Friday, 19 February 2016

Anomalisa: Making a Connection in the Puppet Age

It's tough to find a genuine connection in the world. One which makes you feel alive, which reinvigorates your soul. A connection which allows you to be open and share something with another honest-to-Betsy person, removing the puppetry of everyday life. It's especially difficult if everyone you see looks and sounds exactly the same. Also, it can't help if you happen to be a puppet.

Charlie Kaufman's latest film Anomalisa explores themes of loneliness and isolation though its protagonist Michael Stone, voiced by Remus Lupin, a man who sees everyone else in the world as the same person, with the same face and same voice, regardless of gender, age, or presumably race. Also, the story is told with puppets in lieu of physical actors which adds a hint of surrealism to the film's quite human story.

She's apprehensive about all the 'wooden' jokes which are about to ensure about her performance.
Get it? Because they're puppets. Ah, you get it.

Unable to feel a real connection with anyone in his life since they are all share the same face, from his wife to his son, which is why I assume he can't look his wife in the eyes while they make love any more, Michael heads to a conference in Cincinnati where he is giving a speech on providing expert customer service. It's also a cover for his more covert ulterior motive, to secretly meet up with an ex-lover because marriage is difficult when your partner has the same face as everyone else.

The meeting with the ex-lover doesn't really go as Michael had planned but he bumps into Emily and Lisa, who are staying in the same hotel to attend his speech at the conference the next day. Michael is immediately drawn to Lisa since she sounds different to everyone else. She also has her own unique, and scarred, face which distinguishes her from the homogeneous crowd of mannequins that Michael sees around him. Emily is shy and self-conscious but somewhat in awe of Michael. And they share the night together, two lonely people trying to make a connection with each other.

This the scene after Michael asked if he could play with her strings.

I'm not going to say any more about the plot of the film from here on out. Mostly for fear of invoking the wrath of the spoiler trolls which rampage the internet bringing woe and poorly substantiated outrage on those foolhardy enough to describe the plot of a movie which they probably weren't going to see anyway.

Which is a shame since people should see this movie. Like all of Kaufman's films, there is more going in Anomalisa than a simple plot synopsis can explain. While it seems like a movie aimed for your head, with ideas of conformity versus individuality, isolation versus connection, reality versus puppetry, it is actually a film which goes for the heart.

Kaufman is a writer who uses the surreal to explore the every day, adding unfamiliar curls to the familiar in order to highlight the struggles of the human experience. That is, he makes things weird to heighten the human emotions he is trying to explore.

"The existential terror I'm experiencing is truly heightened by how weird things are!"

The hyper-realistic puppets used in the film offer a sense of reality yet they are obviously not real. That said, Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson manage to do something with puppets that is rarely accomplished. They make them feel real. Now a lot of this comes from the writing since the characters feel human and talk like actual people not characters, but what I'd like to focus on is the eyes.

The biggest issue CGI animators have with human, or humanoid, characters is animating the eyes right so they seem alive. If done incorrectly, which happens more often than not, the eyes seem lifeless causing the uncanny valley effect, when something looks living but isn't - the inanimate mimicking the animate. So they just seem cold as though they have no soul, for lack of a better phrase which doesn't bring in the philosophic question of whether we possess souls or not.

A good example of this uncanny valley effect is The Polar Express, that Christmas movie no-one ever saw because didn't I already mention the uncanny valley thing? In that film, Robert Zemeckis directed a motion-captured Tom Hanks to spread delightful Christmas fear.

One of these is a man dressed in a gimp suit with dozens of tiny balls attached to his face, bearing an animated expression.
The other is a soulless terror. Don't stare into the eyes. For the love of all that is sacred, don't stare into the eyes.

But the eyes in Anomalisa feel alive. They emote genuine emotion and warmth, even when they are on the same face of the drones Michael sees around him, for drones need love just like everyone else does.

Kaufman and co-director Johnson have created a touchingly human film. For example, there is a sex scene which is one of the most realistic depictions of sex on screen I have ever seen. That is a sex scene with puppets which is more real and true than most of what Hollywood has ever offered with physical humans.

If there is a flaw with the movie, and we can find flaws in the film, the pacing is painfully slow, particularly in the first half. I understand that is deliberate in order to set up the drudgery and monotony of Michael's life as a self-conceited lone individual amidst a sea of identical drones but it did make the film slightly hard to get into at first.

Come on, get on with it.

On first viewing, I was slightly disappointed that Anomalisa didn't go further with the weird. Being accustomed to Kaufman's work, I am used to the strange little details or peculiarities such as Floor 7 and a half's low-ceiling offices in Being John Malkovich or the house which is constantly on fire in Synecdoche, New York which are considered normal parts of those films' fictional worlds.

Therefore, when there was a moment in the film where it seemed it was taking a turn into a more weird and paranoid direction, setting up a more insidious and surreal world, I was all on board. Until it was swiftly revealed that was nothing more than a red herring served on a plate of misdirection and the world of the film was always rooted in the mundane everyday.

"I sure hope this leads somewhere."

At first, the fact the film didn't go full out weird like hinted seemed like a let down but then upon reflection, I realised I was wrong, the film works better set in the mundane. I've been talking a lot about isolation and connection. Reviews like The Atlantic's David Sims, alleges that Kaufman explores these themes through the lens of a man who has forgotten to connect with people, and who is by most accounts a rather unlikable person.

I'm not going to dispute the fact that Michael is an unlikable protagonist, a man who travels to a conference with the secret motive to meet an ex-lover, who has walked out on his past lovers without knowing the reason why himself, and who seems destined to make himself miserable. However, I think Michael is more than just someone who has forgotten to connect with people. I think he actually has a mental disorder called the Capgras delusion.

This "is a disorder in which a person holds a delusion that a friend, spouse, parent, or other close family member (or pet) has been replaced by an identical-looking impostor".

How can you connect with someone when everyone looks the same?

By using an actual mental disorder with the added surrealism of puppets but in a world rooted in the mundane everyday, Kafuman pushes home just how hard it can be to make a connection in what can sometimes seem like an increasingly homogeneous world.


Note: My rating system works a bit different than most. Rather than a simple, "Good/Bad" five star rating. I'm going to rate these films on how much you would be likely to muse after seeing them. That is, the likelihood of wanting to have a discussion about the film after you've finished watching it.

Musing Rating: 3 Musings

Enough that you'll immediately want to discuss certain elements and clarify a couple of things (like "what did you make me watch?") with the person who made you watch it with them but not enough that you'll continue to think about it too much the next day.


References:

Anomalisa IMDb page

Anomalisa: An Agonizing Love Story, With Puppets - The Atlantic

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