Skip to main content

You're the only other person in the world.

Anomalisa
(2015)

(SPOILERS) As with all Charlie Kaufman’s films, there’s brilliance in Anomalisa, points where he pins down the neurotic fragility underpinning our (individual) reality. This picture in particular is determined to make life additionally difficult for itself, however, by assuming the manner of its protagonist as a more remote, less accessible piece than, say Adaptation or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a state of affairs compounded by the uncanny stop motion animation. Anomalisa is slow, hypnotic, arresting, but while often profound in its insights, like the malaise of its central character it isn’t profoundly affecting.


Kaufman’s starting-point was the Fregoli delusion, whereby an individual may perceive others to be one person in disguise, and from such cerebral beginnings come cerebral, rather than emotive, filmmaking. He wrote Anomalisa initially as a radio (or sound) play, with the same cast of David Thewlis (as self-help author Michael Stone) and Jennifer Jason Leigh (as Lisa Hesselman, whom Stone meets at a conference and perceives to be different and special), with the other parts are all played by Tom Noonan. The puppets reflect this; Michael and Lisa are distinctly sculpted, but Noonan’s characters, reflecting Michael’s perception that everyone else is the same, are cast from the same mould but with different appliances (the features resemble a disconcerting amalgam of Imelda Staunton and Cillian Murphy).


Not a whole lot happens; Michael arrives at a hotel (The Fregoli), experiences various annoyances, attempts to hook up with an old flame, then meets Lisa, whom he seduces. But it’s the minutiae of these mundane or otherwise events that command attention. And, as is always the case with Kaufman, lurking within is the very real fear that something may be seriously awry with existence itself, as expressed through the antic aspect of a disturbed mind (a mind that exerts influence over others in its delusion). Most striking here are the moments where Michael appears to become aware of his nature as a puppet, an entity without true freewill, so giving substance to his fear, and so momentarily wrapping us in his mind-set.


Thewlis, a mere near-quarter of a century ago, wrapped us in another warped mind, that of Johnny in Naked, and if Michael Stone is much more subdued and repressed, he is no less disordered. In particular, his sexual gambits show him, above and beyond his persistent dismissiveness and short temper with others, to be entirely self-serving and manipulative. Married with a son, he shamelessly attempts to engineer a one night stand with Bella, the woman he deeply hurt when he abandoned her a decade before. All the time he bemoans how there is something wrong with him, but is his objectification of others the symptom or the cause? He quickly forgets about Bella when he comes across Lisa, but in turn, once he has had his satisfaction, the lustre wears off, and her features resolve into that pervasive identikit state.


The use of puppets, and eerily naturalistic puppets at that, is something of a stroke of genius, even if it was borne of circumstance rather than express intent (it was suggested by co-director Duke Johnson). Parts of Anomalisa, such as the unidealised intimate sex scene, are quite staggering, while others, such as the extended dream sequence, are already uncanny because the whole film is, and so attain an additional power.


If Michael ultimately reduces his experience to some rather banal statements (“What is it to be human, what is to be alive?” he asks his audience at the seminar), one might assume Kaufman’s ruminations and perpetual crisis of existential doubt result from an essentially atheistic position, since the self-involved appeals often bear a passing similarity to vintage Woody Allen. But while Kaufman is noncommittal (he merely passes opinion that “God is no kind of anthropomorphic entity, if he exists” which seems entirely reasonable), one nevertheless gets the impression that his characters are alone, isolated and bereft in their worlds, and the only sustenance the questionable soul can gain is fleeting contact with another. And, if they use and discard another, what difference does it make, because, after all, they are all alone, isolated and bereft in their world? Stone is fatigued with life, and nothing brings him joy, certainly not his wife and child (for whom he buys a Japanese sex doll because he can’t be bothered to make an effort with his shopping; notably his son is learning his father’s ulterior, possessive traits), and lust provides only a brief respite.


One might complain that Kaufman himself is an immensely intricate, self-involved one-trick pony; that he never says anything else. But then, if his engine is one of the discontented artist, unhappy with the illusion life consistently serves and unable to retrieve the truth within, without or wherever pertaining to it, finding a glimmer of light or hope would be to dampen his fuse (oh, for his earlier, funnier films!)


Anomalisa becomes particularly despondent (not that it isn’t enough anyway) if we conclude that “Lisa” is actually the Japanese sex doll (the one he presents to his son, mysteriously dripping with ejaculate) and his illicit encounter is actually no more than a particularly sweaty wet dream. Kaufman doesn’t like to provide answers to his content, no doubt because the mystery is part of the package, and the unadorned truth is much less thought-provoking (in this case, it may also be because both possibilities are equally valid – that the restored Lisa he sees as “her” letter to him is narrated, is also real). I think what separates Kaufman out, is that he manages to restate his abiding themes in different and contrasting contexts, and it’s usually only as one contemplates them with hindsight that the similarities converge. Perhaps, if he got to make more than one film every eight years, we’d become heartily sick of him going on and on and on again, but as it is, come 2024, his next picture ought to be every bit as rapturously received.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

We live in a twilight world.

Tenet (2020)
(SPOILERS) I’ve endured a fair few confusingly-executed action sequences in movies – more than enough, actually – but I don’t think I’ve previously had the odd experience of being on the edge of my seat during one while simultaneously failing to understand its objectives and how those objectives are being attempted. Which happened a few times during Tenet. If I stroll over to the Wiki page and read the plot synopsis, it is fairly explicable (fairly) but as a first dive into this Christopher Nolan film, I frequently found it, if not impenetrable, then most definitely opaque.

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).

I mean, I am just a dumb bunny, but, we are good at multiplying.

Zootropolis (2016)
(SPOILERS) The key to Zootropolis’ creative success isn’t so much the conceit of its much-vaunted allegory regarding prejudice and equality, or – conversely – the fun to be had riffing on animal stereotypes (simultaneously clever and obvious), or even the appealing central duo voiced by Ginnifier Goodwin (as first rabbit cop Judy Hopps) and Jason Bateman (fox hustler Nick Wilde). Rather, it’s coming armed with that rarity for an animation; a well-sustained plot that doesn’t devolve into overblown set pieces or rest on the easy laurels of musical numbers and montages.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

Old Boggy walks on Lammas Eve.

Jeeves and Wooster 2.5: Kidnapped  (aka The Mysterious Stranger)
Kidnapped continues the saga of Chuffnell Hall. Having said of 2.4 that the best Wodehouse adaptations tend to stick closely to the text, this one is an exception that proves the rule, diverging significantly yet still scoring with its highly preposterous additions.

Jeeves: Tis old boggy. He be abroad tonight. He be heading for the railway station.
Gone are many of the imbroglios involving Stoker and Glossop (the estimable Roger Brierley), including the contesting of the former’s uncle’s will. Also gone, sadly, is the inebriated Brinkley throwing potatoes at Stoker, which surely would have been enormous fun. Instead, we concentrate on Bertie being locked aboard Stoker’s yacht in order to secure his marriage to Pauline (as per the novel), Chuffy tailing Pauline in disguise (so there’s a different/additional reason for Stoker to believe Bertie and she spent the night together, this time at a pub en route to Chufnell Hall) and …

Do you read Sutter Cane?

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
(SPOILERS) The concluding chapter of John Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness) is also, sadly, his last great movie. Indeed, it stands apart in the qualitative wilderness that beset him during the ‘90s (not for want of output). Michael De Luca’s screenplay had been doing the rounds since the ‘80s, even turned down by Carpenter at one point, and it proves ideal fodder for the director, bringing out the best in him. Even cinematographer Gary K Kibbe seems inspired enough to rise to the occasion. It could do without the chugging rawk soundtrack, perhaps, but then, that was increasingly where Carpenter’s interests resided (as opposed to making decent movies).

I think World War II was my favourite war.

Small Soldiers (1998)
An off-peak Joe Dante movie is still one chock-a-block full of satirical nuggets and comic inspiration, far beyond the facility of most filmmakers. Small Soldiers finds him back after a six-year big screen absence, taking delirious swipes at the veneration of the military, war movies, the toy industry, conglomerates and privatised defence forces. Dante’s take is so gleefully skewed, he even has big business win! The only problem with the picture (aside from an indistinct lead, surprising from a director with a strong track record for casting juveniles) is that this is all very familiar.

Dante acknowledged Small Soldiers was basically a riff on Gremlins, and it is. Something innocuous and playful turns mad, bad and dangerous. On one level it has something in common with Gremlins 2: The New Batch, in that the asides carry the picture. But Gremlins 2 was all about the asides, happy to wander off in any direction that suited it oblivious to whether the audience was on …