animation, Anna Kendrick, Anomolisa, Art, Charlie Kaufman, David Thewlis, Duke Johnson, Film, film review, George Clooney, Hotel Rooms, Human connection, humanity, isolation, Jason Reitman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, lonliness, Relationships, Stop-Motion animation, Tom Noonan, Up in the Air, Vera Farmiga
I’ve never been in a hotel room and not been either uncomfortable or extremely horny. One probably feeds the other I suppose, but there’s something about the space that just inspires either a psychological discomfort, or else a biological surge to procreate. The only thing I can figure to explain this reaction is that, because the room is so empty and dead while also trying to be inviting, my brain isn’t sure whether to be content or miserable. And, in my defense, I don’t believe that this ambiguity of reaction is necessarily a personal idiosyncrasy.
That’s my fancy-pants way of saying, “I ain’t the only one.”
I’ve noted several times in these essays that working at the library has it’s joys and pitfalls, the joys outnumbering the unpleasantness (an old lady calling you an asshole over the phone just because you don’t have a phone number on hand being one of them). While helping kids find books that they’re looking for is without doubt my favorite part of the job, a close fucking second is discovering all the different books and DVDs that find their way to the desk or the tables. These gems, often left on a chair, or clumsily hidden on the top of the shelf, are often pithy self-help books or else nauseating “history” books about alien influence on ancient architecture. But sometimes a book or movie comes down the pike that just grabs you.
Looking at the DVD shelf while Circulation was busy helping patrons I spotted a DVD on the shelf that grabbed me. The cover was a man looking into a fog-covered mirror he had partially wiped clean and he was looking put-out and miserable. The man himself was unique, because he was clearly not human at all, but a doll of a middle-aged man that resembled the art style of a show I had begun watching recently on Adult Swim entitled The Shivering Truth. It was a Nightmare-Surreal-Horror show vaguely reminiscent of Twilight Zone without the linear narrative arc, but no matter how many times the show left me puzzled, and in fact often looking at my wife to ask, “what the fuck just happened?” I was still impressed with the animation.
Anomalisa then seemed to be a feature film in the same vein, and so on impulse I picked it up, watching it before the Colette DVD I got the day before. I’m sorry Keira Knightly.
I did not see Anomalisa coming. I mean that from the sincerest part of me as I write this. It seemed at first like the film would be just a movie about alienation and isolation in the new global economy and the plight of a lonely businessman as he dwells on his life in his hotel room. I worried that that would be the conflict because, for whatever reason, that’s always the freaking conflict. The hotel room has become, in many works, the empty void where characters find themselves the space to address the problems and indulge in their darkest moods much to the chagrin of the audience who could have gone to see Fun Home but Sharen told us Shawn was in this show and we’re trying to get out more after we found out that Greg was cheating on us with that hussey from the Grocery store, the one with highlights and dimples and now we’re stuck in a movie theater wondering why we should care about yet another business yuppie wearing a suit, hiring a hooker, and talking to his reflection who of course is talking back.
Do we sound bitter? Because we are.
But Anomalisa didn’t pursue this trope because, while the film was about a man with a growing sense of isolation, his loneliness became something far more interesting. The film is produced using stop-motion animation, the same kind of animation employed in movies and shows like Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Isle of Dogs, and of course, Robot Chicken. It’s a medium and artistic structure that hasn’t been employed often enough to become passé, but it has often been regulated either to children’s entertainment, or in the case of my last example, adult comedies centered around corruption of nostalgia and crotch-shot humor. Humor, for the record, that I unapologetically enjoy. The Crooked-Cop-Godzilla sketch is gold and I will fight anyone who says otherwise.
Anomalisa was unique because it was the first “realistic” stop motion film I had ever seen before.
The plot follows two days of the protagonist Michael Stone, a successful author who’s written a book about customer service which has revolutionized many companies and industries and so he’s been invited to give a speech about the topic. While he’s there he spends time in his hotel room, smokes a few cigarettes, watches a man jerk off in his office across the street, and then calls up a woman who he used to be involved with romantically which ends terribly before he finds himself once again back in his hotel room where he hears the voice of “someone else.”
This wouldn’t be terribly interesting were it not for the fact that the voice-over cast is contained only of three people: David Thewlis (who will always remain Professor Lupin to me), Jennifer Jason Leigh, and then Tom Noonan in the role of, literally, Everyone Else. This didn’t make much sense to me at the start of the movie as everyone was beginning to sound the same, the film itself opening with this brief exchange:
Everyone else: [Passenger sitting next to Michael] Sorry, I-I grabbed your hand.
Michael Stone: It’s okay.
Everyone else: [Passenger sitting next to Michael] It’s a reflex. I’m usually sitting next to my wife.
Everyone else: But I don’t like to fly.
Michael Stone: I said it’s okay.
Michael Stone: You can let go now though.
The effect of “everyone else” having the same voice at times falls flat, but as the film progresses and the reader is able to discover fairly quickly that Michael is an asshole of the most supreme nature, this effect is important because it reveals his character. Michael Stone is a man who is living largely in a haze where he cannot connect with other people in anyway whatsoever, to the point, that the people around him just disappear into these robots, these empty souls who all say the same thing and sound the same. This creates an opportunity for a lot of play with the animation, which is regularly obvious as the figures have outlines on their faces where the dolls are changed to show movement, at one Michael’s face literally coming off of his skull during one of the most disturbing dream sequences I’ve ever seen in my life.
The film is built around Michael falling more and more into his isolation until he hears a voice, a voice that is someone else. It belongs to a young woman who’s come to hear him talk and Michael begins to woo her before actually sleeping with her. I wish I could offer a longer exchange of dialogue but alas IMDb who provides me with these quotes only has a paltry offering. Michael’s interest in this woman is observed clearly in this brief exchange:
Michael Stone: [to Lisa] I think you’re extraordinary.
Michael Stone: I don’t know yet. It’s just obvious to me that you are.
And while I despise including videos in essays I did manage to find this brief clip which is arguably one of the most beautiful and heart-breaking moment in the film:
Ultimately even Lisa disappears into the haze of “everyone else,” and Michael’s isolation finally crashes down on top of him during his speech which, truly, the stuff of greatness.
Michael Stone: Always remember the customer is an individual. Just like you. Each person you speak to has had a day. Some of the days have been good, some bad, but they’ve all had one. Each person you speak to has had a childhood. Each has a body. Each body has aches. What is it to be human? What is it to ache? What is it to be alive?
Michael Stone: I don’t know. What is it to ache? I don’t know. What is it to be alive? I don’t know… Uh, yes. “How do I talk to a customer?” How do I talk to a customer? These are the important questions for a customer service representative. What do I say? Do I smile while I’m on the phone? Well, they can tell, if you’re smiling, even if they can’t see you. Did you know that? Try it as an experiment on the phone with a friend. Try it. Go ahead. Watch.
Michael Stone: I’m lost.
[chuckles and turns back around]
Michael Stone: See I was smiling when I said that? I’ve lost my love. She’s an unmoored ship and she’s drifting off to sea. I have no one to talk to. I have no one to talk to. I have no one to talk to. I’m sorry. I don’t mean to burden you with that, I just don’t know what else to do because I have no one to talk to… Be friendly to the customer. Think of the customer as a friend…
At this point my contester interrupts. So what? So what about a weird little animated film by the guy who made Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless mind and Being John Malkovich? Why should I care about somebody else’s individual loneliness when it’s obvious that Michael is a dick and a self-obsessed jerk? I don’t want to watch an animated movie about egomaniacs? I want to watch something I would enjoy!
This is a fair point, and in response to the last point my only argument would be: then don’t watch it. We all have to gravitate to media which reflects our own desires and curiosities and so if a film isn’t your cup of tea don’t waste your time on it. The only other response I have however is that if you do decide to take this course, you’re missing out on a wonderful film. Anomalisa is a movie which explores isolation in a profound and unique way, and put aside the animation itself, by the end of this film I was left saddened that someone like Michael existed and couldn’t see past his own ego.
Though perhaps there was also some identification with another character: Ryan Bingham from Up in the Air.
Despite having read the original novel and felt largely apathetic to it, the film remains one of my favorite movies about the current economic and inter-personal landscape largely because the director, Jason Reitman, who also directed Juno, always manages to capture the beautiful and awkward quality of humanity.
Up in the Air is about Tyan Bingham, a professional contract worker who fires individuals for corporations who would rather outsource this work to spare employee emotions. The company he works for elects to change the system and begin firing employees over the internet, which Ryan disagrees with, largely because he wants to make his goal of earning a million frequent flyer miles which would lift him into the “lifetime executive status.” This goal is also part of his desire to continue a relationship with a woman he met in a hotel bar who is, in her own words, “yourself, only with a vagina.”
Up in the Air lacks the level of despair that Anomalisa does, but it is still an interesting meditation on a professional individual dealing with loneliness and isolation. Ryan often plays or taunts his coworker Natalie Keener as they travel the country together, one scene probably summing it up best:
Ryan Bingham: [on the docks in Miami] You know that moment when you look into somebody’s eyes and you can feel them staring into your soul and the whole world goes quiet just for a second?
Natalie Keener: Yes.
Ryan Bingham: [shrugs] Right. Well, I don’t.
Natalie Keener: you’re an asshole.
The tone of Up in the Air lends well to this nature of ribbing as Ryan constantly and playful throws out his isolation as something to laugh at rather than to be curious about or to pity him for. In fact his character his largely built around this self-imposed isolation. He even gives public speeches about this lifestyle:
Ryan Bingham: [giving a motivational speech] How much does your life weigh? Imagine for a second that you’re carrying a backpack. I want you to feel the straps on your shoulders. Feel ’em? Now I want you to pack it with all the stuff that you have in your life. You start with the little things. The things on shelves and in drawers, the knick-knacks, the collectibles. Feel the weight as that adds up. Then you start adding larger stuff, clothes, table-top appliances, lamps, linens, your TV. The backpack should be getting pretty heavy now. And you go bigger. Your couch, bed, your kitchen table. Stuff it all in there. Your car, get it in there. Your home, whether it’s a studio apartment or a two bedroom house. I want you to stuff it all into that backpack. Now try to walk. It’s kind of hard, isn’t it? This is what we do to ourselves on a daily basis. We weigh ourselves down until we can’t even move. And make no mistake, moving is living. Now, I’m gonna set that backpack on fire. What do you want to take out of it? What do you want to take out of it? Photos? Photos are for people who can’t remember. Drink some ginkgo and let the photos burn. In fact, let everything burn and imagine waking up tomorrow with nothing. It’s kind of exhilarating, isn’t it? Now, this is gonna be a little difficult, so stay with me. You have a new backpack. Only this time, I want you to fill it with people. Start with casual acquaintances, friends of friends, folks around the office, and then you move into the people that you trust with your most intimate secrets. Your cousins, your aunts, your uncles, your brothers, your sisters, your parents and finally your husband, your wife, your boyfriend or your girlfriend. You get them into that backpack. And don’t worry. I’m not gonna ask you to light it on fire. Feel the weight of that bag. Make no mistake – your relationships are the heaviest components in your life. Do you feel the straps cutting into your shoulders? All those negotiations and arguments, and secrets and compromises. You don’t need to carry all that weight. Why don’t you set that bag down? Some animals were meant to carry each other, to live symbiotically for a lifetime – star crossed lovers, monogamous swans. We are not those animals. The slower we move, the faster we die. We are not swans. We’re sharks.
Looking at Up in the Air not long after watching Anomalisa was an opportunity to reflect a little on the Information Age, Post-modernism (if that’s even still a thing), and then simply isolation period. I’ve noticed more and more lately what inter-personal relationships I’ve developed and cultivated in my life, and I’ve noticed as well that, despite the fact that I have a great number of associations and acquaintances, I really don’t have that many close friends, and that’s largely been by design. A great number of people can say that they know me, and that they’ve had coffee with me, but few of them would probably be able to say that they really know me, largely because, I avoid people. It’s not anything malevolent on my part I just usually prefer the company of my cats, my pups, my wife, and my books. There is some aspect of getting older that has played a part in this, but even as a kid I considered myself a lonely person.
So much so that a coworker recently christened me as “samishigariyasan” a Japanese word that literally translates to: “one who often gets or becomes lonely.” When she called me this (believe it or not in a positive way) I just sort of “clicked” because it was a moment where I thought, “yes, exactly, that’s absolutely me.”
I’m a lonely person and that’s largely because I prefer to be alone more often than with other people, a condition that seems, as I observe and consume more and more media, not terribly uncommon. As humanity develops more and more technologically and communication strategies and structures change so quickly, the way to find another person is changing at the same rate. More and more it seems clear that there’s a message in the art that human beings are trying to find another in these purely professional landscapes of hotel rooms, conferences, airplanes, taxi-cabs, and hotel bars. Looking at Ryan Bingham again that message seems terribly relevant as he talks to Alex about his “backpack” speech:
Alex Goran: Back home I don’t get to act the way I do.
Ryan Bingham: That’s why I don’t go back home.
Alex Goran: I know, you’re so cool Mr. “empty back pack”
Ryan Bingham: You know about my back pack?
Alex Goran: I Googled you.
Ryan Bingham: You did?
Alex Goran: It’s what us modern girls do when we have a crush.
Ryan Bingham: Does it bother you?
Alex Goran: It depends, is the bag empty because you hate people or you hate the baggage they come with?
Ryan Bingham: I don’t hate people, I’m not exactly a hermit.
Alex Goran: You don’t want to be tied down? Or the whole responsibility thing?
Ryan Bingham: I don’t know what originally sparked the back pack, I probably needed to be alone recently. I’ve been thinking about emptying the back pack or put everything back in it.
Anomalisa and Up in the Air are both films which explore the alienation of affection in the professional landscape that dominates so much of human experience. They’re films about lonely men who are trying desperately to find some level of happiness in a world of change and yet seemingly bland uniformity. Michael has pushed to a point where he cannot even recognize other people as anything other than robots, while Ryan only sees relationships as an impediment to success. These stories reveal a great deal about the current landscape of a significant number of human beings who are simply trying to do their jobs and live their lives as best they can.
Loneliness is never going to go away. It’s the way we as individuals combat our loneliness that will reveal the nature of our character. Looking at myself I may often be a lonely person, but I have my pets, and I have my stacks of books about ancient Greece, and I have a keurig which helps me drink my own weight in coffee. It may not be the strategy that works for everyone, but at least it’s not cheating on my spouse in a hotel room before apathetically buying my child a sex-toy because I can’t be bothered to take an interest in my child’s life.
All quotes cited from Anomalisa and Up in the Air were provided by IMDb.com.
I’ve provided a few links below to videos about the production and analysis of the film Anomalisa. I’d highly encourage them if the reader would like to know more about this incredible film.
Let the record reflect that I wrote an entire article about the movie Up In the Air without once bringing attention to the fact that I have an unashamed crush on Anna Kendrick and that…that…
Sigh…one day I will have self-control and dignity, but until then I remain a fool.