For I have known them all already, known them all:—
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume? – TS Eliot
It doesn’t happen often to me, hardly ever at all by anything created by human beings. Sure, I can watch as a hummingbird flutters downward and points its beak suspiciously at me, and maybe behind it the sun is burning up the clouds making an electric sunset just as the wind kicks up in a dramatic gust to take the hummingbird somewhere else. For a brief moment, everything stops because, goddamn it, that’s a beautiful thing.
Charlie Kaufman has the ability to dwell somewhere between the sweetest love song and the darkest night of the soul. We’re not talking just your ordinary dark night of the soul, like contemplating one’s own mortality or the death of true love, or shaking off of futility. We’re talking soul sucking blackness – we’re talking the unbearable surreality of it all – the mostly ugly nature of humans and all of our collective humiliations.
And that’s if we have the luxury to even notice how surreal and humiliating it all is. There’s a chance we could have been born in a place where our daily obsession is finding a crumb to eat, or to not be that person who is chosen to strap on a suicide vest and wander into a shopping mall. In our lives, in our mostly isolated, pampered, protected lives, we have the luxury to notice how insane it all is anyway.
In the sweetest parts of Kaufman’s work, though, there always exist the most endearing female creatures. She might be someone anyone would fall for, like Kate Winslet’s Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or she might be someone you’d pass by every day and never notice, like the wonderful Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh) in Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s blazingly brilliant new film Anomalisa. It is the sweetness of Lisa that undoes Kaufman’s bleak condemnation of the human condition.
Anomalisa is about Michael Stone (David Thewlis) who lives inside himself and can’t really connect to anyone else. He doesn’t want to talk to anyone else because he keeps hearing the same voice over and over (all voiced by Tom Noonan). No one is different. Everyone is the same. No one talks about anything that really matters – they just fake a friendly attitude, which seems like it would suit Michael well, being that he’s a customer service “expert.”
Customer service in America is a way of making a person feel important even when – especially when – they are anything but. It is a distinctly American phenomenon that only faintly exists elsewhere. Michael is British, which is neither here nor there since he lives in America and has adopted American attitudes, otherwise he couldn’t have written the bestselling book on customer service.
He is a man without joy; without the ability to find it in a world that apparently doesn’t have it. He reaches for and briefly clings to women in the hope that they can bring him out of his inner cage. But that only works briefly, because sooner or later they too become one of “them.” The people “out there.”
When Michael meets Lisa he falls immediately in love with her unique voice, which stands out since all of the characters are voiced by Noonan. Leigh’s Lisa is a rambling, insecure, funny wallflower who comes from a world without any sort of distinction. She somehow is the distinction, the anomaly, with her passion for pressing buttons and her love of Cyndi Lauper songs. Ah Lisa. The sweetest thing. The nicest thing.
This is it, he thinks. This has got to be it. This is the one person who can save him from the long echo of misery. It is in the moments with Lisa that Anomalisa opens a tiny door to a secret world of fragility. The tender way Michael woos Lisa, the funny/sad/sweet way she lets him illuminate how true love feels, especially in that first moment of white-hot light and heat when you can’t get close enough to this person you want. That feeling, that first flush of love and lust is, we humans know, temporary. It’s not built for happily ever after, though we all wish it were. It’s there for a moment – held aloft by impossibly fast, invisible wings – something we can’t control.
In the end, though, this is a Charlie Kaufman story. Therefore the tussle between forever happiness and forever inner torture are bound to do battle. If you’re a fan, you know what usually wins out. There is a distinct difference between Michael and Lisa. If he is always looking to be carried away by something not built to last, she is always looking at what’s most promising, always saying yes to what is without wanting what could be. He can’t make her unhappy. Her can’t bring her into his void. That, too, makes her an anomaly.
How could these puppets come to such living, breathing life in front of our eyes? They’re puppets! Surely we know they’re puppets. And yet, here it is – the genius of these animators to invest their time at a great cost, and to invest their emotions in an unreal world they had to make real. And it is real. It feels real. Because those puppets are containers for the writer, the actors, and anyone else who touches them. What lives inside them brings them to life.
At the Q&A afterwards the publicists brought out the real puppets of Michael and Lisa. “Charlie doesn’t like to look at the puppets,” Johnson said. When asked why not, Kaufman said that to him they felt like real people and to see them so still and slumped over was too hard. I had to agree. They did feel real to me too.
When Jennifer Jason Leigh saw the film, she told EW, “I even forget they’re puppets, especially during the sex scene, which is so incredibly embarrassing. Even though it’s not my body, it’s not my face, it feels like the most explicit sex scene I’ve ever done.”
Much will be made of the graphic sex scene. Much will be made of the real looking penis, pubic hair and breasts. It is only a part of what makes Anomalisa feel authentic. They’re puppets, yes. They were held up by strings, their feet nailed into the floor to take each step and yet, there isn’t a moment in this film where you stop being invested in their outcome.
Even as I write that, I can see it turned into a blurb on the poster, “one of the best films ever made,” and it sounds like hyperbole. I’d run out of words trying to describe how great this movie is and nothing I could write would be able to explain it properly. It’s simply a movie that has to be seen, preferably on the big screen where you can see the teeny tiny effects that are barely noticeable and wouldn’t be noticeable on a smaller television screen.
The film, like so much of Kaufman’s work, is that eternal battle to hold on, to fight back, but to eventually surrender to the idea that we’re not meant to be happy all of the time. In fact, we wouldn’t know happiness if we had it all of the time. To notice it at all – even when it’s flying right in front of your face, and even if it doesn’t last, even if you can’t hold on to it and keep it close, even if it can’t transform you – is the true and enduring miracle.