When Does Ambiguity Become Pointless?
Recently I saw a film I have been meaning to watch for years, The Shining, one of the most haunting and mysterious films in American cinema. Unlike most horror films, or films in general for that matter, The Shining can never be understood because it keeps the rules of its fictional world vague while delivering twists which are not and cannot be explained. However, another might argue that this ambiguity is not brilliance, but laziness on the part of the filmmakers involved; the film’s unsolved mysteries may be expertly crafted horror to some, but they might look like plot-holes to others. There are many beloved films with ambiguous endings, but is it valid to view such endings as indolent twists meant to confuse an audience rather than create thematic depth? When does ambiguity stop being ‘ambiguous’, and become pointless?
(Spoiler Alert: This editorial contains spoilers for Birdman, The Shining, The Dark Knight Rises, Inception.)
Before I examine the line between ambiguity and pointlessness, I must explain the general difference between a plot-hole and an ambiguous moment. A plot-hole is a moment in the film which should be impossible given the film’s logic, a commonly referenced and recent example being how Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight Rises traveled half-way across the world to fight the film’s antagonist without access to his vast array of resources. An ambiguous moment in a film does not necessarily have to defy the film’s own logic, it simply must present a situation which can be interpreted multiple ways. A famous example of this is the final shot of Inception, in which the viewers are left uncertain whether the entire film has been a dream.
Ambiguous moments can defy a film’s logic however, and that is where the division between ambiguity and pointlessness becomes unclear. The final shot of The Shining shows an image of the main character in the year 1921, looking exactly as he does throughout the film, which takes place around 1980. How is this possible? The film never explains. Some might argue that this moment mirrors the plot-holes in The Dark Knight Rises rather than the ending of Inception, and that the final shot is nothing more than a pointless twist created to confuse audiences at the last moment. Given the definitions of plot-holes and ambiguity, the final shot of The Shining can arguably fit into either category. Characters hint at the fact that the main character, Jack Torrance, has been alive far longer than even he realizes, but the film does not explain how this is possible. It leaves the audience to connect the dots, but it is not long before that one realizes it is impossible to connect said dots because several moments just don’t make sense. At the same time, many have argued that is The Shining’s unexplainable scenes that make it such a terrifying and masterful film. In Roger Ebert’s review of Kubrick’s classic, he describes the film as a “closed-room mystery: In a snowbound hotel, [in which] three people descend into versions of madness or psychic terror, and we cannot depend on any of them for an objective view of what happens”, and specifically cites the ambiguity as a positive, stating that “It is this elusive open-endedness that makes Kubrick’s film so strangely disturbing.”
So why is it that The Shining’s unexplainable moments work while those in The Dark Knight Rises do not?
I think this question touches on something more important in the world of fiction, which is that the rules a certain story must follow depend on what purpose that story is attempting to achieve. Most films are required to have a cohesive narrative if they are to satisfy audiences, but The Shining’s goal is to terrify, and this is more easily achieved if the audience doesn’t understand what’s happening. Lack of information is unsettling, it is the same reason people are afraid of the dark, and in a horror film it can be used with tremendous effect. The Shining cannot be understood, but because its purpose is to frighten it doesn’t need to be, it only needs to terrify its viewers.
The Dark Knight Rises on the other hand is attempting to function as the end of The Dark Knight trilogy, a trilogy which is bolstered by heavy explorations of moral philosophies and a strong sense of realism, and it’s that second attribute which explains why the film’s plot holes stand out. A large part of why so many critics and audiences loved The Dark Knight, was that they believed it could happen. The Joker wasn’t wearing the comical make-up of the 1989’s Batman, instead he wore disturbing face-paint and bore nasty scars; the police seemed to operate in accordance to laws, and Batman’s weaponry seemed only slightly above military grade technology, and nowhere near the fictional complexity of Iron Man’s armor. Since the plot-holes in The Dark Knight Rises do not service the story, they detract from the film in a way that The Shining’s ambiguous moments (which, in my opinion, can fairly be considered plot holes) don’t.
Using this lens, it is far easier to discern between well-done ambiguity and ambiguity which hampers a film; the question becomes: how does an ambiguous scene function, not in isolation, but with respect to the remainder of the film? Does it improve the experience, or does it serve no purpose?
If the ending to a film confuses the viewer, but improves the experience, just as the final shot of The Shining does, then the ambiguity serves its purpose well.
A more recent acclaimed film (best picture winner) with an ambiguous ending is 2014’s Birdman, starring Michael Keaton and directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. In the film, Riggan Thompson (Keaton), a former celebrity who played the role of the superhero Birdman, attempts to salvage his vocation by starring and writing a Broadway play. Throughout the film, Riggan sees supernatural events occurring around him, but it is never stated if these events are real or only happening in his head. In several scenes Riggan is either suspended in the air or flying, while in others he lifts objects with his mind. In the final shot of the film, Riggan leaps out of a window, and his daughter runs to see if he has fallen, only to slowly look up into the sky and smile. So what happened? Did Riggan fly away, did his daughter mentally snap, did his daughter see some funny banner in the sky? The film never gives an answer, and Iñárritu has even stated that the ending “can be interpreted as many ways as there are seats in the theater”.
Birdman is a trickier example to examine because its ambiguity lies not merely in plot, but also in its themes. Depending on your interpretation of the film, you might walk away from Birdman with a completely different message than the next viewer, and while this is somewhat expected in the abstract it is far more likely to occur when the filmmakers intend it to. Birdman was written with the explicit intent of being open to interpretation, but one might argue that Iñárritu was foregoing responsibility for constructing concrete thematic depth, in favor of allowing the audiences to piece it together themselves. This raises an important question: should writers be expected to know the themes in their own fiction? If a writer slaps together an ambiguous work of fiction, with no idea what themes, if any, are tucked inside of it, and pushes said work to the public, should it be considered a great work of art? Do the online theorists and veteran film critics who attempt to salvage some sense of meaning from the film deserve credit for injecting depth into a film, credit which is usually reserved for the writers and director?
This question is easy to ignore for a horror film, because whether or not the film has anything to say, so long as it successfully scares its audience it usually achieves its goal. However, for a film like Birdman this question is incredibly important. While I would argue that Birdman is a phenomenal film due to its dialogue, performances, and cinematography, I would also question whether ambiguity aided its storytelling. Do the scenes where Riggan flies make the film better, or are they just added fluff to make the film seem mysterious and sophisticated?
As much as I love Birdman, I do not believe the ambiguous moments throughout its runtime make it any better; rather, I would argue that they serve to keep the film in the viewer’s head. If the viewer questions what is real and what is fake in a film, they might feel like an active participant rather than a passive observer. I view the ending of Inception the same way; if the film was a dream, it has no real effect on the themes present, but questioning the realness of each scene engages the viewer even after they leave the theater. But the ending of Birdman is different, because the themes the viewers take away depend on their interpretations of the film.
Before Riggan jumped out of his window in Birdman, he shot himself in the head with a handgun while performing his Broadway play. It is never stated if Riggan had planned to kill himself or if he had merely planned to wound himself, but either way he wakes up in a hospital bed in the following scene with the news that he has both blasted his nose off and received a new one. He finds that his gory performance won him the adoration of fans and critics across the world, and after sharing a tender moment with his daughter, he opens the hospital window and leaps into the air.
There are two very popular theories explaining what happened, one of which states that Riggan died on stage after shooting himself and hallucinates the remainder of the film right before dying, while the other states that Riggan shot himself on stage, survives, and after seeing the fruits of his labor decides to kill himself.
If you adhere to one of these theories, then you must accept one distinct theme. If Riggan dies on stage, then he never actually sees the fruits of his labor, and made a mistake by shooting himself. But if Riggan does not die on stage, then he receives praise because he shot himself on stage, as an article read to him once he wakes up states that “Blood was spilled both literally and metaphorically by artist and audience alike, real blood. The blood that has been sorely missing from the veins of the American theater”, and so his decision to shoot himself was the right decision, as he was finally able to achieve his goal because of it.
Birdman’s themes are open to interpretation, and that begs the question, is that a good thing? Is giving the task of deciphering a film’s message to the audience a step to far, and if the writers intended the film to have many possible themes, does it even have a theme?
I view ambiguous films as a type of art different than traditional blockbusters or dramas; rather than attempting to serve as a straightforward piece, where almost everyone sees the same thing, they function to spark conversation and generate separate interpretations.
If an ambiguous film manages to spur discussion, present an array of interesting ideas, and spark viewers’ minds into action, it has successfully achieved its goal. But ambiguous films can be poorly constructed, exhibiting a confusing and pointless string of images and ideas that irritate the viewer, shutting down peoples’ minds rather than opening them.
Subjectivity will always be present in the discussion regarding ambiguity, and viewers will almost always disagree on whether certain ambiguous films deserve praise or reproach. But I would argue that treating ambiguous films as a separate branch of motion pictures, without the restraints of conventional filmmaking, clears up some of this debate. If a film is not trying to make sense, it doesn’t have to, so long as it still has something interesting, exciting, or important to show its viewers.