By Tara Elsen
Warning: the following article contains spoilers!
— You know the flavor of life has soured like expired milk when you realize you should be writing an essay instead of a column for the student newspaper. However, in lieu of the imminent final exams and papers of this semester, the distraction that was Anomalisa (2015) provided the humbling realization that it could be much, much worse. This present sensation is, in fact, incomparable to the drab coffee-colored lens, and the life lived through it, as presented in the film.
Anomalisa. The viewer approaches her from the viewpoint of Michael Stone, the film’s main character and a best-selling author in the customer service industry, who has traveled to Ohio to give a keystone talk on his writing.
He is also a puppet.
Anomalisa takes its title from the nickname of a woman, Lisa, given in tender adoration for the deformation on her face which renders her shy, yet sensitive. The film is entirely animated in the style of a puppet show, with each character having the same androgynous features – an almost immobile mask with eerie, distinct lines tracing the contours of the face. The director\producer duo of Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson managed to incorporate the visual style as a nod to their search for thematic perfection.
A single, uniform and bland voice is uttered from all these featureless faces, which contributes to the lusterless interactions that Michael experiences with flight attendants, hoteliers, even his wife and children. Only two people are exempt from this sea of indistinguishable personalities: the main protagonist and Lisa.
She and her friend are middle-aged ‘groupies’ in adoration of Michael’s book How May I Help You Help Them?, a title which already hints at the blankness of his personal view on life – a stream of identities that run into each other and dissolve like minerals in water.
Michael meets Lisa in a bar after he makes contact with a lover (voiced by Tom Noonan) that he left in Cincinnati, with no explanation for his abrupt decision, ten years earlier. He still lusts for her, yet the woman’s voice and intonation is sexless and flat, like all the others that dominate this universe.
However, when Michael hears Lisa’s voice, he is struck by the beauty of its unique tone. We follow them to their hotel’s corridor, where she nervously decides to stay with him for the night after some cocktails in the bar. Michael appears genuinely awakened from his monotonous dream as his gaze and ears devour Lisa.
The audience is also given a little jerk when we see the puppets take each other’s clothes off and partake in the pleasures of human contact. There is a sense of absurdity in the fact that Kaufman fabricated miniature genitals for the sole purpose of this erotic and stirringly human scene, punctuated by tentative questions and raw sounds.
The cinematography of Anomalisa echoes this unsettlingly realistic series of events, shots that are riddled with the same jerks you would experience through a movie camera set in the real Cincinnati. The jerks don’t just finish there, however, as the audience discovers the characters’ imperfections and the injustices that pester the vulnerable, as embodied by Lisa.
The sense of scale is crucial to Kaufman’s work, which attempts to mimic the average middle-aged male’s day-to-day consciousness with a minimal, constricted vision. It is also a small universe in the sense that it consists of only a few complex characters, as is the experience of our lead protagonist, who cannot escape his own sense of worthlessness.
In Synecdoche, New York (2008), Kaufman’s directorial debut, the viewer becomes familiar with an obsessed theatre director trying to simulate a city inside a warehouse; he attempts to recreate crime, death, age – the slow, painful passing of time. Kaufman seems to be searching for the same genuine experience by imposing his intentions on every aspect of the artwork that he can. It is a thrive for genius that is also poison for creativity, imperfection and the extraordinary – all qualities that Michael is starved of in Anomalisa.
The same, subtle horror of Synecdoche, New York startlingly wakes you from the trance of a slow paced day, particularly when the audience experiences the passion float away from Michael – the spider’s web creeping back over his vision and smothering any spontaneity that could have unchained him from his murky existence. The film ends with nothing altered, and Anomalisa left hurt and helpless, only subjected to Michael’s middle-aged dissatisfaction.
What stuck with me the most was indeed the film’s muse: a birth-marked, timid, slightly plump woman who did not possess the self-belief to reach out of her call-centre, day-to-day reality. However, she found enough curiosity and will to venture out of her comfort zone at least, which sadly led her to a self-centred man. Regardless, Anomalisa remains one of the most sobering pieces of animation you can watch – possibly right behind, or shoulder to shoulder with Rocks in My Pockets (Baumane 2014).