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While several aspects of Birdman (2014) have been discussed and debated, with some people agreeing and others disagreeing with the merits of the continuous structure of the film, the (lack of) importance of the romance angle, and whether the film is ultimately simply a narcissistic exercise, there has been virtually no debate and visible disagreement on the fact that the ending is a "happy" one.

This seems odd to me, since the progression of events seemed to indicate a distinctly unhappy ending and a resulting broader (and unhappy) implication for the character, not a redemptive one.

To understand my incredulity, consider the basic kernel of the story transposed to real life, and see if the progression of events could be termed "happy":

  1. "Dunce" kid wants to score big in literature. He is good at sports and is "popular", but for whatever reason, literature does not penetrate his skull. But he makes up his mind that he wants to achieve that, and assembles the right collection of books to make a genuine stab.

  2. He is continually called a dunce, bullied by the teachers and told that "he will never succeed".

  3. For a brief moment, he strikes back at the said bully-teacher, giving you - the viewer - some mild hope that there is a message of equality and redemption hidden in the movie after all.

  4. Soon after, dunce kid loses it, gets up the next morning, realizes he will never be anything more than a jock, writes a long suicide note addressed to the teacher describing how shitty he is and how there is no hope for him, and then offs himself.

  5. Teacher receives the blood-spattered letter, and instead of being horrified by what happened to the boy, or the least bit compassionate, is impressed that the suicide note is "completely honest", has some "much needed blood" and is in impressive handwriting.

She then writes him a note back, "You are ignorant, and you will always be, but the honesty of your depression is awesome!!", and enrolls him in 10 literary competitions.

Meanwhile, the boy has failed to even kill himself, and now faces the prospect of 10 literary competitions, where - according to the evidence presented so far - he can only impress or even compete, if he is depressed all over again, permanently accepting that he is shit and not allowed to have a single smidgen of confidence or self respect.

Because if he is not depressed, he can't emote! ..As per the movie.

This doesn't seem in any way like a happy ending.

I know the example is forced and exaggerated, but my point is to highlight the extremity and ridiculousness of emotions Riggan must have been going through, and the ridiculous situation he appears to end up in.

It is possible that this interpretation of the series of events is not correct (in terms of the emotional keystones it hits), but if it is, I completely fail to understand how this is being interpreted as "happy" for Riggan, rather than depressing and intensely horrifying!

Addendum

Now there are alternative explanations for the ending. One from yurnero's answer being:

Finally, some people interpret the post-suicide act as Riggan's pre-death imagination so the bullet 5 in your post doesn't have to correspond to a real event in the movie

This would in fact make sense, and would count as an indirect "victory" even within the context of a tragedy. Because while Riggan could not earn legitimacy during his life, he put the only thing he had - his real life depression and lack of sense of worth - into one last performance, and signed off on a high, finally in control of his legacy the only way he could.

This is the only interpretation so far which I can consider to be indirectly "happy".

Note

The original (very poorly constructed) question read "Why isn't anyone TERRIFIED or horrified by this apparent underlying theme of Birdman (2014)?" And some comments/answers below were in response to that.

  • Or the other message - that validation can only be sought by submitting helplessly to the will and whims of the gatekeepers, and that one is not allowed to have an intrinsic sense of worth or potential, and that one is not capable of anything more, than what the gatekeeper deems, and even the most desperate lunge or screaming your desperation, will ultimately fall on deaf ears and simply be seen as an aspect of the "performance", rather than the ultimate admission of worthlessness and defeat? – user11122 Mar 19 '15 at 15:47
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    Please use the edit button to add info to your question. – Catija Mar 19 '15 at 16:36
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    Can you please include a link to the movie you're talking about on IMDB? It's obviously not the Birdman starring Michael Keaton, and there are 8 other movies & shows titled Birdman. Thanks! imdb.com/find?ref_=nv_sr_fn&q=birdman&s=all – BrettFromLA Mar 19 '15 at 16:59
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    I have a very hard time not closing this as "primarily opinion based". While we encourage analysis questions that are subject to some degree of subjectivity, you are basically asking "why does noone have a problem with that horrifying analgoy I present here?". This has multiple problems that make reasonable answers quite difficult. For one, not everyone has to agree with your interpretation of events. Furthermore, sure, what you describe might be horrifying, so what? That doesn't make it an inappropriate movie itself, only one that tells a story you deem inappropriate... – Napoleon Wilson Mar 19 '15 at 17:35
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    So what is your actual question then? Why has noone ever seen that interpretation? Has anyone ever seen that interpretation? Is that interpretation reasonable? Do you find my interpretation as horrifying as I do? (From the current wording I'd unfortunately go with the latter.) – Napoleon Wilson Mar 19 '15 at 18:00
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So, as far as I can tell, your question is, "Why are people not more disturbed by the depressing implications of this apparently happy ending?"

My answer is that you are partially correct, the ending is not a happy one. However, perhaps the reason that you haven't seen anyone argue against the idea that the ending is a "happy" one is that no one is seriously claiming that it is.

If we look at the ending as a hallucination, then it is at best a Pyrrhic victory for Riggan: he has finally achieved some level of personal peace and satisfaction, but he is also dying. And he isn't even totally at peace with himself, as Birdman still makes an appearance.

If we take the ending at face value, then Riggan has become depressed about his failure as an artist, a husband, and a father, and tried to kill himself—and failed at that, too. But in doing so, he made his show a hit! By giving up on the play and on life, he has been forced into a situation where he will have to keep performing the play for a long time. It may be a depressing ending, but I wouldn't go so far as to call it "horrifying". The self-absorbed protagonist has suffered an ironic fate—as he must, because Birdman is, at its core, a tragedy.

Keep in mind also that Birdman has a very ironic sense of humor. Riggan hates the "popular" media and wants to make a "serious" work on Broadway, and in the process, he accidentally becomes a viral video sensation. His previous popularity as a movie star gave him the opportunity to write, direct, and star in a Broadway play, but his "movie star" status also means that most of the theater community won't take him seriously. Consider also Mike Shiner, a man so committed to acting that he doesn't know how to live his own life, and can't even get an erection if he's not in-character.


While people saying, "it's just a movie" may seem dismissive, they have a point. People aren't "TERRIFIED" by Riggan's demise (or ironic success) for the same reason that they aren't "horrified" by Michael Corleone's transformation to murderer and mafia don—not only because it's a movie, but because that character's troubles and decisions are central to the story, and without the bad things, the story would be a lot less interesting.

  • The "TERRIFIED" part was from the original question, which was very poorly worded :), and deviated from the purpose of the question. I have accepted the dismissals - for the original question asked, the dismissals were valid. – user11122 Mar 23 '15 at 21:01
  • What the question WAS about, is KNOWING what emotional journey the character was intended to be on. That, and the consistency and logic of this journey is vital to my appreciation of any movie. Anyway that's personal preference. But I like this answer; it was the almost complete absence of debate about whether the (face-value) ending WAS in-fact, factually, happy that bugged me. Thank you. – user11122 Mar 23 '15 at 21:07
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I'll make some separate points:

  1. First, I like your analogy story!
  2. Riggan's suicide attempt may look like just that to the audience but to Tabitha, it may very well be a sacrifice for art. This is where your analogy doesn't work: stage is a performance art and the suicide attempt can be seen as a part of it. Even if you stretch your analogy to make the suicide note to be a part of a book, you can't make the suicide act a part of the book. Plus, we have no evidence that Tabitha has no compassion for Riggan after his on-stage ordeal. It can be very well be that the compassion is a partial reason for her positive review.
  3. Third, I personally find the story of Birdman horrifying but the film should be celebrated on how brilliantly the story is told: acting, direction, production, cinematography, costumes, all exemplary.
  4. Finally, some people interpret the post-suicide act as Riggan's pre-death imagination so the bullet 5 in your post doesn't have to correspond to a real event in the movie.

Shiz Z. says: it's just a movie. And I concur!

  • 4 would actually make more sense. I would have been able to completely digest a tragic ending, one where he dies, pointlessly, as the critic does not budge from her stance and the next day, the world simply shrugs and moves on. Given the momentum of the story, that would have made sense. What did NOT make sense is how an INTENSELY unhappy ending was portrayed (and as far as I can see) accepted, as a happy ending. – user11122 Mar 19 '15 at 18:03
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Q. How is this not intensely, disturbingly, distressingly horrifying?

A1. Because it's just a movie.

A2. Because the movie tells the story of just one pathetically approval-obsessed person -- not the story of the human condition. It's a cautionary tale: "Don't be like Birdman."

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    Yeah, I don't know what other answer there could possibly be for this... We, as cinemagoers know that this is fiction... as are books we read and TV we watch... you don't watch Avengers and then show up in Cleveland surprised that the buildings are still there... – Catija Mar 19 '15 at 16:58
  • No, it is an idea. The Avengers does not discuss an idea, whereas a movie like this at least attempts to. Ultimately it becomes about whether an idea is valid, and when a million people around the world endorse it, whether they endorse the idea being communicated as well, which is when you start to think what is going on. Whatever criticism has been spewed about the movie has NOT discussed the idea, and only talked about the self-obsession of the movie etc. That people are apparently BLIND to the idea (even if it's different from what I've described) being put across is what is surprising – user11122 Mar 19 '15 at 17:48
  • And hence the question - "How can you not see this?" – user11122 Mar 19 '15 at 17:48

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