By Gregory J. M. Kasunich
[Please note, the following article is a look at the final scene of BIRDMAN, it will contain SPOILERS.]
Shortly after the credits rolled and the lights came up and the combination exhilaration/exhaustion wore off on Alejandro González Iñárritu’s BIRDMAN, the question everyone seemed to be asking themselves, and each other was, “What is the deal with Emma Stones final gaze upwards into the heavens after Riggan, her father, the once titular Birdman, jumps through the window?”
Yesterday, David Chen, of the fantastic site Slashfilm, posted an article called Let’s Talk About the Ending of ‘Birdman’ where he examines the final scene of the film. The article contains a nice lead up and exploration of the scene. Since he does a great job of setting up the scene and making his case, I won’t repeat what he wrote. That being said, with regards to the final moments of the picture, he had this to say:
“Thus, I posit that the very last shot of the film is Innaritu’s way of joining the metaphorical/imagined with the real. Riggan still can’t fly, nor does he actually jump out a window in that last scene. The movie is just conveying that for the first time, Sam is seeing her father the way he sees himself.”
It’s a great article and it worth a read, but after seeing the film [full disclosure: unlike Scott Tobias of The Dissolve, I loved it] I’ve had some time to think about it, the ending in particular and I figured I would weigh in here with my interpretation of the final, and seemingly divisive, scene of BIRDMAN.
Since so much has already been written about this picture I’ll cut to the case: I believe that Riggan’s life, and career, ends abruptly on stage after he fires a bullet (from an almost literal Chekhov’s gun) into his skull. Therefore, what this means is that the final scene, as Riggan astonishingly, miraculously, unbelievably awakes in a hospital bed, actually takes place in a heaven-like afterlife where Riggan finally achieves a soupçon of all that yearned for in the penultimate days of his tortured existence.
First, let’s look at the cinematic language employed by Alejandro González Iñárritu to hint at this conclusion at least in terms of editorial and photographic continuity. Prior to Riggan’s self inflicted gunshot wound the film is presented in one, seemingly continuous, take planting the audience firmly in Riggan’s headspace and subjective perspective. This is Riggan’s story, which is reinforced by the fact that, although the camera does wander away from Riggan, from time to time, in order to train its unrelenting eye on other members of the ensamble, it is the narration and hallucinogenic/telepathic manifestations only inside of Riggan’s head to which the audience is granted narrative access. The camera never cuts away from this continuous take, that is, until Riggan fires the gun and drops to the stage, only then does the film waver and cut, multiple times, to a fever dream of images, and ultimately to a tilt skyward towards the light.
A bit on the nose? Maybe, maybe not. Speaking of noses, when Riggan does awake in the impossible hospital his face is now covered in gauze which strikingly resembles the cowl of his alter ego Birdman. He is informed, by what may be his only friend and exasperated lawyer, Jake, that he survived the ordeal due to the fact that when Riggan fired the gun he had missed his head and instead just blasted off his nose, and that this, in fact, is a good thing.
During the film he twice expresses concern over being overshadowed on the front page of the newspaper. First after lamenting the fact that if he had perished during a flight he shared with George Clooney, it would have been Clooney’s face on the front page not his. And again, after he is upstaged by Edward Norton, it is Norton’s face printed on the front page of the paper, not Riggan’s regardless of the fact that it was Riggan’s idea, investment, etc. But now, in the hospital room, Jake shows him the newspaper, its font page plastered with Riggan. The newpaper itself containing even more incredible news. The review that was promised to end his career, and perhaps another reason he killed himself, never materializes, instead he receives an incredible review validating his choices, applauding his bravery on stage, not his cowardly exit from life. There’s more. His ex-wife, whom he still loves, is there by his bedside. Earlier we see him regretting cheating on her so much so that he attempts suicide, another hint that Riggan is all to ready to kill himself when he can’t emotionally handle the consequences of his choices. Also, let’s not forget to mention the play is a hit, the television spits images of people from all over praying for him and lighting candles, his celebrity restored, his money troubles over, all stacked together it sounds absurd, and it is, unless you look at it as if this is a version of Riggan’s nirvana.
In his final moments, alone in the room, he pulls of the bandages and looks at his new face while Birdman, in full spandex, watches from the toilet. This suggests that perhaps, even though Birdman will always be a part of him, a part of his legacy and identity, that in death Riggan is able to remove the mask, to assume a new face, a new identity, and demote Birdman, the public version of him anyway, to the crapper. Riggan then leaves the bathroom, steps through the window of his hospital room (a metaphor for purgatory if there ever was one) and leaps.
Which brings us to Sam, his daughter, who enters the room, goes to the window, first looks down, then up as a strange smile creeps across her face. Earlier, Sam blasts Riggan with one of the more scathing speeches in the film. She runs her father straight through with a barrage of pellets seething with every emotion she has felt for her father; anger, disgust, exasperation, and honesty. But now, she arrives with flowers that are anything but the not-so-passively-aggressively delivered roses (a flower which Riggan hates) she gives him earlier in the film, only this time he smell them (due to the nose he shot off to spite his aging face.) They share a tender moment, things are now better than they have ever been in the past. After Sam comes back into the room and looks out the window I believe she does see her father, unbound by his earthy burdens, free to fly as he always imagined he could.
In this way Riggan goes out completely on his own terms. Yes, maybe this was not the ideal ending to his story, but it surely is one fitting of his character.
by Gregory J. M. Kasunich
He said he liked me, and that was enough.
He said he loved me, and that was enough.
He said he’d die for me, and that was enough.
He was dying, but not for me. He said it was normal to die.
He said everyone does it sooner or later. He failed to make me laugh.
I always laugh at his jokes, but not this time.
Amongst the miles of tubing surrounding him, running through him, filling and draining him I sat, unmoving and silent. Silent so I could hear the hiss and beep of the machines that kept his lungs moving inside his fragile chest. The machines: more alive than him. I sit so still, so very still and train my eyes to hold back, to stop from leaking their salty drops onto his cloudy cellophane skin, so pale it’s almost transparent.
He coughs and it rattles every bone like the bean shakers we used to make in school. Two paper plates and some hard beans stapled inside. We would make music together, late nights on the porch when the sky was an endless pool of ink, and the stars swam in nothingness. He would sing to me and I would sake the bean shaker and we would laugh until the sun scattered the stars from the sky and we awoke to find morning dew in our hair. We still make music. The heart monitors the metronome. The tubes, guitar strings. And he is the bean shaker.
It’s fast. One day, two weeks, three months, four years and your married. Studio apartment, two-bedroom apartment, a condo, a house and you have made a home. More than brick and mortar and carpet and pipes, it’s a home and it smells like your mothers cookies baking in the oven. And it smells like the pine tree in you grandfathers garden. The one he would take you under and tell you you were the queen of England, and this was your palace made of wood and bark and innocuous needles safe enough to touch. And it smells like him, like musk and man. And it smells like home. It is home. He works at nights and silently slinks in at four-thirty in the morning and I stay awake just to smell him. To touch him with soft hands and kiss him, inebriated on sleep and moving on instinct, I could see his smile with my eyes closed. I would wake up and he would still be lost in sleep and I would sit on the bed, unmoving, as not to shorten his slumber. Like a child he slept then, swimming in peaceful lucidity, and I watched losing myself in his tranquility and matching my breaths to his. And when he woke, breakfast would be there, right there where he liked to sit and eat, and everything would be covered in maple syrup, just the way he liked it and we were happy.
And the nurse says five more minutes. And the tin can intercom pages another doctor to the E.R. or O.R. And his eyes flutter open and then closed. And I know he is using all the strength he has to hold open his lids for just one more… one more… one more moment. I want to shout at him. Just tell him to stop, to fucking stop this dying shit. Tell him to come back home and I’ll make meatloaf like I promised that one night. The night you told me you missed you mother and I spent all day learning the recipe. I want to tell him to save his strength, to rest, but I can, the words lodge themselves in my throat, they cling to my uvula and dribble back down my trachea. I can’t because I know the moment those lids close might be the moment I never see his deep chocolate eyes again.
And gone, before the morning sun would finish rising. He would work so hard. I could see it in his hands and in his face. Once soft and radiant, now a little harder and a little duller. Each day, little by little, until his skin was textured like soft leather. You’re going to make yourself sick, I would say and he would scoff and tense his muscles, his strong arms, to prove his invincibility. The arms that used to hold me up. The arms that could hold the weight of the world, the weight of the universe and more, now crippled and useless, atrophied arms sprouting out of his emaciated torso like saplings covered in gossamer sheets. So withered and thin I turn off the oscillating bedside fan as to prevent the swaying gusts from unhinging his insubstantial arms. And he never complained. Tired and sore. Beat and battered. Aching and exhausted. Never a complaint. He would come to bed and smile, and when I asked why, he would say, because I love you, and that’s enough.
Two jobs to buy me the house, the house on Great Lakes Drive. The yellow one, like the sun, like flowers, so bright it leaked yellow beyond the shingles and into the neighborhood. The one you smile at because you know someone happy lives inside. Two jobs and two mortgages and two parents-in-law. He had everything to hate, but it wasn’t in him. Even then, looking at the house that would be our home, my heart swelled and though I never believed in God, I thanked him anyway. It was those years that made it worth it, it was only five years, but it would never be enough. An eternity would never be enough. After the stars burned themselves out, and the skies spilt themselves back into nothingness, I could still lay with him. But not now, the doctor said two months, maybe. Maybe. Maybe.
The years of good keep me here, watching him waste away to nothing. The years of hope and joy and love hold me to his bedside as he become less and less of the man I knew and more and more a corpse. And I would stay here forever and watch him die for everything he had been, for everything he had given. I sold the house, to pay the medical bills. I started working to feed the unborn child he does not even know is growing inside of me. I cry more tears than I knew I had, and some nights in the small apartment I run out of tears and dry sobs keep me conscious. And that is enough.