Puppetry without the strings
The films of Charlie Kaufman have you leaving a darkened auditorium into the night air unsure of exactly what is was you watched for almost two hours, yet knowing you were not patronised or hoodwinked and he made you smile and chuckle. You saw intelligence, but what did it amount to? Identity, conflict, mortality?
Kaufman appears to be interested in the soul, how it functions, what makes it sin and what makes it sigh. There’s definitely the frustrated psychoanalyst in him. It’s no surprise Kaufman admires Kafka, Beckett, and David Lynch.
He sees us as we are—beautiful, inspirational, boastful, hopeful, lonely, often very dull. He seems to think The Self is a delusion. We are not what we think we are, most certainly not how others see us.
“O wad some Power the giftie gie us, to see oursels as ithers see us!”
Though thoroughly Jewish, there’s something of the priest in Kaufman, a man outside looking in, ever so slightly aloof from his community yet fascinated by it. The characters he conjures are multi-layered, complex, though somehow never in control of their destiny, which I suppose pretty well sums up life for most of us.
His leitmotif runs through all of his work. Off the top of my head, (there’s a Kaufman reference, right there) I can think of the strangeness of Being John Malkovich, memory-wiped travellers in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and actors moving around in someone else’s play, Synecdoche, New York.
I enjoyed Adaptation but never gave it the weight others awarded it because I found its exaggerations – a screenplay writer suffering serious writer’s block – too much to accept. Nevertheless, Kaufman is garlanded with movie awards, often cited as one of the ten best screenwriters of this century. I’d debate that one. He’s courageous, certainly talented, and undoubtedly an original in conception, but the very best? And of what genre?
It’s a living
Kaufman cut his teeth sending sketches to studios for comedy movies, most rejected, before graduating to jokes and sketches for television comedies. By that period he had hooked up with a film classmate, Paul Proch, and they worked together. They kept at it, as you must, until one day it paid dividends.
His big break was Malkovitch (1999) directed by Spike Jonze. It earned him an Academy Award nomination and won him a BAFTA. A speculative script, it got rejected more times than it had full stops. It eventually reached Francis Ford Coppola, a man with a practiced eye for winners. He passed it to his then-son-in-law Jonze, who agreed to direct the film.
A film all about detail
Kaufman’s movie characters get more and more lost in the fug of their own making, unreal realities, layered realities, until they themselves, their very existence, seems unreal. In Anomalisa, he goes to the extreme by literally making them puppets.
If the story was enacted by real actors folk would leave the cinema. With puppets it holds our attention for its full ninety minutes. We’re amused by what we see puppets doing in the same way parrots have us laughing when they mimic us.
Anomalisa‘s stop-motion figurines look very life-like. The have paunches, hair loss, look middle-aged, act middle-aged, and have droopy genitalia. Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson animate facial features expertly. Lip synch is smooth, not the teeth bashing clatter of wooden puppets, or the approximation of speech in other plasticine animations.
Then he does something odd – faces are mask-like. A crack runs across the bridge of the puppets’ noses, under eyes and over brows making features look like a mask. I’m unsure what Kaufman means by that other than what we see isn’t real, not even our facial characteristics. We present a mask. We see a mask.
When the film’s protagonist, Michael Stone, (there’s meaning in the name ‘Stone’) attempts to pull his face apart, exposing the mechanics bits he shares with everyone else, he screams.
The early scenes of travel are full of apathy and indifference. The stop motion minutiae is perfect in detail – a pictographic phone that confuses as to which button orders food. Life is full of these infinitesimally small annoyances that cause stress and anxiety.
What’s the film’s story?
Essentially, it’s an extended seduction scene, followed by a nightmare, followed by absolution. The man, Michael Stone, is on a lecture tour for his book about customer service. He’s a cold, indifferent person. But he’s also scared of his remoteness, his inability to connect, a personal contradiction since his book is all about staff ‘connecting’ with customer. He knows he’s boring, and he finds everything around him boring.
The plot is modest, banal even: a boring businessman, a motivational speaker without much motivation, Stone, calls up an old flame and meets her for a drink in his one-night hotel. (How many times does that happen in a night the world over?) They have a chat, get angry, and go their separate ways. The hotel is a world within a world.
Later he chances on two besotted fans in a room down the corridor, there to attend his lecture next day. They have read his book. He’s flattered. Lonely, he invites them for drinks at the bar. He gets fixated on one, they drink too much, and Lisa, she of the title, goes back to his room for some steamy sex. That scene is a mixture of gentle comedy and deep sadness. The sex is graphic, probably the reason the film has attracted a 15 rating.
Our protagonist experiences all we do when new to a large hotel: we avert our eyes from too prying reception staff, sigh at anonymous paintings on walls, wonder at the cost of massive flower displays changed daily, deal with half-smiling hotel staff, share embarrassing rides in elevators, sneer at the over-patterned carpets, walk miles of narrow corridors a thousand doors off and one cleaning cupboard, get annoyed by wonky key cards, and confused by drawn-out room service orders. Kaufman creates a claustrophobic world we recognise. The detail is amazing. He makes boredom entertaining to watch.
Stone speaks with a British accent, played by David Thewlis. The actor Tom Noonan plays every other character, male and female, except the Lisa of Stone’s lust. That role is given to Jennifer Jason Leigh, an actress once upon a time constricted by mannerisms, but here mature, subtle, and very vulnerable.
A work of high ability
Some critical quarters claim the film is a work of genius. That’s a hard one to justify considering the location and incidents are commonplace.
With all Kaufman’s work I get the feeling I’m watching a Jewish guy kvetching. To a practical Scot like me, that trait errs on the narcissistic side. But the film in script, pace, and forthrightness is flawless. That makes it a work of high intelligence. But is it drama?
Well, the sound effects are riveting, sounds you’ve not been conscious of in other films. The landscape is familiar and that too holds your attention. But drama?
The film is a mixture of beguiling poignancy, emotional honesty, a funny-sad study of melancholy and wasted love. Kaufman show us an element of our own fragility and wonders if we can truly love anybody other than ourselves.
“Always remember the customer is an individual just like you,” reads Michael to a convention hall of Ohio businessmen. He sighs, “Sometimes there’s no lesson. That’s a lesson in itself.”
Kaufman has spent his career trying to explore human behaviour. Is he a good tour guide? Only the cinemagoer able to analyse Self can answer that one.
- Star rating: Four stars
- Writer: Charlie Kaufman
- Directors: Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson
- Duration: 90 minutes