What does the film Birdman have to do with playfinding? Playfinding, as defined here, is the concept of transforming the taxing and often austere act of navigating into a delightful, enchanting experience. Or, to repeat a Chinese proverb: “the journey is the reward.”
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman is a journey, one that we undertake on the shoulder of actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) in one seemingly continuous ramble full of eddies, detours, rest stops and repeats — some fantastical and some pedestrian in all senses of that word. Critics call it a “rollercoaster,” an overused accolade printed on action movie posters. But it is indeed a rollercoaster: an immersive, choreographed odyssey infused with the technical and emotional machinations that elicit uppercase “Thrill.”
Great thrill rides suspend belief and arrest physics. Did I really lift off my seat on that last dip? Was that an apparition screeching in my ear or was it you? Birdman’s first image on screen—a floating, meditating Riggan—rips us from the Newtonian world, but quotidian details telegraph to us that this is also an unremarkable world, one with peeling paint and balding men in ill-fitting briefs. He may be hovering above the ground in yoga position, but he is a bit wobbly and unkempt.
I felt the initial adrenaline rush of a rollercoaster’s ascent to the top of the first hill in the first scene—time and space within Riggan’s dressing room skittered forward like a syncopated skipped rock. I grabbed my husband’s arm instinctively, as if girding myself for the g-forces to come. I hadn’t felt this gush of anticipation in a theater since Amanda Plummer as Honey Bunny climbed onto the diner booth in the first scene of Pulp Fiction.
We are intoxicated by joyrides that propel us through an array of peculiar and unexpected spaces: panoramic summits drop into dark tunnels; a hard right careens into a dizzying spiral. In Birdman, Riggan (and Iñárritu’s camera) hesitates in narrow corridors for whispered conversations, blasts out to glaring stage lights in the cavernous (sometimes empty / sometimes packed) St. James Theater, shoves us into the chaotic crowds of Times Square, and alights gently on rooftops for meditative pauses. By the time we actually fly through the city streets with Riggan in his schlumpy overcoat, our bodies have acclimated to the gyroscopic tilts and swerves of Regan’s story.
Exhilarating rides often inject a bit of humor to keep us off kilter and distract us from the next plunge. In Disney’s classic Haunted Mansion, green ghosts hitchhike along our path and slip into our carriage: hilarity ensues. Iñárritu enlists the comedic chops of Keaton, Zach Galifinakis and Ed Norton in physical rumbles, snide asides, and blustery monologues. Each laugh refuels the engine for the next wave of swerves and spins.
After 119 minutes of dizzying adventure, Birdman gently returns us to earth and its Newtonian laws. As we disengage from the story and exit the theater, the sense memories of the journey we embarked on with imperfect protagonist Riggan Thomson envelope us: we didn’t watch a story—we ricocheted through Iñárritu’s world leaving an enchanting narrative in our wake and in our minds.