“Birdman” Explained or (Someone Has Too Much Time on His Hands)

22 Feb

Birdman endingFirst, a disclaimer. If you have not yet seen the film Birdman and still wish to, stop reading, go see Birdman, then come back, read my review of Birdman, then read this. If you haven’t seen Birdman and don’t wish to, how did you end up here?

Disclaimer complete, spoilers and theories on the way.

Birdman is my favorite film of 2014. It is both a cinematic out-of-body experience and a beguiling piece of storytelling. When I first saw it, I was enraptured but confused by the ending. That ending has mystified many. The film had answered many of its most pressing questions already (or so it appeared), but the ending seemed to say that either those questions were answered incorrectly or not answered at all. I believe, however, that the schizoid ending is the key to understanding the entire film.

And yes, I understand that when I first wrote about this I said:

Whatever the movie is “about” it’s about, and you should probably just go figure it out on your own, if figuring it out is the point of Birdman, which it probably isn’t.

And I still think upon first viewing the film, it should be taken at an emotional face value without trying to read too much into it. Birdman reflects the mindset of the viewer. Some view the film as a comedy, others not so much. Some side with Riggan Thomson, the tortured artist; others are stopped cold by his sad sack shenanigans. And of course with the ending, there are those who claim that he jumped out a window and died, and others who believe that he flew.

The genesis of my understanding of the film comes from a short story I had not read in many years but which I stumbled across the other day. That story lead directly to my thinking about Birdman, or specifically Birdman’s title. If you look closely at the title of the film you can begin to figure out where the movie is coming from.

But first the story. It’s called “The Lady or The Tiger?” and was written in 1882 by Frank Stockton. Here’s a link if you wish to read it. Otherwise, here’s a summary:

When someone is accused of a crime, the king of an ancient unnamed land utilizes a particular form of trial. He places the man in an arena where there are two doors. Behind one is a tiger, behind the other is a beautiful maiden. The man must open one of the doors, but there are no indications behind which door which particular fate lies. If he chooses the maiden, the man is innocent and immediately married to the woman, whether he wants to or not. If he chooses the tiger, he is deemed guilty and mauled. The king discovers that his daughter has taken a lover. The king puts the lover in the arena. The daughter, however, has discovered which door hides which fate. But she also knows that the maiden is the most beautiful in the land. The princess burns hot with jealousy. She slyly indicates to her lover which door to open. He opens the door.

Now, the point of the story is this: Did the tiger come out of that door, or did the lady?

The more we reflect upon this question, the harder it is to answer. It involves a study of the human heart which leads us through devious mazes of passion, out of which it is difficult to find our way. Think of it, fair reader, not as if the decision of the question depended upon yourself, but upon that hot-blooded, semi-barbaric princess, her soul at a white heat beneath the combined fires of despair and jealousy. She had lost him, but who should have him?

The author never actually states what was behind this door, whether the princess opted for her lover’s death or for him to marry another woman. The story ends:

The question of her decision is one not to be lightly considered, and it is not for me to presume to set myself up as the one person able to answer it. And so I leave it with all of you: Which came out of the opened door – the lady, or the tiger?

Nowadays if this were some long running TV show, Twitter would be loudly proclaiming #fuckyouladyandthetiger, but this was written in the 19th Century when the public was a bit more decorous. Even I, upon rereading “The Lady and the Tiger?” over twenty years after I first laid eyes upon it, was a bit miffed. I want ANSWERS, damnit! Not some sort of Schro…

Then I thought about Birdman. Except that’s not the title of the film. The actual title is Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). Please note the construction of that title. If it were Birdman, or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, that second half could easily have been a mere subtitle. If it were Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) that parenthetical would be a simple aside, a slight explanation of the film. But one thing I learned after seeing Birdman twice is that it does not easily explain itself.

There are two notable oddities in the construction of the title. First, most obviously, the “or” does not follow a comma and is not contained within the parentheses. Second, the word “The” is capitalized when it does not need to be. (The “or” is not.)

More about the title in a bit.

One of the main misinterpretations of Birdman is that it deals magical realism. Magical realism is when magical or unexplainable elements exist – without explanation – within a depiction of the real world. That’s my definition, though the term magical realism is pretty open to interpretation. In Birdman, Riggan is both haunted by the voice of the Birdman character he once played, and seems – at times – to possess some of this character’s powers. In the first scene of the film we see Riggan floating in his dressing room. Later we see him throw a telekinetic tantrum, but when his stage manager shows up, he – and the audience – are made to believe that Riggan was throwing things not with his mind but with his hands. Near the end, we see Riggan actually fly through the streets of Manhattan. But then, instead of alighting on the ground, he gets out of a cab. All of this seems to be magical realism, but I have another theory:

It’s actually quantum mechanics.

You say what now?

Specifically, I’m referring to Schrodinger’s Cat, a fairly well-known thought experiment. A cat is in a box with a Geiger counter and some uranium that has a 50-50 chance of decaying. If it does decay, a hammer will strike a flask containing poison, killing the cat. Because there is an equal chance of the uranium decaying as not decaying, there is an also equal chance that the cat is alive or dead. (Note: I know I’m watering a lot of this down, so spare me the nitpicking, science nerds.) One cannot know whether the cat is alive or dead until one opens the box. Therefore, before the box is opened and the cat is observed, the cat is both alive and dead.

Do you see where I’m going?

By the ending of Birdman, the filmmakers have already shown the supposed magical realistic elements, but have also cast doubt on their veracity. Most likely, all that telekinetic flying mumbo jumbo is just in Riggan’s head. Most likely, he is just suffering from a nervous breakdown or psychotic break.  But then his daughter looks out the window, looks down – nothing, looks up – and smiles. If Riggan can’t actually fly, why the fuck is she smiling?

Thinking about “The Lady and the Tiger?” taken in context with the actual title of the film, as well as Schrodinger’s Cat, I came to believe that Riggan both jumped to his death and flew to his salvation. Via quantum mechanics, we cannot know whether he did A or B until we actually see him, and therefore, we have to assume that both A and B are true. As with “The Lady and the Tiger?” in Birdman, the filmmakers leave it open to interpretation what actually happened to Riggan. If you want him to live, he lives; if not, ker-splat!

This can seem like a pretty simple explanation, and it is similar to others I’ve read about. And as I thought about it, I was still unsatisfied with it. For one thing, Emma Stone’s reaction is to a man flying, not crashing, and hence there did not seem to be an equal chance of those things happening.

But let’s get back to the title. When the princess’ lover opens the door, one of two things happens, the lady or the tiger. When the cat’s box is opened it is either alive or dead.  And when you watch the story of Riggan Thomson you are actually watching one of two stories. Either you are watching Birdman. Or you are watching (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).

This goes back to one more theory in quantum mechanics: the many-worlds interpretation, which states that all possible futures are real.  According to the many-worlds theory, the cat is both alive and dead before the box is opened, but once it is, the cat is still both alive and dead, but each are in separate parallel universes.

Birdman is actually two movies seen together. Two parallel realities. In one, Riggan Thomson is a has been movie star trying to stage a comeback on the Broadway stage. In the other, he is still Riggan, but he is also the Birdman. (Not to be confused with this guy.) We see these two alternate realities overlap throughout the film. He both flies and takes a cab to the theater. He both moves things with his mind and with his body. The theater critic vows to pan his piece but she also writes a rave.

But what of the ending? My take is this: Riggan shoots himself on stage. In one reality, the one where he is not actually Birdman, he dies. That storyline is now complete. Everything that happens in the hospital is part of the other storyline. Hence, when Emma Stone looks out the window, she only sees one reality: the one where her father can fly.

Does this make any sense? Maybe. Maybe not. Perhaps there’s a parallel world where it’s obvious and The Theory of Everything will take home Best Picture. But none of us want to live in that world, do we?

5 Responses to ““Birdman” Explained or (Someone Has Too Much Time on His Hands)”

  1. Kenny Martin May 27, 2015 at 12:40 #

    I like your theory, although I have one question. Since we are seeing both worlds play out, shouldn’t the title of the movie be Birdman and the unexpected virtue of ignorance, as opposed to or?

  2. John Hanson August 17, 2015 at 03:10 #

    Even the pessimists are pushed into the light of Birdman by The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance. The typical viewer doesn’t know that flying is an actual supernormal power that one can learn from Dorje Chang in the practice of esoteric Vajrayana Buddhism, but still believes he flew. The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance would be both Riggens and the viewers’ of the film. They don’t know that Riggens daughters dispute with Riggen is an understatement of her frustration and they don’t know that she is actually liberated by his suicide. This other interpretation (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is itself what commits suicide, and is marked by the viewers return to light, which is believing in the power of Riggen, “Birdman”. The latter part of the title that almost was is even marked by an eagles head in the form of the word or. Also, Batman, believe it or not, is a sign of The Second Coming of Christ, Lord Rayel.

  3. Stephen October 4, 2015 at 12:03 #

    Nice original review!

    I have a completely different interpretation of the film. I, too, have too much time on my hands. 🙂 I made an in-depth. 45 minute Birdman video analysis that examines the profound influence of James Joyce and Ovid’s Icarus and Daedalus myth

    You can view it here. Btw I made this entirely on my phone!

    The sound mix is s bit off. I suggest using headphones.


  4. Joe October 10, 2015 at 00:28 #

    What still gets me though is towards the beginning when he makes the light fall on the bad actor’s head. He tells his friend (zach galifianakis) that he did it, and galifianakis’s (?) character just accepts that he did it, as if he knows about the super powers his friend has.

  5. rakib May 28, 2016 at 12:42 #

    Maybe it has a rhetorical meaning. We see that Riggan wanted name & fame for something meaningful, not by being any cheesy super-hero-movie hero. So he risked his everything behind the play and ultimately he succeeded. In the last scene, we see that he jumps through a window (referring Regan’s do-or-die gamble), performs a leap of faith (indicates his confidence about success of the play) and then he flies high in the sky (that means after a successful play, he is beloved by all and he is now in a position over any ordinary famous movie franchise. That’s why he is flying over everyone). In a word the scene summarizes the whole story of ‘Birdman’. [guys, if you agree with my theory, please let me know. my email : iamrakib490@gmail.com]

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