Our Difficulty With Birdman or the Unexpected Virtue of Ambiguous Endings

Whilst the rest of the UK went in their thousands to watch this year's Oscars' front-runner Birdman at the start of last month, I had to wait until last week before I could go see what all the hype was about.

Living in a remote Scottish town like St Andrews means that sometimes it takes several weeks for films to make their way up here. I shouldn't complain really since the fact that there even is a cinema on one of the essentially three streets which make up the town is a nice surprise in itself. So whilst the rest of the UK went in their thousands to watch this year's Oscars' front-runner Birdman at the start of last month, I had to wait until last week before I could go see what all the hype was about. All of the almost universal praise received by Alejandro González Iñárritu's remarkable film was, of course, entirely justified. It is a wonderfully unique and artistic piece of storytelling and contains some of the best character-studies on film in recent memory. But I don't want to talk about the brilliant performances by Michael Keaton and Edward Norton or the pulsating soundtrack or the genius long-take technique. I want to talk about the film's ending, and more specifically, our difficulty as an audience to accept an ambiguous conclusion that resits clear explanation and seems to operate on the level of metaphor rather than reality.

(C) 2014- Fox Searchlight

Watching Birdman a few weeks after its release meant that as I left the cinema, initially confused by what I had just seen happen in the final frame of the film, I was sure that there would already be hundreds of forums on the internet where I could find an answer as to why Riggan jumps out of his hospital-room window and why his daughter, played ably by Emma Stone, looks up at the sky, rather than down on the street, where his body would presumably be lying. I was not disappointed. The internet was full of various theories and answers which were geared to appeal to our sense of rationality and to alleviate our dread of being confronted with a film which deceived us at its climax by ostensibly resorting to a fantastical conclusion after misleadingly appearing to tell a realistic story. Some of bloggers argued that the daughter looks up because she cannot bear to acknowledge that her father is lying dead on the ground, others even suggested that the entire final ten minutes of the film were just scenes taking place in Riggan's imagination while he was actually dying from his self-inflicted gunshot wound on the opening night of his play. Yet the more of these theories about Birdman's surreal ending that I read, the more I began to think how contrived and unnecessary it really was to struggle to find an empirically viable explanation for the film's events just so that it 'makes sense'. Why could I, and the countless other people who watched Birdman, not just appreciate the ending as a smart and fitting allegory for the film's themes, but rather waste time trying to figure out a way in which the film could still be 'real' instead?

The general unspoken rule of cinema seems to be that if a film is not explicitly labelled as a fantasy, then any unreal, confusing or incongruous elements must have a reasonable, often psychological (i.e. it's all in the character's mind) explanation. But if we are to view certain films as works of art akin to prose or poetry, then why is it that we are so dismissive of so many cinematic attempts at metaphor. Nobody reading Charles Baudelaire's famous allegorical poem, 'The Albatross' thinks to question how it is that a 'real' poet can possess wings or tries to come up with explanations for how this can be consistent with the world as we know it. We should be able to extend this kind of critical appreciation of symbolism to Birdman, which we can view as a film operating as a visual poem, unconcerned by notions of lifelike verisimilitude. Riggan's flight at the end should be interpreted in terms of what the metaphor of flying represents: whether the final scene is indicative of a man who is finally seen for what he truly is and is esteemed by others (embodied by his daughter looking up), or whether it's a more caustic sign of the continual inflation of the ego of a narcissist following a good review. Either way, the focus needs to be on the film's meaning and not its adherence to reality. The sooner we just allow ourselves to stop looking for a realism that isn't there, the sooner we can enjoy the value of the film's many poetic and stylistic merits. The ending of Birdman is anything but a lazily written, open-ended "cop-out" as I've seen it be accused a number of times; this isn't like Christopher Nolan's laughable use of science-fiction to get himself out of a plot-hole at the end of The Prestige. Rather Alejandro González Iñárritu has taken it upon himself to bring literary devices into the realm of mainstream cinema and has frustrated our all too narrow-minded urge to find how the film can be explained in terms of reality. I hope the Academy thanks him for it.


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