During a tangent in a consultation group, a professional colleague expressed remorse and frustration that the movie “Birdman” had not committed to delusion or reality during, or at the end, of the film! Without giving too much away, for it is a movie that works best the less you know going in (hence the subtitle:The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance?) I will opine that this ambiguity is one of its greatest accomplishments! The need to decide whether you are viewing truth or delusion is one of the delicious thrills of “Birdman”as you descend deeper into Riggan Thomson’s (Keaton’s) psyche.
Before I discuss the film, I will digress to say that while the issues we grapple with in therapy might not always be as existentially or artistically threatening as what we witness in “Birdman”, the ability to tolerate ambiguity is both a hallmark of clinical skill, and necessary when viewing this movie. Parallel to tolerating ambiguity is tolerating madness. A former instructor in my earlier training once offered her firm opinion that, “There is nothing romantic about mental illness”. I disagreed at that time, but couldn’t articulate exactly why.
The movie “Birdman” helps me to say why and how. The journey portrayed, of Thomson’s inner experience of potential madness is captured in a visually powerful way as the Birdman persona encroaches into his psyche over the course of the movie. His personal struggle is romantic, and dramatic, as he fights to maintain his sanity as well as excelling artistically within the grips of debilitating internal voices telling him what a wimp he is, or his daughter Sam railing at him for how relevant he isn’t (incredible acting by Emma Stone!) My former teacher’s declaration misses the point: mental illness is “romantic” from within or least makes a good movie!
While my consultation colleague was disappointed with no firm answers at the end of the movie, I again disagree. Meaning is offered in the final shot of the film. As people seeking more literal meaning, or definite answers, we may not like the end of the film. And like the family members of the mentally ill, it is understandable that we don’t find the confusion and lack of clarity of their symptoms “romantic”. Our real world clarity is challenged from the beginning of “Birdman”. By the time we reach the end of the film, we have been on a wondrous, romatic, dramatic, confusing and tension-filled journey. Again, the stuff of great film-making, and an Oscar-winning effort.
(If my discussion seems limited it’s because I’m seeking not to give much away about the film! There are many subplots, great acting by Edward Norton, among others, and amazing cinematography to enjoy in this movie).