Episode 18: Anomalisa - Broken Visions
My taste in movies sometimes concerns me. Largely because it doesn’t seem to exist. Many of the movies I have liked over the years grabbed my attention through more indirect means. It used to be my family, and as I got older, it increasingly became about the books and other intellectual properties that I liked. And I think it’s fair to say that my feelings didn’t have much to do with the movie itself, so they probably shouldn’t count. But without that, I’m largely adrift.
I know it’s something I’ve mentioned in passing on this podcast before. I said I just wasn’t a movie person, which as of right now feels like the best terminology. Mostly because I haven’t found anything else that fits better. But to clarify, there are movies that I love and I have a great deal of respect for the medium and all of its potential. It just genuinely feels like that potential has nothing to do with me. Usually but not always.
And then there’s that rare gem, a movie that somehow entered my limited vision and made itself right at home.
Enter the movie that no one thinks should ever be mine.
Enter the movie destined for moderate indifference or potentially even condemnation or ridicule.
Enter the movie that feels like it was meant for me but centers on an aspect of my nature that I can’t or shouldn’t talk about.
Enter Anomalisa, a stop-motion animated comedy-drama directed by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson.
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Hi. It’s M. Welcome to Episode 18.
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I cut to the chase pretty quickly there, didn’t I? Well relatively speaking. I mentioned the subject of this review during what I guess is considered the cold open. There’s a lot of uncertainty there, though. Despite so much of my life being centered around podcasting and podcasts, I’m not great with the terminology. I guess it’s like what happens when you learn a language through immersion. Sure, you’re more fluent than you would be otherwise, but there’s random scrap words or phrases that you have never encountered before and are complete mysteries to you and don’t easily fit into the word map as you devised it. (Pause) I’m probably not making much sense. I’m describing a dichotomy that can feel counterintuitive or completely irrelevant. Or you maybe just want to reject the mere mention of a vulnerability you don’t want to think of as possible or something you may—in the loosest hypothetical sense possible—one day encounter.
That word soup is also an explanation of how I feel about Anomalisa. But I’m all over the place. Look, to get to the relevant story I heard about this project’s Kickstarter shortly after I first discovered Charlie Kaufman’s work as a director. By then the campaign was over, but it certainly got my attention. The justification for the Kickstarter, one that’s easy to believe for anyone vaguely familiar with Kaufman’s other movies, is that this project wouldn’t do well with conventional funding as his vision didn’t have much if any popular appeal. So for the sake of his artistic integrity, he decided to rely on his fans and whatever support they could offer. Which luckily he got. And I imagine that helped Anomalisa get the studio backing it did get later in the process.
But true to Kaufman’s indirect prediction, it didn’t take off. Which serves the viewing experience somewhat because it is a movie in which the viewer benefits from going in completely oblivious, which hype doesn’t allow.
Oh, yeah, and I should add that maybe if you haven’t seen Anomalisa, you should go watch it and then come back to this review. I think if there is any chance that it is the kind of movie you’d like, you should give yourself the full experience and go in without knowing anything. So that’s Anomalisa. A-N-O-M-A-L-I-S-A directed by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson. That should be all the information you need.
But back to the point. It may not have gotten everyone’s attention, but Anomalisa got mine. Luckily, I didn’t have to wait too long before the movie dropped onto iTunes. Yeah, I was late to the punch in many regards, but look, when it comes to me and movies, that’s the best case scenario. Give me too much time, and I will likely forget about it.
So when it dropped, I watched it. Loved it. But quickly discovered that people in my immediate circle weren’t interested in what they considered a fringe film. Fair enough. I guess I just surrounded myself with somewhat like-minded people. I get it, but I wasn’t thrilled.
Unsure what other recourse I had, I turned to the thing that had introduced me to Charlie Kaufman’s work in the first place: the internet. Specifically, YouTube movie reviewers. As to how I first got to them… May I suggest we coin a phrase similar to the “I plead the fifth” but for when something is technically the algorithm’s fault. Because that’s what happened to me, and that’s what happens to me on a weekly basis. So that new phrase would get a lot of use. Like it’s worth the investment.
But once you know an internet thing exists and you keep going back to it, that’s all on you, and whatever happens after, yeah that’s your fault.
Anomalisa was not an internet sensation, though it did get plenty of award nominations. It wasn’t full radio silence, but it wasn’t the plethora of content I had hoped for. Anything to fuel this obsession with my new favorite movie. There were a few video reviews and a few interesting remarks in the comment sections, like people agreeing that something about the story resonated with them on a personal level. But what stands out in my mind was a single comment asking something along the lines of “how could anyone relate to this movie?”
Actually, there was more condemnation to this mysterious commenter’s remarks. And while I should have been more mature about it. I took this depersonalize utterance into the digital void personally.
Because honestly, my love for that movie came from my ability to related to it. But I accept that this may be hard for some people to understand.
Anomalisa focuses a customer service expert Michael Stone as he goes to a convention to speak and promote his newest book, and despite how self-serving that may be, all the participants we see seem genuinely excited by the prospect of hearing him speaker. After all, supposedly, he’s the greatest expert out there. And maybe his books aren’t so irritating.
Cue the part that you shouldn’t know before you go into the movie. Last chance to run, seriously. (Pause)
We, the audience, get glimpses of his perspective and all the problems therein. Namely, that every person he sees, including his wife and child, have the same face and voice. He can recognize and distinguish between individuals, but he doesn’t see the features of each as they actually are.
The takeaway, at least for me, is that for Michael, there’s a barrier between him and the rest of the world. And this barrier is what creates what we presume to be the illusion. Everyone but him has the same face because he can’t seem to mentally distinguish between individuals, and as an extension of this or because of this, he doesn’t’ have any real connections to anyone, nothing on a personal level. He can share a space with other people or a life in the case of his wife but the affection has never been there. He’s got superficial interactions down, but then there’s that level where you connect to a person as an individual. He doesn’t seem capable of developing that, which means he has to rely on a sort of placeholder face to stand in for every single person he encounters. Even that of his wife and child.
It’s not a malicious thing, I should note. I mean, it’s not great, but he’s not doing it on purpose. Fair enough if you were mistaken. Michael has a terrible attitude, and his pessimism clearly makes him difficult to be around. But this specific thing is not a conscious choice
His terrible attitude is just how his defensiveness has manifested itself. He put his arms up to hurt the world before it could get another hit in. It must feel like a rejection in some ways. His isolation stems from a perceived incompatibility with the world as he knows it actually to be—one in which people can connect to what is distinctly human in each of them. But n that, there’s no place for him. Or at least, he’s not welcome here.
Sometimes, that’s how I feel about my own situation. Now, I feel compelled to clarify that my disconnect isn’t anywhere near as bad as his nor do I react so poorly to it. But it’s still something I feel. I can look at someone and feel like in some ways they aren’t there, but a representation of them is. Like, there’s a person in front of me, but I can’t fully recognize the multi-faceted person they pride themselves on being. Someone with a past that was complicated, rocky, and had great influence over the person they inevitably became, a present that has them juggling more than they should, and a future that terrifies them as much as mine does me.
This is something I think about all the time, especially when I’m obsessing over past social interactions to find and fully document every mistake I made. Every mistake stems from my inability to recognize an otherwise familiar person.
It is what it is. Namely, a habit I can’t break. And one that I worried only I practiced. And one that I couldn’t seem to make much sense of. But the case of Michael Stone offered some interesting insight. Or I found it interesting. And I might not be using that word right, but call it another theme of this podcast.
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What? Did you think I was going to say that it was comforting that I saw my own struggles depicted in media? Because that is not where this review is going to go.
And look, I firmly believe representation is important. It provides a framework, a vocabulary, or a map with which to better understand, articulate, and work through whatever difficulties we may be having. And there’s certainly elements of that here. However, if you don’t adjust your perspective you aren’t going to have a positive takeaway. Because there’s nothing hopeful about this movie, and honestly, if you try to base your own future experiences off of what you see here, you are going to have a bad time. Mark my words.
Ultimately, Anomalisa gave me a chance to examine the inner workings of my mind from an illuminating perspective. Or in other words, I was able to see something akin to a cause from a safe distant. Saying that feels a little much or strong. Like it might not be what Charlie Kaufman intended. Or I might be extrapolating too far from the soucre material. Fortunately, I have my death of the author card I can play in its many variations, which I use far too much on this podcast for someone who is moderately uncomfortable with it. But on the other hand, I’ve always believed that intention and effect are two different things. And this podcast focuses on the effect, specifically for me, so maybe I’m just overthinking this?
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Like I overthink pretty much everything in my life. Like Michael has to do with people in order to be an expert on customer service and write his books, which give him money and fame. Both things he really wants to acquire.
But at the same time, this diving deeper and deeper into the human psyche is like when you say a word so many times that it stops being a word and sounds foreign to your ears. Repetition—a more specified form of over-familiarity—wears down the figurative fabric of whatever you are holding in your hands. The threads are pulled out one by one until all you have left to hold on is a tangled up mess of some worn down string. You didn’t want the threads. You wanted the fabric. You didn’t chose to do this. But it was a compulsion you couldn’t ignore. And now there’s no going back.
Maybe you are distressed. Maybe you are not. Maybe you are just annoyed. But with whom?
And from that moment on, the memory is already fading from your mind. Even that is coming apart thread by thread. The more you think about it, the more seeds of misremembrance you are planting in that soil. And they will take. This too too will fall apart.
Who’s to say you aren’t next?
And that would probably be dramatic. But fall deep enough into the rabbit hole and the darkness will be all you have. And it will be calling you to go deeper.
For Michael, he has to go about picking at the abstract concept of a person in a very systematic way, breaking it down into pieces and buttons that workers in the customer service sector can use at their jobs. And now that he is left with the nuts and bolts, pieces that are otherwise useless, he can’t seem to remember what came before. And maybe he’s aware that he himself is a fragile being that could be stripped down in much the same way, but such is never made completely clear. All of this leaves him incredibly jaded and angry with the world.
That might be too strong, but at the very least, he’s lost all appreciation for it. And instead of desperately trying to reengage, he falls deeper into his cynicism or maybe he’s even given up on that. Dejectedly, he’s just trying to make the most of it. Living for whatever pleasures he can scrape together.
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It’s not a great life, but he doesn’t think he can do anymore. He doesn’t think anyone can give him any better.
And then you find someone new, a new fabric to take it bring it back to my earlier metaphor. Perhaps it’s not a pretty one, but it’s something you have never seen before. And for that reason, for that novelty, you are drawn to it. It feels like a refuge against the storm of the rest of your life. It can’t be. That’s just not possible, but you can easily make yourself believe it for a moment. If it means that you can finally find some happiness.
However, the problem wasn’t so much with the world as it was with your perspective. And excuse how vague I’m being. I doubt my earlier warnings were completely effective. There are probably people who haven’t who stuck around, thinking they didn’t need the full experience anyway. Fair enough, I guess. Oh and as a general rule, I’m trying to avoid as many spoilers as I can on this show.
Keeping with this metaphor might help. It’s a mental image you can latch onto but isn’t dependent on the plot of a movie I hope you’d consider seeing.
By chance, you’ve just found this new cloth. Not a pretty cloth. The design might be fundamentally flawed or outright misprinted. When other people turn their nose up at it, you understand why. However, the most important thing is that you still love it. Actually, you may think you need it. The weight of your normal routine is getting overbearing, and this cloth may help bear the weight.
So you bring it into your life. And the texture against your hands feels right and incredible. And for the first time in so long, you feel happy.
You hold it in your hands and fumble with it. While you’re vaguely aware that you’re doing this, it doesn’t bother you so much. It feels harmless. Or at least, there won’t be the usual consequence. After all, this material is different. How it’s different isn’t so important, but you know that it is different. Which is the important thing.
In time, though, or when you just happen to make the wrong move, the illusion falls apart. To be more accurate, the material falls apart. And you’re left with a handful of threads and a bitter taste in your mouth. As always.
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I’ve spoken before on this podcast about the contemporary aversion to being wrong. I say contemporary because I feel like the character of the internet raised the stakes quite a bit, but it’s probably always been something innate to human nature. We hate being wrong. We’re hardwired to hate being wrong. Even though it’s an opportunity to grow, there’s a sense of shame associated with needed that growth. Maybe it’s because we have to accept that we aren’t perfect, that despite our best efforts we’ve mastered very little in our own lives. Or maybe we fear that in addition to losing some of our pride, we’ve also lost some social standing or esteem.
It’s hard to say in general terms, but in this particular case, the stakes are pretty apparent. After all, it’s the life you’ve hoped for on the line. You thought everything was going to work out for you and that everything would be okay. Then it all came apart. When you made that initial proposition or declaration, you were putting your heart and soul out there. And you’re reward is the usual disappointment. The very thing you were running from, what you thought you were free from. It’s a multi-level disappointment cake that doesn’t even have the decency to taste right.
That’s what happens here, “here” being the context of the movie and my own personal experiences. You think this person is going to change everything for you only to find the same old patterns emerging. But here’s the thing, in this situation, wrongness is multi-layered. It’s not just that you are wrong about this person, which is hard enough to take, but that you are wrong about the source of the problem.
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It’s hard to know exactly what Michael’s problem is. We don’t get enough of the inner workings of his head to know with absolute certainty if he recognizes that the problem is his perspective and not that no one has bothered to break the mold. But it’s important to note that his reaction is not self-deprecation but a hostile outward attitude, suggesting that he holds the rest of the world accountable to a great degree for the discomfort of his current situation. As does the way he reacts when his dream seemingly comes undone.
Consequently, he hasn’t seemed to take any sense of ownership of this issue. Or, in other words, that he has failed to identify that the problem is sitting in his own head. He spends so much time breaking people down to their computers that maybe he genuinely can’t stop himself from doing it anymore. Maybe he can’t crawl out of this hole. Or at least, that it isn’t easy to do.
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I want to be more optimistic about the way events transpire in the real world versus the way things work themselves out in stories. Stories are important, but they seldom destroy real lives. And also this is me, we’re hypothetically talking about. Obviously, I’d like to think things are going to work out for me, even if it takes a great deal of effort.
The thing is, because we don’t know how self-aware Michael is, it’s possible to believe that this is a critical part of it. That if you know you have a tendency break everything down, why couldn’t you work to shift your perspective? Which would be hard and would take time but is within the realm of possibility. It can be done. It’s possible to realize, at the most basic level, that some things don’t need to be broken down to nuts and bolts. After all, go down to a basic enough level and everything is the same. There will be no surprises. There’s only so many elements, and you can find them on all a periodic table. Available online.
Here’s the thing, though. All of those words might have been completely pointless. Maybe this is something we all know on some level, and most people can incorporate it in their day to day lives. I just lost that piece somewhere when I was assembling everything else. And that’s not an unfounded thought born out of an anxious mind.
There’s a phrase that gets thrown around that goes “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Aristotle is credited with coining it. Good for him. He said some things that are just inaccurate, so maybe he should just celebrate any time he gets a point. Even if he has more wins than losses. I’m not actually going to tally everything up. There are better uses of my time.
But even more of a win is how this idea made it into modern business lingo. You know, synergy, cheesy acronyms meant to improve workplace moral. That… That should probably be a longer list, but like I hinted at in the last episode, economics and business is not my strong points. We highlight the power of teams—corporate or sports—as being entities distinct and more capable than anything the individuals that compose them. A bunch of web developers working on their own aren’t going to make the next great social media site or video hosting website. They’ll make a bunch of half-baked ideas. But put a bunch of them together and you get the next big technological innovation. Let people work off of each other, and their efforts and capabilities are multiplied.
Now, I find those cheesy platitudes and dances human resources makes you do as annoying as everyone else does. But the pieces aren’t so hollow. There’s some substance there that gets stripped away somehow. The whole doesn’t equal the sum of its parts. In this case, it’s actually less.
I was actually trying to figure out some better explanation as to how these things happen. What’s the secret variable that makes this math somehow work out? On one hand, I don’t know and can’t know. It’s a phenomenon that can manifest in any number of ways and from any number of influences. Like context and the nature of the pieces. It’s certainly more than anything I could go into here.
But ultimately, that would go against the point I’m trying to make. I’d be reducing something good into its nuts and bolts. And what would I be let with? Nothing I’d find worthwhile and standing at square one. So it would be a loss on multiple counts.
So I will leave Aristotle’s words where they are. At some point, you have to step away from the dissection of the world around you. Stop looking for more where you have no chance of finding it and be happy with what you have. Which… when writing that line I worried was being delusion in some way. I’ve worried about that this entire episode. Because perspectives aren’t easy to change. We go so long living in a particular way that it can seem impossible to even think we could stop and change our ways. How could I ever stop breaking something down to its parts and start accepting what good there is within? How could I start to see things for what they are? How could I not lose the forest for the sake of the trees. How could I start to be kinder to myself for not juggling every little thing when talking to someone or doing something? How do I recognize the whole despite all its broken pieces?
I’m not sure how exactly. But that, it’s the sort of thing I do with this podcast, so maybe I have a head start.
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