Monday, June 27, 2016

Anomalisa (Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson)



Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson's Anomalisa (2015) was based on his 'sound play'--actors seated on an empty stage, reciting lines, with accompanying sound effects--and judging from what we hear the script is painfully clever, painfully funny. This adaptation into a stop-motion animated feature using 3D printed puppets, however, raises the story to a whole other level. 

The play turns on the conceit of customer service guru and author Michael Stone (David Thewlis) flying to a convention in Cincinnati, Ohio. Michael suffers from a variation of the Fregoli syndrome--a delusion with an often neurological cause where the sufferer believes everyone around him is the same person, only in disguise.

Kaufman's conceit is to turn the disorder into a metaphor for the dull dreary conformity of life. Michael feels as if everyone around him is the same undifferentiated unremarkable person. The voice by Tom Noonan is deliberately chosen: partly because the actor plays so many serial killers and crazed men in movies, partly because the actor himself is such a singular physical and verbal presence* and Kaufman surrounds Michael with this presence. The face (all resembling Noonan, except Michael's) is where the puppetry gimmick comes into its own: you see the faintly fuzzy skin (like moss-covered stone), you see the seams where the face can be pulled off and replaced, presumably by one exactly like it. People aren't just identical in Michael's eyes, they're interchangeable--one is just as good (or bad) as the other.

*(In Manhunter director Michael Mann forbade everyone from talking or being with the actor; for Noonan's first scene (and first major onscreen role)--threatening Philip Seymour Hoffman with a stocking pulled over the head--everyone inlcuding the crew was (according to the actor) visibly afraid)
Michael wanders the Hotel Fregoli (ha ha) in a kind of despondent daze, desperately trying to connect with people including a onetime girlfriend, but Noonan's vaguely threatening intonation keeps throwing him back. The hotel's Barton Finklike nightmare ambiance, all airless hallways and ant-farm rooms (a triumph of model construction), doesn't help (I'm guessing the film again trumps the play here, in imagining Michael so thoroughly stranded in such a specifically realized environment). Oddly it isn't as if everyone around Michael really is one person--Michael's son speaks in genuinely childlike cadences, and Michael's former sweetheart Bella develops enough of an individual presence with an individual's issues (despite wearing Noonan's face) that you end up feeling for her--but you have to get past the fact of voice and visage to realize that.  

When he does hear a female call out from one of the hotel rooms it's like an electric shock; Michael is literally stopped on his tracks and has to go back to uncover Lisa Hesselman (Jennifer Jason Leigh) a shy, self-deprecating young woman with hair carefully combed over to hide the scar on her face--a scar that Michael finds enchantingly special, erotic even.

Kaufman is not what one might call an ungenerous writer: he stuffs his films with clever to brilliant conceits surreal imagery philosophical neurological literary references (can't see why he doesn't adopt the works of Oliver Sacks only if you think about it he may have been doing that throughout his career). On the other hand there's this stubborn self-absorbed adolescent quality to him, this sense of a geek who never matured emotionally. From Being John Malkovich to Adaptation to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind his protagonists are often manboys seeking some often unattainable object of desire (the exceptions are interesting: Human Nature is an early script where Kaufman seems to have recast his manboy as both an alarmingly hirsute woman and an 'innocent savage;' Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is a commissioned work with only traces of the inimitable Kaufman flavor (Adaptation, another commissioned work, made Kaufman struggle so hard he decided to write about the struggle and eventually managed to turn it into a Kaufman film)). 

Synecdoche, NY one might call the ultimate Kaufman: thanks to prize money from a MacArthur 'genius' grant, playwright Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) decides to stage a massive sprawling production about his own life, meticulously recreating the streets of Manhattan inside an abandoned warehouse; he's such a stickler for detail he has to hire actors to play the actors playing the people around him. It's an intellectually breathtaking idea that ends up despondently pointless: despite the vast space Cotard constructs to contain his monumental project (never realized a MacArthur grant delivered much money) you feel claustrophobic from all the reflections and metareflections of Cotard and Cotard's (and by extension Kaufman's) life crowding into each other; more to the point, you care less and less why you're trapped in such a hellishly banal environment

I submit that Anomalisa is different: no overstuffing with brilliant conceits, no vast production enveloping a dried-out wrinkled little nut of a concept. Kaufman has one clever idea--the Fagoli syndrome as a metaphor of one man's distaste for life--inside of which the fidelity to ordinary life seems marvelously single-minded, down to Michael wiping the steam off the mirrors and scratching his balls in the bathroom; eventually you forget the animation and begin to focus on the carefully depicted life.

And eventually the film does come to life. Few of Kaufman's female characters strike me as convincing--well maybe Kate Winslet's Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind--but you don't really feel you got under Clem's skin (despite popping in and out of all those trapdoors in her head); with Leigh's Lisa Hesselman I submit you do. She's all flutter and awkward pauses, all overcalculated (and clumsily executed) poses and barely restrained vulnerability. Where Michael manages to convince her to sing her favorite Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" she's achingly hopeful, a dreamer who despite her grievous scar has somehow remained open to possibilities. For most of the film Michael (and presumably Kaufman above him) has looked down on everyone with uniform contempt so when he suddenly hears Lisa's voice we view his delight with suspicion--isn't this just some sleight of hand or ear on Kaufman's part? Hearing Leigh's trembling yet brave voice transform Lauper's bright lyrics (you want to add 'mindless' but reading the actual words you realize the song is a kind of defiant anthem) you suddenly understand: there is something special about Lisa after all. 

And of course (skip this paragraph if you have not seen the film!) it turns to ashes--this is a Kaufman film, you're not going to get a Pixar-style happy ending or Disney-style big closing song (thank God). Kaufman does leave us with the suggestion that Lisa (having recovered her own voice) has managed to survive the trauma of their encounter, that despite Kaufman's tendency to privilege his manboys and despite Michael's assertion that "Sometimes there's no lesson" she (sitting in a car with her best friend both wearing an unNoonanlike face) may have actually learned something: that the problem wasn't her, or even the so-called cold uncaring world; the problem was him all along. 

First published in Businessworld 6.17.16

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