definitely not just a radio that Riggan is listening to because when Lesley leaves and the camera follows her out, the music is still playing full-blast. When Mike Shiner heads up the rooftop stairs, the music is still playing. It only fades when the sounds of traffic from the Broadway rooftop drown it out.
I think this moment is easy to forget because, by now, we’ve twice seen this type of lush classical music by famous composers start out as a fake background music, only to be revealed moments later as originating from the action on-screen. Because of precedent, we subconsciously expect it to happen again. And it… never does. Joke!
The third variety of music starts when Tabitha chews out Riggan and tells him she’s going to kill his play. From the moment Riggan leaves the bar till the next morning when he “flies” to the theater, Riggan is immersed inside an entertainingly bizarre and schizophrenic mash-up of half a dozen different pieces of classical music (a pastiche which is mainly impressive for how smoothly it is stitched together, and how elegantly it suits the action on-screen).
The music is also, by this point, becoming equated with insanity – parallel with Riggan’s increasing perception of himself as the hero at the center of a Hollywood film. The line between diegetic and non-diegetic is promptly smashed and thrown out the window (teehee!), since the music starts up when Riggan calls “music!” and cuts off abruptly when Mr. Concerned-Rooftop-Man puts his hand on Riggan’s elbow (only to start up again, of course, as Riggan makes a run for the rooftop and leaps anyway).
And even then, the films skews expectations – the music stopping abruptly and for no reason in the middle of Riggan’s flight, then starting up again after a moment – it never lets us forget the artificiality inherent in what it is doing.
* * *
The lesbian-kiss scene. Right-o. Here we go:
This scene is a pair, in my mind, with the Sam/Mike romance. They’re both parts of the film that felt “off” to me when I was watching them – and I wasn’t sure it was accidental.
And it’s interesting to me that a lot of attentive viewers online will talk about how both these parts of the film really bothered them – they don’t really make sense, and the film itself treats these moments strangely – by which I mean, the actors perform them a little peculiarly, and the film does not quite want to acknowledge these moments in a larger sense.
But like all of Birdman‘s structural jokes, there’s enough sprinkling of motivation within the characterization to keep these scenes from completely feeling out-of-place. So I’ve also seen people talking about how sweet the Sam/Mike romance is, and I guess those are the same people who watched Her and thought it was a very lovely romance indeed.
Lesbian-kiss scene first (and I keep calling it that for reasons that I hope will be clear very soon):
Laura is established as probably bisexual in her comment on Lesley’s ass. Lesley is established as unhappy in her relationship with Mike and craving affection and love. They are two women, on-screen, in negligees, with their faces several inches apart. At this point, I was in the audience thinking “oh god please don’t turn this into yet another one of those gratuitous Hollywood-style male-gaze-y make-out scenes, oh please don’t,” and I was kind of sure it would not because Birdman wasn’t that sort of film and it wouldn’t—
Birdman promptly flicks you the middle finger and has them smash lips. And it is played fairly straight, up until the moment Lesley breathes, “Do it again!” and then it definitely rockets up into ridiculously camp (at least on Naomi Watts’ part), until it is interrupted abruptly by Mike Shiner – and then it’s just never, ever spoken of again.
Asides from this scene being yet another actor allusion (this time echoing Naomi Watt’s previous role in Mulholland Drive, of an aspiring actress who makes out with another aspiring actress – sound familiar?), it’s also framed as a sort of wry joke. It’s a reference to itself as a film, to us as the Hollywood audience (and our built-in anticipation/dread), to the peculiar ubiquity of these moments in tasteless Hollywood films (hello Electra, hello Full Throttle). It’s another moment when Birdman demonstrates its self-awareness as a film, and also a moment when it flickers into another genre of film for just a split second, kinda winky-wink, before resuming where it left off as if nothing weird has happened.
So why do I read the Sam/Mike romance in the same light? Because it’s patently absurd, and Mike’s dialogue makes no fucking sense for the most part.
Sam deciding to go after Mike in the first place makes enough sense, I think. She’s bored out of her mind, and irritated at her father, and seeking cheap thrills anyway. By the time she actually kisses him, he’s been one of the first people on-set to treat her as something other than a young druggie burn-out. He destabilizes her sarcasm with his corny earnestness – kudos to Emma Stone in conveying that little subtlety through her performance – so I think the kiss does sort of makes sense, at the time. But Sam isn’t stupid, and there is nothing in her character to indicate that Mike is long-term. She knows precisely what sort of person he is, she doesn’t have a terribly flattering opinion of him, and frankly I think the first point holds most strongly: she’s bored out of her mind. For the moment, at least, Mike is a distraction.
Yet why do these two-and-a-half scenes feel so weird? Because the film doesn’t quite present it that way, because it undercuts previously established points by quite deliberately tries to invoke a (by now) very familiar type of trope. By which I mean, Mike Shiner is suddenly, for two and a half scenes, playing this incongruous role of some brooding man waxing nostalgic about youth, and the dry husk of his life, and shattered dreams, unable to take any real chances anymore – until he is pulled out of his emotional mire by what is often now termed as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
Sam says, “I fucking loathe this city.”
Moments later, Mike essentially tells her, “I wish I could see this city through your fresh, idealistic young eyes.”
It’s easy to ignore the bizarre little misalignments in their dialogue, because they are otherwise convincingly drawn characters, and for the most part their dialogue is written in the same style and tone as the rest of their scenes – but there are a few moments where it slips, because it is trying so hard to bend these two-and-a-half scenes into a very specific type of narrative.
And the way the camera playfully frames Sam as she heads back to the stairs at the end of the second scene… the callback to truth-and-dare… the Playwriting 101 symmetry… the cold-blooded attempt to yank at our heartstrings… my god, it is so kitsch, and this is from a film that is extremely self-aware of when it is being kitsch. Someone knew what they were doing with this scene – maybe the cinematographer, maybe the director, maybe one of the four screenwriters – because, as a scene, I can’t help but read it as parodying itself.
I am perhaps particularly sensitive to the artificiality of the narrative these scenes try to construct. And this type of narrative is particularly artificial, in the same way that a British-dinner-party-OH-NO-sudden-murder-thank-god-we-have-a-detective-here is particularly artificial. Just like an arranged garden is artificial: beautiful, structurally perfect, and almost never occurring in nature. What is powerful about artificial narratives of a certain variety is that they can, all by themselves, be the one-note engine that drives an entire story. Conflict and resolution are ready-made and built in. You plug it into your script, and the story’s structure practically builds itself.
It is no wonder that whole thriving sub-genres can grow out of imaginative variations on these familiar, instantly recognizable, fundamentally powerful one-note engines.
I think the film bends backwards to frame the Sam/Mike romance the way it does because Mike is a very prominent part of the overall plot at this point. He is dominating Riggan’s storyline, and this becomes a problem for the film. It needs Mike out of the way halfway through the movie, and it needs to do it in a way that doesn’t kink the fabric. The most effective and satisfying way to do this, from a writerly perspective, is to give him a quick arc of his own, and then conclude it snappy – and this is exactly where one-note engine plots excel. Thanks to the engine, Mike as a character has climaxed and cadenced within the first hour of the film – even if that cadence is as artificial as Riggan’s wig – so when he essentially disappears for the rest of the movie, we do not really notice or mind as much as we might otherwise.
For example: compare this to how much we do notice and mind the lack of follow-up on the kiss between Laura and Lesley.
Of course, it is no wonder that even when using this one-note engine to accomplish a structural purpose, Birdman can’t resist a few winks at the audience.
Despite its peculiarities and incongruous nature, the Sam/Mike romance is elegant in its placement. It provides motivation for Riggan to suddenly demand that plot-important cigarette. It provides a neat way to move certain story-pieces (Mike) out of the way so that other story-pieces (Riggan and Birdman) can be given room to develop and flourish without distraction or interference.
And more interestingly, because the Sam/Mike romance relies on a powerful one-note engine to gets its work done, it ends up operating also as a miniature play within the larger concerns of its host entity – a miniature garden within the larger jungle. You could, if you wanted, excise the Sam/Mike romance in its entirety and stage it as a half-hour play that uses that rooftop as its only set piece. Just throw in a few more scenes to solidify the characterization and bam, you’ve got yourself a grimier and more potty-mouthed version of Once.
So when I say the film’s ending takes a leap into a different genre, I am also thinking of these two previous moments – the Hollywood-style lesbian kiss; the Manic Pixie Dream Girl film-within-a-film – where Birdman shifts its modus operandi before snapping back to business as usual. I am thinking of structural precedent, and of a very peculiar form of structural foreshadowing.
* * *
Riggan is not a genius. His play is genuine, absurd kitsch. He can be a good actor when he’s on his ball – but the Carver play is one of the most deadpan-ridiculous elements of the entire goddamned film.
For one thing, Riggan does totally fuck with the tone and period – Mike Shiner’s gin-fueled criticisms are accurate in that regard. The story the play is based on, after all, takes place in the eighties. And you certainly wouldn’t know that from Riggan’s peculiar choices for the costumes and set pieces.
The play’s dialogue, as we see a few times, can occasionally be a bit of a disaster.
Additionally, let me also remind you of how Laura’s character has a scene where she just stands in a misty wood, dramatically proclaiming a clunky backstory dump of a monologue, while actors dressed as trees glide by, all to the lush melodies of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony cranking from the speakers.
LAURA: …when I imagined myself on Broadway, I never saw the dancing reindeer. Nice touch.
We don’t see much of the play, but what we do see is either ridiculously over the top or definitely peculiar. The bits of the play that are most purely Raymond Carver are, I think, the least bad; they’re also the most negatively affected by Riggan’s directorial choices. For example: why does Riggan pair Carver’s famous grit and minimalism during his character’s monologue with background music by Mahler – a composer particularly famous for his lush, sentimental melodies and massive maximalism? It totally makes sense to me that Riggan would pair Carver with Mahler without noticing any irony whatsoever – but we are meant to notice, I think.
And is Riggan a good guy? Is he a decent human being deserving of basic human love?
Well he threw a fucking knife at his ex-wife, and doesn’t even seem to think it worth remembering until his wife reminds him. He’s so self-obsessed that when Sylvia tries to talk to him about Sam and Sam’s future, Riggan ends up completely derailing the conversation and steering it to his own fears of dying only semi-famous instead of properly famous – to Sylvia’s open-mouthed disbelief.
Is Riggan deserving of – if not love – admiration? Especially since, as Sylvia puts it, he so often confuses admiration with love?
Well… no. If his play was phenomenal… but it’s not phenomenal. It is a bit charmingly awkward, a bit charmingly a mess: it is very much like Riggan himself. It would never have gotten staged if Riggan wasn’t semi-famous and (by ordinary standards) very wealthy. Riggan’s shot at Broadway fame isn’t earned through the life-destroying hard work that most ordinary playwrights and directors have to go through to get their names within jogging distance of Broadway’s theaters – if they ever get there at all. Agatha is somewhat of a delightful caricature, so I think it’s tempting to not take her seriously: but she is immune to Riggan’s sentimental dishonesty (that goddamn Raymond Carver napkin again!). Her criticisms of Riggan’s vanity project (and particularly her point that he is taking up valuable oxygen) are, I think, genuine and legitimate.
Sam’s rant about Riggan’s inconsequence and selfishness is also as precise as a surgeon’s knife. And Riggan himself admits (through the mouthpiece of Jake) that his motives for this whole Raymond Carver shenanigan are exactly as hollow as Sam and Tabitha diagnose them to be.
Riggan’s story is not a triumph-of-the-everyman narrative. It is a famous-rich-man-has-midlife-crisis narrative.
Most of us are not able to play out our midlife crises on Broadway. That is a luxury reserved for very few.
Riggan is likeable. It helps that Keaton is frankly a fantastic actor and really nails the role. But Riggan as a character is a bit of a hapless fool, a bumbling underdog trapped in his own story, and we are allowed to laugh at him, to not take him too seriously. The film goes out of its way to humanize him for us – except, in the process, it can become easy to gloss over the truly nasty aspects of his personality and his past.
It’s not that we have to be judge and jury when considering Riggan – but rather, it’s remarkably cruel and unfair to everyone else if we ignore how abysmally he has treated them.
So whenever someone talks about how the poor guy deserved to have a happy ending – I really wonder if we were even watching the same film.
And now a brief but relevant digression:
In the late 1920s, Vladimir Nabokov published a short story titled An Affair of Honor. It is a blistering deconstruction of the duel story, a genre which could only exist in a certain, already-fading culture (the culture in which, say, Pushkin – the poet of his generation, at the height of his talents – could be shot to death, legally, by a historically insignificant rival). Nabokov’s story certainly helped put the nail in this particular genre’s coffin; but I bring it up because of its ending, and the way that ending connect to this letter…
Anton Petrovich has made a terrible mistake. He has refused to be a cuckold, and so he has challenged his wife’s lover to a duel of honor. Anton Petrovich is a small, squeaky-voiced bureaucrat. His rival is broad-shouldered, well built, highly athletic, and loaded with military honors and experience.
Anton Petrovich has essentially signed his Pushkin-esque death warrant.
The story progresses into a forty-page spiral of claustrophobia, heading towards what Anton Petrovich realizes might very well be his last moments on earth. Anton tries to wiggle out of this self-inflicted trap in any way he can, hoping to find a way out that leaves him both alive and with his honor (and consequently his marriage) intact.
At the last minute, half-fleeing from the scene of the duel without actually fleeing, trying to prolong this moment where he is still alive for just another few precious minutes, he checks into a hotel – only to have to dash home, having forgotten something important, and finding out upon arrival that, oh, his rival has been the one to flee from the duel after all! His rival never showed! His rival has disgraced himself! He is all bark and no bite! Who would have thought – Anton Petrovich, by taking it so seriously, was the real man after all! Anton has saved face, his life, and his marriage; his wife is subservient once more, his friends applaud him, Anton’s existence is restored to its perfect, previous equilibrium through the most beautiful of O. Henry endings—
“Anton Petrovich smiled broadly, got up, and started fiddling with the ribbon of his monocle. His smile slowly faded away. Such things don’t happen in real life.”
And the story ends, instead, with us realizing that Anton is still at the hotel. He has had to dismiss his fantasy: the duel is scheduled moments away. We end with him gulping down a sandwich with the same gusto that anyone would give to their execution meal.
Nabokov was spitting and laughing at these type of O. Henry endings nearly one century ago. He saw them for what they so often were – not “the everyman triumphs”, but “the fool inherits the crown”. And Nabokov (whose family fled the murderous effects of the Russian Revolution) had personally seen what sort of world you got when the fools inherited the crown. He was, to put it mildly, not a fan.
And Birdman puts enormous pressure on us to suspect the ending we are given. It is so very O. Henry. It is so like the fantasy of Anton Petrovich. Everything he has ever wanted is handed to him a platter of favorable coincidence and benign misunderstanding. The world is a happy place after all.
Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea;
And love is a thing that can never go wrong;
And I am Marie of Roumania.
* * *
And now it is time to talk about the jellyfish, and the comet, and to really dissect the ending and all its individual details and peculiarities: because any understanding of Birdman that doesn’t at least try to contextualize these blatant symbols and clues and metaphors which fill up the screen is wasting its goddamn fucking time, pardon my language.
A comet flares into glory only in its death.
And the comet, within the film, is also rhymed with Icarus: the one who flies too close to the sun, and consequently falls to his doom. In the language of Birdman, Icarus is less melty-wingy and more sacrificial-comet – fly into the eye of the sun, go out blazing.
The jellyfish – now, those things are nasty. Within the film, I mean (no offense to any jellyfish reading this; Tiptree and Le Guin included).
Riggan’s pre-suicide conversation with Sylvia sets up the jellyfish rather explicitly as painful, unpleasant, unexpected, and unwanted. They foil Riggan’s attempt at oblivion – at the last second, when it’s too late to realize what sort of water he’s stepped into. Since the jellyfish are invisible to him, he has already waded in to drown himself before he realizes he’s wading not into a sea of water, but a sea of venomous jelly.
The jellyfish inadvertently end up saving his life but the film does not in any way cast them as benign for doing so, and the shots of the jellyfish are highly memorable in part for how foreboding they are.
So. Riggan shoots himself on stage. The audience claps and cheers. Agatha stands up, glances back for a second, and leaves – it is a refusal to have any part in what is happening – and the vanishing of the film’s sole artistic critic, just as the theater stage erupts into a surrogate Times Square/Hollywood metaphor… I think it is worth noting.
The audience is clapping. The theater is turning into a metaphor for Hollywood spectacle – which is what Birdman really meant anyway in his advice to Riggan – and there are flashes of the comet. Scenes of light – a shot of the set as if it has turned real, its lamps aglow – streetlights flaring beautifully almost beyond their capacity as the comet streaks over them – sunlight streaming through a window to breaking point – a sudden close-up of the famous lamppost at the edge of the theater stage, burning bright – all this light, interspersed with costume-characters swarming the floorboards while the audience hoots and cheers—
And then, without warning, the jellyfish. As seagulls descend to feast.
The next instant, Riggan is alive and in a hospital room. He survived what was almost certainly not a shot to his nose, but a shot to his cranium – hell, it has foreshadowing plenty enough, doesn’t it?
But the question to ask here, first of all, is: what were the jellyfish?
What foiled Riggan’s attempt at oblivion?
When he waded in to drown himself this time, what was the venom he encountered instead of the oblivion of the waves?
I think it was the audience, really. You know.
Give us our Hollywood ending, Birdman.
Caw, caw, okay folks, I will!
In a weird way, you could sort of say that Riggan made a contract with Birdman, and Birdman (in a weird way) has carried through. I’m emphatically not arguing for this particular phrasing, since I think it’s a little reductive and silly, but I do think it’s a smooth way to lead into the actual point I’m arguing for… mainly, the transformation and artificiality of the hospital scene. Because everything in the hospital scene screams fake, fake, and there are so many details worth unpacking. Most significantly of all, Sam’s laugh at the end mutates into a “caw-caw-caw” and we need to talk about that.
No one seems to talk about the mutating laugh. I think people find it easier to ignore it.
The film opens with smells and it concludes with the lack of smells. Riggan: meditating in his room while Birdman’s voice remarks, “smells like balls”. Riggan’s first conversation in the film: asking Sam to buy him flowers – something that smells nice.
In a nice callback, Sam has brought him lilacs to his hospital room – a flower famous for its powerful and attractive scent. Ironically Riggan can’t smell them, and in a literal sense it’s probably either because he doesn’t have a nose anymore, or because the remains of his nose are wrapped in several inches of bandages – but since almost everything from this point on is also metaphorically loaded, he can’t smell the flowers because his real nose has been replaced with a prettier but fake one. And the flowers are also pretty and nice, but they have no smell. Just like this whole scene: pretty and nice, but not a terribly convincing replacement for reality. Like all Hollywood endings, I suppose.
Riggan has taken Birdman’s advice and gotten what he wanted, and he wakes up wearing a face bandage shaped precisely like Birdman’s mask (“Remember… you are… Birdman…”) and if that moment doesn’t set your alarm bells ringing, I don’t know what will. Everything around him might scream fake, fake! but it’s a happy sort of fake, so I guess there’s an awful lot of incentive on our part to ignore the plastic coating.
Yet, remember Birdman telling Riggan: “Shave off that goatee, get some plastic surgery – sixty is the new thirty, motherfucker!” and you’ll understand a little of Riggan’s expression when he peels off his Birdman bandages and finds himself minus the goatee, with plastic surgery. He examines his face with an inscrutable expression. It’s an unnerving realization that he’s in this world on Birdman’s terms now.
Birdman is all noncommittal on the toilet. Well. You got what you wanted, didn’t you? So what if I got a little carried away in the process?
Riggan did get what he wanted – and I think I have to understand him as grasping the ramifications more fully than we do. And so, Dorothy-Parker-style, he decides it’s good weather for a flight around town; he opens the window, takes a deep pleasurable breath of air he cannot smell and, accompanied by the crazytown music of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2, he—
The sound, at this point, implies his body on the pavement below. Another fake-out from the sound department. We hear ambulance sirens. The tense drum score has resumed.
And yet, Sam looking up, with a wondering expression – this is the ultimate joke in the scaffolding because, like in all the previous jokes, a certain precedent is very carefully established and then ripped apart. Riggan sees Birdman (crazy!), Riggan hears the Rachmaninoff music (crazy!), Riggan apparently leaps out his window and, a moment later, we hear sirens (crazy! suicide! oh shit!), but Sam looks out the window, peers down anxiously, but then glances up and smiles in delight and implies that Riggan is soaring through the air like a motherfucker as if it’s no big deal – cut to black. And then, in that blackness, Sam’s delighted laugh – mutating abruptly into a caw-caw-caw! guffaw, and that’s the last real sound we hear.
I know they say it’s rude to laugh at your own jokes, but after all these structural wisecracks, I guess Birdman couldn’t resist a chuckle at the end.
* * *
Agatha the theater critic is so obviously not the villain of this film. Why would anyone in their right mind call her the villain of the film? Birdman is the fucking villain of the film, like, duh.
And he wins.
* * *
Birdman was not a story about Riggan, nor Birdman, nor the lives of those entangled with Riggan as they struggle to get through the previews and land a successful opening night.
Birdman is a story about a movie about Riggan, and Birdman, et cetera… The story asks us: what sort of movie is this going to be?
Birdman is the story of how one type of movie ended up as another.
And it is a story that makes a consistent point throughout of contemplating the audience. Birdman says plenty about the claustrophobic and hypocritical world of theater, and just as much about the absurdity of the Hollywood machine. But it also talks about audience, and has its most interesting things to say on that subject.
The audiences in Birdman are of one mass: even when disguised as elegantly-dressed theater-goers, they are Times Square gawkers at heart. They are easily pleased (every single preview, no matter how strange or bad, is met with enthusiastic applause at its end), they are delighted by spectacle, and they are quick to pull out their camera phones if they think it’ll make for a great Youtube video.
When Birdman talks to us, he believes we’re exactly that sort of audience too.
But by being the sort of film it is, Birdman is (to paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut) a bitter coating of cynicism disguising the sickly sweet optimistic mush at its heart. Because to make this sort of film, you have to put all your trust in your audience to pick up on the nuances, and to see the subtleties and ironies for what they are.
Birdman‘s existence gambles, essentially, on the assertion that the audience in the movie theater is not the audience that Birdman thinks it is. Birdman the film is the least condescending gesture you could make: “I trust you.”
And, unable to resist yet another joke, it even makes fun of itself for this trust. I am particularly fond of the moment when Riggan is standing on the edge of the roof, poised to jump, while numerous concerned onlookers congregate below. A woman on the sidewalk shouts the obvious question that anyone would ask in this day and age:
SHOUTING LADY: Hey, is this for real? Or are you shooting a film?
RIGGAN: A film!
SHOUTING LADY: You people are full of shit!
* * *
A quick coda: let me acknowledge that the four writers, the director, the cinematographer, the music team, the multiple actors, and everyone else involved in this film haven’t said a single word in support of my analysis (as far as I know, at least).
In fact some of them have said plenty of words that contradict it. Unfortunately, half those words also contradict each other; and another good portion actually contradict the movie – and the director has been notoriously close-mouthed on his two cents regarding the film.
Tempting as it is to just go ahead and invoke death of the author, haha, suck it bitches! I would rather take advantage of this awkwardness to make some points, sorely needed, on a practical way to approach complicated and many-layered narratives. But first I do need to invoke a version of death of the author, haha, suck it bitches! which applies almost entirely only to films and plays, and not at all to things with actual authors, such as books.
Let me mention that there is a long list of films before this one where the various contributors to the final product had very different ideas about what sort of film they were making. So you could have an instance such as, say, one of the screenwriters of Pacific Rim claiming that a certain scientist character (despite being a cantankerous social misfit) actually has a hot super-model wife named Vanessa and he’s a real man in the sheets, you guys, ain’t that a clever twist, haha!
Meanwhile the actor who played the scientist denied this vehemently and, instead, implied that he may have played the character as queer.
And this is why it is very possible to watch Pacific Rim and conclude that the two scientists are essentially a bickering gay married couple – because that is how at least one of the actors played it, and thus that is actually what is on the screen. Regardless of what one of the movie’s screenwriters decides to say otherwise, he cannot erase this performance from the final product of the film.
Who should you trust, then? The screenwriter’s words? The actor’s performance? Your own understanding of what is happening on the screen?
So let me acknowledge that the four writers, the director, the cinematographer, the music team, the multiple actors, and everyone else involved in Birdman haven’t said a single word in support of my analysis (as far as I know, at least). And I honestly think that they do really have fairly different ideas about the chimera that they have created.
But let me take advantage of this awkwardness to make some points, sorely needed, on a practical way to approach complicated and many-layered narratives – especially ones with so many damn cooks in the kitchen.
Birdman is a film that uses nearly all aspects of its film-making in conscious and self-aware ways to communicate theme, metaphor, subtext, and structural concerns. It is the sort of film where the sound department’s ideas about a certain scene can really influence the readings of that scene – and the same goes for the lights, and the cinematography, and so on. Birdman communicates to us on so many levels – far more levels than films usually do – and this gives enormous breadth to the material we are presented with for the purpose of making meaning.
What do I look for in an analysis of a complex work of art? I look for an understanding that makes use of as many parts of the work as possible to inform its reading. I look for something that makes the entirety of the film, and its pieces, cohere. I look for something that is consistent, and which does not undermine itself the further it develops its point. And if the film as a whole argues against a screenwriter’s or a director’s interpretation, I favor the film, because the film is a team effort, and everything that needs to be said should, ideally, be already present within it.
If there are pieces and chunks that simply do not fit into a particular understanding, then I don’t immediately assume it is the fault of the film. I am, instead, not satisfied with that understanding, and I look for a more cohesive one – ones that incorporates as many parts of the film as possible in its reading.
Certainly there are films (and plays, and books, and things in general) that can never be understood in unity because they are just created badly and not quite coherently. (Sometimes it is even possible to detect which parts are the stinkers, and why they are there – which can help put them into context.) But I usually have zero trouble spotting the incoherent messes. The patterns don’t connect. There are dead-ends and U-turns all over the place. Successful form is a visible product, and unsuccessful form is equally visible.
So even when I don’t fully understand what a complex work of art is doing, I can perceive patterns and deliberate movement – even if only just enough to tell me that I’m missing something, and need to look harder. I argue in favor of thoroughness, and a willingness to fully engage complex works on their own terms, and I also argue in favor of patience, and an acknowledgment of one’s limitations (a willingness to admit, for example, that I might not understand something – at least, not yet; and also a willingness to admit that a work is not necessarily bad just because I do not understand it).
So I ask myself: have I used as much of Birdman as possible when forming my understanding of it? Does my way of looking at it fit consistently with the entirety of the film? And is there another way of looking at it that I have encountered which is more consistent, more thorough, and makes more sense given every aspect of the film as a whole?
Let me acknowledge that the four writers, the director, the cinematographer, the music team, the multiple actors, and everyone else involved in this film haven’t said a single word in support of my analysis (as far as I know, at least).
But I am okay with that, I think, so long as the film supports it.
Caw caw caw!
 On one level, Riggan is emotionally unstable and has a history of attempting suicide when everything he loves and holds dear seems to be falling apart in his hands. On another level, there’s almost a cold, depressed logic to his suicide attempt, because Agatha says “I’m going to kill your play” and the response we get from Riggan is essentially “fuck you, not if I kill it first”. If – as Agatha puts it – there’s no chance for this play to be a success, there’s no chance for Riggan to rehabilitate his image, there’s no chance for this to end with his dignity intact – if there is literally nothing in the world that can change Agatha’s mind and change this outcome – if his play is doomed no matter how good the opening night really is: then yeah, “you can’t kill my play, not if I kill it first” makes a terrible amount of fucked up sense. I think that reading Riggan’s suicide as a deliberate and canny way to save his play is a willful misinterpretation, and an awfully callous way to think about his attempted suicide – he really does expect to die. The intent and emotion behind Riggan’s suicide is definitely presented as real.
 Naomi Watts has talked about Birdman as a comedy (which especially makes sense if you consider that the script she – and the other actors – first received was much more of a black comedy than the strange bastard child it became in its final product). Certainly this particular scene makes sense, on its own scale, as comedically absurd. Her character is asked to have a sudden unexpected kiss scene with another actress, only to be abruptly interrupted by her former lover, whom she instantly responds to by throwing a hair dryer – these rapid swings in mood and tone pretty much leave you the option of either screaming “what?!” or laughing. So Andrea Riseborough plays this scene rather straight, as seduction, but I definitely read Naomi Watts as playing it with an awareness of its bizarro side; and I think her performance (coupled with the sudden hi-hat drum accompaniment, which really helps cement the bizarro tone) is at least part of what makes this scene read the way it does to me.
 I will mention one thing, which I am not sure is a thing, because I mainly only noticed it in the theater (as did Radish – we compared notes on this detail), but have not really noticed it since, when rewatching Birdman in my laptop. Namely, when I saw Birdman in theaters, the scene where Riggan shoots himself was weird to me also for how peculiar Mike Shiner sounded when he spoke. It sounded, in fact, like he was speaking from underwater. And when the camera panned to him, he was blurred and out-of-focus, which underscored that impression. This was a detail that helped confirm for me this notion of Mike completing his arc halfway in, and no longer really being a relevant participant in the film. I mentioned this observation to Radish shortly after we left the theater and he thought it made a lot of sense, based on what we’d seen and heard. But again – since I’m not sure if it wasn’t just a peculiarity of that particular theater’s speakers – I didn’t want to include it in my main reading.
 One of Mahler’s symphonies requires over one thousand performers; another one is the longest in the repertoire and clocks in at one hundred minutes in total. In contrast, one of Carver’s most famous and recognizable stories, Little Things, is precisely 496 words, and its paragraphs are typically terse and one sentence long.
 Riggan’s response and criticisms at Agatha are also, I think, genuine and legitimate – not necessarily genuine and legitimate criticisms of Agatha, but of bad critical writing in general. Just as Agatha’s barbs, while applying mostly to Riggan, are also generally aimed at Hollywood as a whole… Both their arguments have holes, and they stink a little of hypocrisy – but on that same note, neither side is less right than the other, and they both score real blows.
 Something that occurred to me, which I think is amusing enough to share: Riggan at one point says “This play is kind of starting to feel like a deformed version of myself, that just like keeps following me around and hitting me in the balls with a tiny little hammer…” So, when he wakes up in the hospital as a deformed version of Birdman… Yeah… It’s more just a fun way to look at it than anything serious – but I do always end up feeling like the Riggan/Birdman dynamic gets flipped once we enter the hospital scene, and I think there’s a number of echoes like this one which bolster that reading, and which end up adding up to a lot more than you initially expect.