Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
January 2016


How to succeed in self-help without really caring

True to form, Charlie Kaufman is hilarious, bleak, complex in his stop-motion debut, Anomalisa

Paramount Pictures
Director: Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson
Screenplay: Charlie Kaufman, based on his play
Starring: The voices of David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Tom Noonan
Rated R / 1 hour, 30 minutes
Now playing in limited release
(out of four)

The common thought goes that narcissists - at least a certain brand of narcissists - tend to make good leaders. Humble narcissists, to be more specific. That logic could go a long way toward understanding the protagonist of Charlie Kaufman's Anomalisa, a depressive narcissist who also happens to be the foremost leader in the field of customer service.

Or, perhaps, it could not. Because it's Kaufman, and I can't presume to declare the significance of one detail or another, or reduce one of his characters to a simple category distinction. (This is a guy, after all, whose directorial debut was ostensibly about the entire human experience.) At any rate, Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) is admired for his ability to connect with people - it's made him a bestselling author of such books as How Can I Help You Help Them? - but that skill does not appear to extend beyond a professional capacity.

Privately, people barely even register as individuals - if at all. From airplanes to cabs to the front desk at the hotel - encountering more than his share of people in some form of customer service, I might add - he sees the same face, hears the same voice (all voiced by the great character actor Tom Noonan). Is this symptomatic of his particular area of success, or in spite of it? Perhaps it doesn't matter. Michael has made a career of perfecting the façade of interpersonal relations, a discipline that may - like other forms of communication on a mass or generalized scale - inherently neutralize the concept of an individual. Turn human empathy into a catalogued business model and maybe you begin to stop seeing people as people.

Or maybe he's just an asshole.

Though Anomalisa was originally written and performed as an audio play (poster tagline: "Leave your eyes at home!"), the fact that the screen adaptation is performed by puppets adds an extra layer of poignance to the film's ideas and characterizations. (Hey wait a second, you know who once wrote a movie about puppetry? Charlie Kaufman! Dammit, let's not get sidetracked.)

The characters are brought to life in a form of stop-motion that embraces a certain artifice (the groove separating the top and bottom piece of each character's face is always visible, like a permanent laceration right across the eyes), yet gets across so much in the eyes and physical movements. It doesn't come as any surprise that Kaufman's characters - always so richly rewarding - should come across just as vividly even in such a different form. Their complications, foibles, infatuations and anxieties are beautifully intact.

Michael is not an entirely unsympathetic character, by any means. The film is smart in the way it allows us to identify with his experiences early on - the little annoyances, absurdities, and mundanities he faces, especially while being surrounded almost entirely by strangers. Not wanting to be talked to by the overly friendly cab driver. Not wanting to be cheered up by the overly cheerful bellhop. Wanting to be left alone - or at least alone with your thoughts, alone to observe the amusing idiosyncrasies of those around you. (Hey, we're all a little judgmental.) In his case, he's alone in an unknown city - Cincinnati, the latest stop on his convention-center tour to promote his latest self-help tome - and endures all the loneliness and alienation that comes with it.

Then again, we get the sense he feels that same loneliness and alienation no matter where he is - even with his family, even among those who consider themselves friends. (When he calls his wife and son from the hotel phone, they have Tom Noonan's voice, too.) Which is not to say he doesn't yearn for human connection - he does, and may be generally unaware of the (largely self-absorbed) reasons it eludes him, or is so fleeting when he does find it. (The film's standout comedic setpiece is a dream sequence in which everyone he encounters is madly in love with him, bordering on love-potion-like obsession, starting with the halting, apprehensive come-on from the hotel manager - who sits at his desk at the far end of a cavernous, surreally lit basement office - and extending to everyone he runs past as he tries to escape their grasp. To him, this is a nuisance, a nightmare he can't comprehend; to us, this fantasy seems logically fitting - and hilariously so - with everything we know about him.)

The connection he quite unexpectedly finds is Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a shy woman he meets at the hotel bar (along with her Noonan-voiced friend), who turns out to be quite a big fan of Michael's book. She's kind, uncertain, self-conscious, and he takes to her almost instantly (much to her surprise).

There's a feeling you get when you first meet someone - that ecstatic feeling that makes her seem completely new. Like there's no one else like her on the planet. The chemistry and eventual romance that develops between Michael and Lisa is absolutely genuine, advancing from flirty small talk to quiet conversation to awkward sex. His affections are real - although, he tends to talk about her in terms of her commonness; he specifically compliments her flaws; there's a perceptible condescension (as unintended as it may be) to his manners and behaviors toward her.

The relationship as it unfolds is sweet and honest, but with hints of despair lurking underneath. At last he has found someone who doesn't blend in with everyone else. At last.

How long that perception and that euphoria will last is a different question altogether.

Anomalisa takes place mostly in the hotel, called The Fregoli - named after a rare delusion in which one believes that other people are in fact the same person, a reference I'll let speak for itself - but the film's main character could also have been right at home in the Hotel Earle out in L.A., discovering a kinship with one Barton Fink. Both Michael and Barton - lead character of the Coens' 1991 masterpiece of the same name - claim, in one way or another, to harbor a deep understanding of the common man. Both, it turns out, have no such understanding - or if they do, it's only to the extent that it helps their vocation. They are detached, isolated men, neither with the ability to empathize with those they claim to represent, despite their stated beliefs to the contrary.

What is perhaps most devastating, most comical and, yes, even most relatable about Michael Stone is that, for all his success and all his perceived expertise in human nature, ultimately he ends up in the role of the fool.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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