Destroy All Monsters: Thanks, Charlie Kaufman, But I Just Can't Do This Any More
How did you spend Blue Monday? Myself, I went to see yet another razor-sharp thought experiment in the inescapable universality of human misery by that living, breathing avatar of same, Charlie Kaufman.
The film is called Anomalisa, and though I can pat myself on the back for correctly intuiting that third-wheeling it for the evening by tagging along on my friend's date with her boyfriend to see the movie would have been its own unique kind of painful, my subsequent decision to attend the film solo, in a reserved VIP Barca lounger seat in an otherwise unoccupied aisle, meant that no one was there to see the movie with me. This is probably good, because I spent most of that film with my head in my hands anyway.
The parts I didn't spend with my head in my hands, I just wanted to shout at the screen: "I GET IT, CHARLIE."
No, not the "you're beating X point over the head" sort of "I get it" that comes with watching, say, a prehensile phallus like Michael Bay try to make a political drama. Kaufman's stock in trade is more of the "it's funny because it's true" variety, if you replaced the word "funny" with "soul-crushingly, life-purpose-destroyingly sad."
Kaufman has the eerie perception of the truly great artists... and I don't want a single thing to do with it any more.
Here's a funny thing: I actually bought a blu-ray of Kaufman's previous feature, Synecdoche, New York. That sucker sat in my house, on my shelf, for years, before I cottoned to what should have been overwhelmingly obvious from before the word go: I never, ever, ever, ever wanted to see that movie again.
I'd seen it once (in theatres!), and being as that Synecdoche is itself a ceaselessly empathetic 2-hour summation of the totality of the human experience (with a bias towards the 4 F's: futility, fragility, failure, and frustration), watching the movie again would be kind of like arriving at the Pearly Gates after a brutally long and painful life and saying, "Please sir, can I have one more?"
I didn't sell my Synecdoche blu-ray. I didn't give it to a friend, as is my custom. I threw the son of a bitch in the trash on the spot and heaped it over with coffee grounds and unused chopped onions, as though I was trying to exorcise a demon from my home and couldn't find the holy water. No re-use for Synecdoche, New York. One less copy of that terrible, terrifying art-thing exists now - or, as I'm sure Kaufman and his acolytes would be quick to point out, of course it still exists, it's buried in some trash heap somewhere in southern Ontario and will outlive my grandchildren's grandchildren's grandchildren whose lives will be just as frail and stupid as mine has been.
Well done, Kaufman. Your move, climate change. Rid this beautiful earth of our horrid kind and all our trivial artifacts, and think of us no more.
Now, in spite of all this, I voluntarily went to see Anomalisa. Apparently I'm to masochism what Patton Oswalt is to the Black Angus gravy pipe. And hey, newsflash, Anomalisa is fucking wonderful and perfect and I never want to see it again, never ever ever ever no sir ever.
Charlie Kaufman is perceptive. Hoo boy, is he perceptive. "The most human movie of the year," the posters shout, as though that's a selling point.
I'm human. I'm human every single hour of every single day of every single year that I've been alive, and pending a dramatic change in the way things work around here, I'll probably remain so till I die. I've got a job and health issues and an apartment, and I've been in love and out of love and all the things in between. I, like Anomalisa's Michael, have scalded myself half to death trying to get a hotel room shower to work. I've yet to buy a small child an antique Japanese sex doll, but I'm sure it'll happen. We all make mistakes.
And when I see works like Kaufman's reflect back at me so poignant and specific a view of the foibles of my own life, I want to shout "I GET IT, CHARLIE," for no reason other than what I've just outlined: I'm out here in the real world, dealing with this shit constantly.
The shower moment is instructive. Kaufman has commented on the film's documentation of the mundane. He's mentioned that one of the reasons that Anomalisa is in stop motion is to persistently remind the audience that everything we're seeing has been specifically put there, in a way that a live-action scene might not. Michael's dilemma with the room service order button, early in the film? Some poor bastard probably spent a month and a half animating that, and that time was spent precisely because that moment exists and is real and is part of how ceaselessly insipid, embarrassing, and boring most of the hours of most of our lives are.
Thanks for the reminder, Charlie.
It's wonderful that Kaufman is skillful and honest enough as a writer and a filmmaker that he can somehow capture in radiant, technicolour (stop motion, 3-D printed, puppet misery) motion picture images some heart-searingly transcendent and universal ideas about how each of us live our actual lives.
Our actual lives, mind you; not our movie aspiration lives, which is what stuff like Star Wars is for. There's a sex scene in Anomalisa for example - if you ever felt like stop motion projects in general are wonderful but don't feature near enough cunnilingus or pot-bellies, this movie is for you - that is nicely on point on just how inherently embarrassing the sex act almost demands to be.
People bump their heads. They don't know how to sit. There's the aforementioned pot-belly. Tinder might be democratizing all this for a certain cadre of people but for the rest of us, Anomalisa is like watching video of yourself drunk - a prismatic expose of the chasm between what we know we're like and how we hope we're not.
Michael Stone, Anomalisa's main character, hears the same voice out of every other person on the planet - and, one begins to realize too, every other person has the same face, too. Some with man hair and some with lady hair, some in dresses and some child-sized, but they're basically all the same puppet with the same voice, because every person he encounters (and we encounter) is just the same external projection of some droning something inside ourselves that is, what, maybe just pretending to understand that other people exist at all, and that we're not all just stuck in a gloomy terrarium of our own thoughts and experiences filtering every single outside personality or soul into a quaking miasma of our own insecurities and needs and....
I GET IT, CHARLIE.
Look: it's January, it's the middle of winter, and I have been that person who heard the unique Jennifer Jason Leigh voice appear in the mundane crowd of Tom Noonans, held onto that fragility just as desperately, and just as certainly felt it drain away like tap water through a clenched fist. I'm not saying there shouldn't be movies about these things. But, good lord, do I really have to watch them?
Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture. Matt Brown is in Toronto and on twitter.