What we talk about when we talk about jellyfish


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We need to talk about the jellyfish in Birdman

SPOILER ALERT! If you have not seen Birdman, go away as this post contains some serious spoilers.

Okay, so Birdman is about the link between art and madness, and selling your artistic integrity for a cheap buck. Okay, we know all that. It’s a fun, whacked out look at life in the theatre with some doozy performances and a lot of daring cinematography.

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But is it also about death? I think it might be. After all, the play that Riggan Thomson is mounting is an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”, a story that is about death and suicide as much as it is about love.

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At the very beginning of the film there is a quick shot – very quick, maybe half a second – of jellyfish washed up on a beach. The image is so fleeting that you might not even fully register it.

Late in the film Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) tells a story to his ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan) about how he was despondent after a marital row. He drove to their Malibu beach house, walked into the ocean and tried to drown himself, getting up to his chest in water, only to be turned back when he was attacked by a school of jellyfish. He struggled with them and made his way back to the beach.

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Jellyfish? It’s an odd story in an odd film. Riggan has reached perhaps his lowest point. The play he is mounting on Broadway is turning into a disaster; he can’t communicate with his druggy daughter Sam (Emma Stone); his girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough) is giving him grief he’s an insensitive asshole; his co-star Mike (Ed Norton) thinks he’s a Hollywood phony, as does the New York Times critic (Lindsay Duncan).

He is a broken man, and possibly insane (he hears the voice of his superhero character Birdman telling him he deserves better than all this). He doesn’t even know why he and his wife got divorced. “I wasn’t even present in my own life, and now I don’t have it, and I’m never going to have it.” It’s Keaton’s finest moment in the film, perhaps even in his entire career. If he upsets the odds and wins the Oscar, it may be because of this scene as much as for any of his other antics in the movie (including running through Times Square in his knickers).

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After I saw the film there was something about that jellyfish story that niggled at me. The image of the washed up jellyfish appears again at the movie’s end in a series of shots immediately following the moment when Riggan shoots himself on stage (with a real gun).

And so here are my thoughts on what the image might mean.

Riggan is dead the whole time.

He didn’t make it back from the ocean. The jellyfish swarm overwhelmed him, and he succumbed. When the image of the jellyfish is repeated towards the end of the film, is that large lump in the background perhaps Riggan`s body?

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Could it be that the entire movie, woozy trick cinematography and all, is what Riggan sees as he’s drowning? Bear in mind that the Malibu beach house in his story is the same one he refinances to save the play. Bear in mind also what he says is that scene in the dressing room with his ex-wife: “I wasn’t even present in my own life, and now I don’t have it, and I’m never going to have it.” And bear in mind the stage manager’s voice over the intercom telling him “The last scene has started and you’re not here.”

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After he shoots himself on stage the film then presents us with a surreal mixture of shots – including one of the jellyfish. Perhaps I’m wrong about him being dead all along; perhaps he only dies at the end, and the reverie of bizarre images – and the whole sequence in the hospital room – are his final thoughts.

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Or perhaps he is still alive and he really can fly.

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What do you think? Do you agree or do you think there’s another meaning? Could the jellyfish symbolise something else? Is Riggan still alive?

Of course, the jellyfish might just be, you know, jellyfish. After all, look at the note pinned to Riggan`s dressing room mirror. It`s that quote from Susan Sontag,  A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing.

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9 thoughts on “What we talk about when we talk about jellyfish

  1. I’ve just finally got round to reading this and I like the theory. I took from it that he died on stage when he shot himself and the scenes after that are his final thoughts, but you know what? It works either way!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. One of my favorite books, High Barbaree by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall (the guys who wrote Mutiny on the Bounty) is a story told as a man’s last thoughts. That allows elements of fantasy to work. I need to see the movie again to think about your jellyfish theory. But don’t we need a narrative point of view? Is everything we see happening to Riggins, happening before he dies? Is it all flashback?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. So, as I was stumbling along the internet, I came upon a story of a young Evelyn Waugh, who in his early 20’s, was despondent and decided to end it all in the sea. He wrote a note, in Greek, from Euripides that read “The sea washes away all human ills,” took off his clothes, and swam out into the ocean to drown. However, he was surrounded by a swarm of jellyfish and the pain made him retreat back to shore, where he rethought his decision to end it all. Reading this story, I thought it sounded incredibly familiar but I couldn’t place where… the I remembered Birdman. Don’t know what it adds to your theory, but I thought it was yet another cool literary allusion tucked inside this film that is full of them. (Perhaps Riggins knew the Waugh story and used it to garner sympathy from his ex-wife – total BS…)

    Liked by 1 person

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