Saturday, January 16, 2016

Anomalisa (2015)

Director: Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson
Writer: Charlie Kaufman
DP: Joe Passarelli
Editor: Garret Elkins
Score: Carter Burwell
Producer: Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson, Rosa Tran, Dino Stamatopoulos
Starring: David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan
Distribution: Paramount Pictures
Length: 1 hr. 30 min.

Anomalisa opens with a shot of an airplane moving through the clouds. We can hear the voices of various people before the camera pulls back and reveals that we were seeing through the window of another airplane, and from the perspective of the main character, Michael Stone. Michael is a quasi-famous expert on customer service traveling to Cincinnati to give a lecture to some business professionals.

By asking us to question the objectivity of our perspective and suggesting that we're seeing through Michael's own, this opening scene sets the stage for the symbolic device that dominates the film. All but two characters in the film, regardless of age or gender, have the same face and the same voice (that of Tom Noonan). Only Michael and the titular Lisa are unique. If we're seeing through Michael's perspective, this tells us there's something wrong with his perspective; the difficulty with Anomalisa is figuring out exactly what that is.

After landing in Cincinnati, Michael checks in at the Fregoli Hotel, where the rest of the film takes place. This is a reference to the Fregoli delusion, a mental disorder that causes the victim to believe that all other people are actually the same person taking on different appearances. This is often accompanied by paranoia. Both of these symptoms seem to apply to Michael, and would explain what we see in Anomalisa.

However, the film does not examine the Fregoli delusion as much as it uses its symptoms as a metaphor. Michael advises businesses to engage with their customers as individuals, to understand that each person comes with a story behind them. Despite this, even those who claim to have taken his advice don't offer him any more than canned small talk and the obviously-prescribed pleasantries of customer service. So, everyone he sees has the same face and everyone he hears has the same voice.

Michael's warped perspective may be inspired by the Fregoli delusion, but speaks more to social and cultural failings within the film's world. Michael has a more analytical mind than most people. The other characters he speaks to, with the partial exception of Lisa, repeat stock phrases, say idiotic and redundant things, or transparently act in their own self-interest. On one hand, the mindlessness of their discourse and unquestioning acceptance of culture makes them less isolated than Michael. On the other hand, they fail to examine things that may exert negative influences on them.

Depicting the tribulations of an analytical mind is a mainstay of Kaufman's films. We see it in Synecdoche, New York, in which the main character feels burdened with a desire to explicate everything in life and a fear that he'll die before he can achieve that. We see it in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, in which the central couple damage their relationship by constantly reading into each other's actions. Michael's struggle is revealed in an early scene in which he meets with an ex-girlfriend from 10 years before: we learn that they parted on bad terms, and his meeting with her does nothing to fix this. She leaves in anger once again, with Michael calling after her that he just wants to understand.

Michael professes to believe that everyone is unique and has a story behind them ("everyone has had a day," he says), but these things don't manifest in the world he sees. Why not?

The film's answer to this question is that Michael is a misanthrope; it's hard to avoid this suggestion when he thoughtlessly gives his child a sex toy as a gift. But there's an even more damning indictment of him in the film: his relationship with Lisa. She's the only person in the film who stands out to Michael, and he calls her "extraordinary" for it. However, he ends up objectifying her: after they have sex once, he begins to see her the same way he sees everyone else. A combination of voicing and monologue at the end of the film even suggests that he equates Lisa with the aforementioned sex toy.

The film's final shot - one of its few examples of subtle visual storytelling - finally gives us a reprieve from the device of having everyone share the same face and voice. It's also the only moment from which Michael is absent, and in that moment, Lisa professes a love for the world that Michael can't access.

The final shot, in combination with the film's characterization of Michael, would have us believe that he, for all his intelligence, fails to break through the essential barrier that exists between individual minds. This barrier is another of Kaufman's recurring concerns; unfortunately, the way it manifests in his films that treat on it, with the exception of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, often strikes me as sophomoric. Kaufman seems obsessed with the notion of physically climbing into another's head to make up for difficulty in expression, and it seems pointless to me to reduce human interactions down to such an arbitrary level of literalism. Even so, Kaufman often achieves substantial pathos from it, and I have to assume that his depiction of the world is at least true to his own experiences, so I can't criticize too much.

But even once I get past my instinctual distaste for that, I still find Anomalisa's conceit far too literal and externalized to function the way the film's final shot would suggest it's supposed to. The reference to the Fregoli delusion is too brief and esoteric to have an experiential effect, and Michael doesn't behave as if he perceives his surroundings as they're depicted. It's easy to accept it as metaphor when we see that everyone has the same face and voice, because it's so immediately bizarre; it's not so easy to accept all their behaviors and dialogue as metaphor as well, because nothing clues us into that.

As a result, even as the film exposes Michael's misanthropy (or whatever his mental state that causes harm to those around him), it makes mitigating attributions about it. The aforementioned way in which the other characters speak in redundant, patronizing language doesn't seem to come from within his perspective; if it does, the film fails to give that impression - or at least, that impression could only originate from strained speculation that has nothing to do with the actual experience of watching.

However unkind Michael may be, he's set apart from characters who are unequivocally portrayed as slaves to normalizing social influences. The film also portrays Lisa as someone who should, by all means, have the cognitive faculty to be happy, but is suppressed by the same influences: her candidness is not accepted by common courtesy, leading her to constantly self-deprecate.

Though there's no reason the film can't be critical of Michael and the world around him simultaneously, the way Anomalisa goes about it doesn't add up. For all that Michael harms himself and others, it suggests that he is in this difficult situation because he can singularly see what others can't, and even suggests that his behavior - which can be incredibly toxic - is somehow freeing to people with lesser minds. This might be interesting if only the film took his toxicity as seriously as his potential to help people, rather than using it for crude jokes at the expense of characters who aren't treated with complexity or humanity..

Instead, it's more a lamentation of the burdens of being intelligent. It's easy to take it that even without the filter of Michael's perspective, none of the other characters is his intellectual equal. Because of this, the information of final shot comes across as little more than mitigating, and even then, it's somewhat muddled: are we seeing the world as it is, and that it's deeper than Michael thinks? Or are we seeing it through Lisa's eyes, oblivious to the harshness that Michael perceives and elevated only by Michael's influence?

I'm willing to admit that my hesitation to fully embrace Anomalisa may be partly attributable to the fact that the ideology it may or may not be espousing doesn't sit well with me. But I also think that the film's different moving pieces don't work together; it both too heavy-handed and too subtle, telling us one thing but making us feel another. I suspect that even if I enjoyed this film any statements I would make regarding its condemnation of Michael's most toxic behaviors would only be lip service, and not born from any actual feeling that there was something wrong with his actions. To the extent that I did enjoy this film, I can say this with certainty.

Anomalisa's devices run against each other in such a way that some of its points come across as impotent, or worse, insincere (though I do think Kaufman is sincere). It is, though, an accomplished work: it's as remarkably creative as Being John Malkovich (which is a pretty high standard to meet), its comedy is effective, and even putting aside the animation itself, the way light bounces off its artificial surfaces has a unique appeal. It's an involving and imaginative film, but one that I don't feel is quite as successful as Kaufman's previous work.

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