Published in L.A. Weekly
If Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) wins the Best Picture Oscar will we hear the whole title?
And the name will, indeed, read Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) on the Oscar envelope if it were to win. Come Sunday, it has the chance to become the longest-titled Best Picture winner of all time.
And yes, to address your now squinty-eyed expression of disgust, that is the punctuation — or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).
The filmmaker's intention probably was to place the whole subtitle entirely within parentheses, as in (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), so that this second title issue read as an aside. But the “or” fell out somewhere along the way. The fact that someone let this pass means that perhaps no one was really taking this second title thing too seriously anyway.
What to make of a second title that no one uses?
Since we all call it Birdman, as in the sentence “Let’s go see Birdman,” this second title exists in name only. Even Wikipedia seems to be confused. Iñárritu, of course, isn’t being revolutionary — Stanley Kubrick famously named his film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, and similar titles show up across media.
I've always had trouble with these titles, thinking them to be lazy or disingenuous, trying to have it both ways. But after a journey down the dual title rabbit hole, and a more nuanced picture, I'm ready to be accepting — to a point.
A famous early example in novels is Mary Shelley's 1818Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. Paula Feldman, a professor at the University of South Carolina and co-editor of the The Journals of Mary Shelley, points out that dual titles were in vogue then, as one of the earliest novels was Samuel Richardson's Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (1740), and Mary Shelley's father and mother each published double title novels.
“Personally, I love the practice and am pleased that it is coming back,” she says via email. “It allows an author (or a screen writer) to gesture towards a theme.”
She adds of Shelley, “In addition to claiming mythic status for her story, she lets us know through the allusion to Prometheus, before we read the first sentence, that Victor Frankenstein is an over-reacher, whose story will not end well.”
It cropped up earlier in theater, where one of the most famous is William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, or What You Will. “It wasn't done a lot, but enough so that it would not have been considered unusual” during Shakespeare’s time, says Georgianna Ziegler, the head of reference at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC., via email.
The play was written for a festival at a London law school, “an annual frolic when duty and convention were ignored,” writes Herschel Baker, editor of the Signet Classic edition, as quoted by Ziegler. “Even the subtitle — What You Will — repudiates, or so it seems, the drab and probable for the promise of the unexpected.”
More recently, in Edward Albee’s 2002 The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia, the first title is the answer to the question in the second, which comes from a song in Two Gentlemen of Verona.
In titling 2009's In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play), I thought perhaps playwright Sarah Ruhl was — like The Goat, which deals with bestiality — dancing around her subject matter, and that the dual title would be less necessary if it were about some more benign battery-powered device, such as In the Next Room (or The Alarm Clock Play).
But instead: “The working title of the play was The Vibrator Play. Very utilitarian,” Ruhl says by email. “Then I decided the scope of the play was bigger than that title suggested. So I added In the Next Room. I wonder if most people add subtitles rather than adding titles.”
Both are great plays, with delicate topics that merit titles that have been closely considered — and that are coy, even. But the confusion of dual title makes you hesitate — maybe even feel embarrassed — to mention the play to someone else.
As Ruhl rightly implies, these alternate titles are distinct from subtitles. In the novel Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life, the subtitle is not meant as a replacement. A Study of Provincial Life would not quite work as a substitute for the original title. The “or” implies that dual titles are horizontal, while a subtitle is a second tier.
In nonfiction books, subtitling is so common as to seem obligatory. Art exhibits use them, too. With titles and their subtitles, the catchy brings you in and the explanatory seals the deal. Though sometimes it invites lazy title-writing, such as the Crystal Bridges Museum’s redundant “State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now.”
Some media blur the line between second title and subtitle, as when a song slips in parentheses, as in “(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction.”
Architecture occasionally does it for funding or honorary reasons — most people use “South Coast Repertory” to describe both the company and the building where it performs, but the building is officially called the David Emmes/Martin Benson Theatre Center.
Food, meanwhile, is too busy being useful. I’d like to see Iñárritu open up an Italian joint and serve “pepperoni pizza, or (the descent into a caloric abyss).”
Visual art brings the strangest version of this trend. Here an artwork rarely has two alternate titles. More often, it can’t even decide whether to have a title in the first place.
Often you see a title like Untitled (Gate), a work by Jim Hodges that was recently at the Hammer Museum. It’s either Untitled in order to not bias the viewer as to what the sculpture depicts, or Gate in order to let the viewer know that the sculpture depicts a gate.
“My guess is it functions as a footnote or afterthought or subtitle,” says Connie Butler, the head curator at the Hammer. Though isn't “subtitle” too generous? Sure, the parentheses imply it’s secondary. But this is a field where exhibits get true subtitles all the time. The title and subtitle work together. If you dismissively waste your first title by dismissively calling it “Untitled,” why do you get a second chance?
She adds, “The artist doesn't want to burden the work too heavily with a text or title, but for him there is this additional sub-narrative or meaning at play,” pointing to Hodges’ Untitled (Love). It would simply be too much to call the work Love. The current title “downplays the heavy symbolic nature of that word by putting in parentheses, and yet it's still there and it's descriptive. Love is the subject.”
Here I’m more understanding. But still, two titles seems like a lose-lose proposition. It leaves you with the pretensions of the first title with the spoiler of the second.
Calling a work Untitled is like the Schrodinger's cat conundrum, where a cat's in the box but you don't know whether it's dead or alive. Adding a second title is like cutting a peephole into the box — and yet you’re still insisting it’s a Schrodinger's cat. It's uncertain what the title is, or the title is Gate.
Amir Nikravan, whose Untitled (Site 9) was at Various Small Fires in Hollywood in the fall, says that for conceptual art such as his, the title is a part of the work. It's untitled in that it seems to be just another abstract image, but it's made using a process that involves putting fabric across rocks and vacuum-sealing the whole thing in plastic. The rocks in the process make it a sort of earth work, or landscape — leading to the term “site.”
“The idea of something both untitled and titled does feed back into what the work is about,” he says. “Both abstract and concrete, unnamable and more mystical.”
Strangely, Birdman's second title has a similar explanation. Iñárritu recently told the Associated Pressthat the second title is part of the film’s “meta-reality.”
Birdman is his first comedy, the cinematography appears to be one single shot, it has two titles — Iñárritu's overly ambitious, just like the film's protagonist, who’s starring in his own stage adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story. The stage play for Keaton’s character is like the film for Iñárritu — just as Michael Keaton is playing a version of Michael Keaton. It's similar to Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, in which the second title plays along with the absurdity of the film.
Reading the Iñárritu interview, I have to admire the balls on the guy.
The second title is part of his attempting something great. He’s playing on the two-title thing — he’s having fun with it. Plus, he adds, “Better the full title, but honestly I understand we have to be practical.”
And I’m always thankful we never really have to use the whole name. The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, a phrase that shows up late in the film, is gesturing at a theme, as Professor Feldman puts it, but it's a wild gesture — it feels too message-y, giving away too much.
And the “or” implies a duality that does not occur in practice. The existing title is an invitation to call the movie The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, instead of Birdman. Really, it’s telling us, you can say, “Let’s go see The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance.”
But we all know we can’t. People wouldn’t know what we’re saying. It’s an empty invitation, to a party that does not exist. What comes after the “Let’s go see” or the “What did you think of” or the “I can’t believe they gave the Oscar to” is the point of the title in the first place. Titles are necessarily utilitarian, not necessarily symbolic.
Let's just hope that when Jack Nicholson or Steven Spielberg or whoever megastar presenting Best Picture opens the envelope and sees Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), he doesn’t feel too embarrassed to slip in that second name before the applause.
Let’s hope the telecast includes the full title below Iñárritu’s name. Perhaps viewers will think, “That's super-cool how the ambitions signaled by the second title play into the film's meta-reality.” Or the Oscar voters will realize, embarrassed, that the film they voted for has a second title, and the grand tradition will be shamed into obscurity. It will be the ultimate unexpected virtue of ignorance.