Friday, February 12, 2016


I'm Your Puppet
Everyday's an Endless Stream/of Cigarettes and Magazines/Mm-mm-mm

Bear with me on this one: in writing this piece, the movie evolved for me—I "cracked" it in the process of writing this review, arriving late to what the movie was all about. I started writing, thinking it was about one thing, and realized about half-way in, that it was about something else far more relevant and far more universal. The tone of the piece will change, but, rather than go back and re-write with the new perspective, I thought it might be more informative to keep it as it was and let you follow me on my journey into the heart of Anomalisa.

A script by Charlie Kaufman is always something of a movie event—a mind-bending little comedrama that takes you someplace you haven't gone before, consider something you've never noticed, and stretch the capacity of the human. His scripts always remind me of early "Twilight Zone" episodes, particularly those of Charles Beaumont, that land so squarely in the "What if?" in-box of wish fulfillment: "What if I could live somebody else's life?" (Being John Malkovich); "What if I could forget a painful memory?" (The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind);"What if I could put my life in perpetual re-write?" (Synechdoche, New York); "What if I got a writing assignment I couldn't write?" (Adaptation.) Not everybody relates to that last one, but Kaufman's solution to it—write about the difficulty in writing it—has a "meta" quality to it that nicely shoe-horns into Kaufman's conceits and flights into the bizarre aspects of the ordinary...the ordinary from Kaufman's perspective.

Anomalisa (written by Kaufman and directed by him and animator Duke Johnson) is not that extraordinary a script—an author goes on a speaking engagement away from his family and spends the time seeking other relationships, mend fences, or otherwise bring some life to the travelling cog aspect of his life. The script is not much. There are some nice little ironies along the way, but it is, frankly, as ordinary and as beige a script about a business trip as you could find.
It's all in the presentation, however. This time, Kaufman the director has to bring out the best in Kaufman the writer. And the only way to do that is to take the movie out of the realm of the real and into the dream-world of make-believe and puppetry. It may be the only way the movie "plays," which is a detriment, but it does allow Kaufman the opportunity to expand beyond the words and use the image to tell the story, and the resonances that the story might not be providing.
Author Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewliss) is on his way to address a group of customer service representatives for a convention, in part to promote his book on customer relations. While on the flight to Cincinnati, he pulls out a letter from a woman he had had a fleeting affair with—in Cincinnati. The letter is a bitter, curse-punctuated screed scrawled in bitterness and pain. So, of course, he may be looking her up when he's in town. Why he might be pursuing so fool-hardy and selfish an idea will be intimated later. But, author Stone talks a good game about customer relations, preaching about treating everybody in the way they'd like to be treated, as individuals with unique backgrounds and singular experiences. It's a good thesis.
But, the practice by Stone is a little less rose-colored. Assuming that we're looking at the world through his eyes, he really doesn't see anyone as individuals. Save for himself, every single person (well, puppet-person) has the exact same face and is voiced by the exact same actor (Tom Noonan, to whom we respectfully bow. Bravo!). Everybody is the same.* One could say (practically and metaphorically) that when it comes to Stone, they broke the mold—he has a care-worn middle-aged face, he speaks with a British accent, and where most folks are at least charitable, he's a little impatient and crusty—hardly the best preacher for customer relations.
So, Stone's a hypocrite. Not much to complain about, really; everybody is hypocritical about some-thing, we all have a theoretical ideal that we might hedge a little bit for expedience.  That's part of being human. What we don't hedge on defines character. But, he is such an essential hypocrite, that he might as well be a politician—his world-view and responses being opposite to what he says and what he may believe he means. And this is not a man so debilitated that he doesn't have a choice (like, say, Scottie, in Vertigo). 
Stone is haunted by the woman he left behind in Cincy
But, there may be a "debilitation" of sorts: the name of the hotel Stone is staying at is the Fregoli. There is a mental condition called "the Fregoli delusion"** which is an aspect of paranoia, where the sufferer believes that they are encountering different people who, in their minds (I was about to say "in fact"), are one individual in various disguises (and when this was originally a play for a test-reading, Kaufman's nom de plume on the script was "Francis Fregoli"). If this is an aspect of Fregoli, it might be a misdiagnosis, because Stone sees and regards everyone the same, right down to the tenor of their voice.
There is one point of the script where he snaps out of it—he hears a different voice outside his room—and in what can be described as "needy panic" he runs out of his room trying to find that "different voice" (it is Jennifer Jason Leigh's) and when he finds it, he pursues a relationship with "Lisa" (who, actually does have a different face than everybody else). For that length of time, he is ecstatic, wanting to break out of his current situation—abandoning wife and kid and starting a whole new life with this individual in the pursuit of something new, different, less...monotonous. 
And that is the key. It isn't that Stone is suffering from paranoia or a brain lesion or a psychological trauma. It is that his life, exemplified by this business trip and the uniformity and repetitiveness of his life and surroundings—his room at the Fregoli Hotel looks like every hotel-room I've ever stayed in—is monotonous to the psyche-breaking point. So desperate is he for a change to the monotony that he will even risk a meeting with his former lover just to see her face, or see if her face is different from the ones that permeate his life, as it once used to be. He was attracted to her at one time, but at some point, the "sameness" set in and her appearance changed. Could she have changed back to what he once remembered? Could that "magic" be re-captured?
The "monotony" of the Fregoli Hotel room may be a factor.
Esquire, in its review, called this "The most human story of the year." I initially dismissed that as piffle, the magazine's attempt to make an easy, ironic blurb in that it is populated by puppets, not human actors. But, that blurb may be entirely appropriate. Most movies, this year in particular, have been all flash and burn, highlight reels of life, editing out the dull parts and featuring the desperation, rather than the quiet. Test-pilots call their jobs "long stretches of tedium punctuated by sheer terror." Anomalisa shows the terror associated with the long stretches of tedium that make up a normal life not surrounded by multi-million dollar aerodynamic engineering and that's what makes it unique among movies. What other film would even attempt it, trying to attract the attention of a dollar-spending populace looking for escapism, rather than a mirror? There's not a Jedi knight or a super-hero in view (and one suspects if they did they'd have the same bland face). Anomalisa shows the modern melancholia of a "good life" not being good enough.
And it is true that the screenplay is fairly dull...pedestrian. It is only in the presentation of the situation with stop-motion animation and its limited expression by doll-faces that the truth-by-metaphor comes out with a clarity that could not be accomplished with real actors (and hell, it couldn't be accomplished with real actors). It presents an ordinary life by extraordinary means, and in its small way, is a bit of a miracle, creating a "Prufrockian" study of the pedestrian life in a way that compels us and makes us see the drama in the very ordinary.  It is not a dull thing to make something so universal and emblematic of life of America in the 21st century. Although the situations may seem different, it is the thrown stone in calm waters that create ripples of recognition. Do not ask for whom the elevator bell tolls. It tolls for thee.

Going up or going down?

It might have been interesting, for just a fleeting moment, for Kaufman to break the subjective barrier (and he had one one very obvious place to do it) and let us see the world—and Stone—from one of the other people's perspectives: would he have the same face and voice from all the other people that they encounter? That would have been a very interesting expansion of the film, and a telling (if depressing) comment on Kaufman's life-view.***

* If that seems familiar, it's because Kaufmann and Spike Jonezz did the same thing in Being John Malkovich when Malkovich enters the secret room that puts him inside his own psyche. The feed-back loop lets him see everybody as images of himself, all expressing themselves with the single word: "Malkovich!" 
"Yes! We are all individuals!"
** It may also be a result of the inability of the brain to "read faces" as individual. There's an interesting bit on this episode of Radiolab about this condition know as "face-blindness." But, again, I don't think this has anything to do with Kaufman's thesis. 

*** And, actually, he does: in a coda to the film, we're not with Stone at all, we're with Lisa, driving back with her friend (who has her own non-monotonous face now) from the conference—a breezy, sun-dappled, hopeful affirmation of life and possibility. I guess Stone's book works, after all, despite himself.

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