Charlie Kaufman's new film is set in Connecticut. Well, nominally. It's actually not set somewhere so much as anywhere – an anonymous, interchangeable world of bland hotel lobbies leading to nicely made-up suites. Service encounters are simultaneously object-oriented and substanceless, ritual exchanges, a means of masking empty space. Those encountered talk like Hal from '2001', their modulated smoothness the sonic equivalent of the lobbies they inhabit. The casting of David Thewlis as Michael, a Brit adrift in America, neatly underlines this. (I kept having to remind myself creator Charlie Kaufman isn't English himself.) Remember the old Bob Dylan line, “There'd be no point talking to me, It'd be just like talking to you”? The conceit is that to him everywhere is like this and everyone, men and women, both look and sound the same.
Which makes it bizarre to consider this was made with puppets. Generally, we file puppetry animation alongside cartoons, and expect the same zippy pace. (Think of how we picture 'Wallace and Gromit' as so quirkily English, yet how frenetic it would seem if filmed as a live action.) And we expect characters to look iconic rather than identikit, coming complete with some distinguishing tell like Mickey Mouse's ears. Here things proceed at a trudging pace, including a checking-in to a hotel and elevator ride to the room in all its excruciating endlessness, with the room card that only seems to work the fifth or sixth time you swipe it.
And yet its actually so perfectly suited to the form. Everything, from sets to characters, looks produced. People are just assemblages of parts given motion. Most animations avoid the uncanny valley, the disquieting midpoint between iconic and realistic. This film finds its uncanniest depths and pitches its tent there.
It would be tempting to see in this a critique of alienation and corporate conformity, seen through the prism of service culture. But when Michael turns his blundering convention speech into an off-script rant against The Man, he merely looks ludicrous. And in his dream the depersonalised mass cry not “you must conform”, the catchphrase of Pod people everywhere, but “we love you”. We learn early that this is the (non)relationship he has with his own family, an indication we'll be spending time with not with a heroic rebel but one of life's losers.
The customer service guide he's written seems to have not only read but been absorbed by everyone he encounters. He's not only implicated in this world – he's not far off having created it, having made his world this anonymising purgatory he now has to lie in it's king size bed. Kaufman has a penchant for allegorical names and not only is Michael's surname Stone, not the most porous or flexible or substances, but the hotel he stays in is named after the Fregoli delusion. And the image of him checking into his own myopia is strong. Though what he's really suffering from is a case of solipsism less acute than all-embracing.
Michael's constructed a world for himself where others have become instrumentalised by him, there to help him with his problems. To the point where all human encounters become service encounters, the need for love and understanding equivalent to the need for room service. And of course he ruminates ceaselessly over his problems, unable to see it's this which has become his problem. (The tag line for this film should really be ‘Instrumentalising Others – A How Not-to Guide’.) He seems so inured in this world that not only does he no longer notice other people as other people, he's even stopped noticing he doesn't notice. There's one scene in the whole film not seen through his eyes, a brief coda, mostly there to show the world with his filter removed.
Then he encounters Lisa, the one person he's able to see and hear for who she is. And immediately, and quite literally, he pursues her. Which cues in a virulent debate over whether that makes her a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. (See for example this Guardian discussion.) Certainly he obsessively assumes she can provide him with life validation. He fixates upon her identifying facial scar, while she does her best to conceal it behind her hair.
At one point he buys a Japanese sex toy. And some have suggested she is this toy, animated into personhood only in his warped mind. (See here for an example.) Certainly, we're given multiple points of comparison between the two, a clear sign she is being objectified by him. But to turn a comparison into an equivalence is too literal a reading. In the morning-after scene, perhaps the film's key moment, he sees her turn back into another faceless face, as she starts to recite the set platitudes he's heard earlier. Were she the toy, surely it's that she would turn into. In fact, I'm going to argue almost the opposite about her.
It's not precisely spelt out why he's able to perceive her uniquely, but it must be to do with her lack of 'face' - of presentation. Unlike the smoothly smiling mass she's almost childishly guileless, spilling out her lack of her sexual experience. Yet when he hits on calling her Anomalisa she asks to be called that “all the time”, then corrects herself – there won't be any “all the time”. And for all his compulsively gushing that this is a life-changing event, that they should straight away move cities to be together, its her assessment which holds. While he compulsively grasps at straws she – if crippled by low self-esteem - is grounded. (To a degree they resemble to the identical twins in Kaufman's earlier 'Adaptation', one self-important and self-absorbed, the other louche but at home in the world.)
And we recognise the same truth as her. We're expected to not just recognise the Dream Girl trope but simultaneously see the folly in it. A self-pitying middle-aged man will manage to turn his life around by screwing an impressionable younger woman? Yeah, right. “I thought she was special and unique, so special that being with her could change everything. But she was just like the rest!” How many times have you heard some sad sap burble that one in a bar, as he cries into his beer? We don't expect it to work for him, and then it doesn't.
But the film's great paradox, which makes the Dream Girl debate so potent yet so irresolvable, is this - Lisa's easily the most likeable character in the film. (There's such a false opposition between her low self-esteem and his insistence she's extraordinary, I felt like yelling at the screen “no, you're just okay. And it's okay to be okay!” I am at heart a simple soul like that.) But then most-liked out of this company may be a prize for which there's little competition. More to the point, she's also the most realised. She may well be a bundle of quirks and insecurities, but Michael's no more than a set of symptoms with a name attached. Lisa's not just the most real character to Michael but to us too. And yet the film remains his.
And this paradox is accentuated by Lisa ostensibly coming out of it the best. She writes to Michael in a bookended counterpoint to the “fuck you” letter he still keeps from his ex, suggesting the encounter's instilled in her a new-found confidence. Is Kaufman simply trying to reverse the Dream Girl trope, where the validation rubs off him and sticks to her? If so it doesn't really work. For all its fumbling attempts at intimacy, there's a creepiness – even a wrongness – about their one night stand which goes against any notion there's validation to be claimed.
It doesn't seem too unreasonable to suggest that Michael is a dark reflection of Kaufman himself, his own worst tendencies taken out and stuffed inside a latex fetish. But perhaps the film succeeds too well in this, in getting inside Michael's head, and can't extricate itself when it needs to. One small line stood out, when Lisa's friend encourages her to go with him because “he's gorgeous”. Which must surely qualify as one of the most unearned lines in cinema history. Perhaps she's supposed to have her own perception filter, which can't tell fame from attraction. But it's one of several points which come too close to wish-fulfilment for comfort.
Some films you review because you feel you have something to say about them. For others its almost the opposite, you need some way of working out how you felt about them and it might as well be pen and paper. And there's nothing wrong with the second kind, films don't have to be neat and tidy. But sometimes when you have a conflicted reaction to a film its because the film itself is conflicted.
THE DEVIL SPEAKS TRUE
A version of 'Macbeth' played out in actual or semi darkness? It did cause me to joke about 'The Scottish Murder in the Dark' and all the rest of it. Yet as a way to see one of Shakespeare's most claustrophobic plays, it also appealed. As it turned out, Goat and Monkey had a different fish to fry. They describe their performance's means and ends like so:
”'The Devil Speaks True' uses wireless headphones, projection, scent, a physical performer and binaural sound design to plunge audiences into an intimate, 360 degree experience... a chilling exploration of the psychological effects of war.”
Scenes from the play were alternated with testimonies from those who warfare had inflicted with post traumatic stress disorder. When not in pitch black, the onstage action was confined to a few semi-static tableaus, in a manner similar to illustrations in a novel.
The headphone-based sound design by Dominic Kennedy was indeed evocative. The disturbing nature of the performance, warned of in both pre-publicity and by the ushers before you went in, seemed to concern itself with the interview accounts. But it was the sound design which unsettled. The headphones trap you in with the sounds and voices, they're directed at you rather than disseminated, like you're inside someone else's psychoscape. And sound devoid of context often takes on an eerie effect.
'The Rest is Silence' by DreamThinkSpeak, also took a Shakespeare play as a jumping-off point. But where they condensed 'Hamlet' down to a skeleton, this was more reductive still - like chopping some limbs off 'Macbeth' and shaking them at you.
It might seem charmingly traditional to assume an audience will know Shakespeare from their eddyercation, along with how to do up a bow tie and which direction to pass port in. But in actuality it's something much more modern. The performance is something like a hypertext, patching itself together out of chunks of iambic verse and testimony tapes. But so little of the play survives it becomes a hypertext with no underlying text. Sections were rendered inaudible, as if just a sound source.
The focus on Macbeth's erstwhile buddy Banquo as the PTSD survivor becomes problematic. One reason given is that he sees the witches. But while (as we're told) survivors can continue to 'see' memories of incidents they can't shake, there's no suggestion they also get beset by apparitions – so the connection seems unclear. And besides, Macbeth sees the witches too. Plus, in what's normally regarded as Banquo's best-known appearance, he returns as a ghost to silently accuse his old mucker of his murder. Which fits the model more closely, though it makes Macbeth himself seem more like the afflicted. So why not make Macbeth the subject of their 'Macbeth'?
But that would start to associate the affliction with feelings of guilt. Which would undermine the narrow focus where sufferers are treated as witnesses of horror, never involved in what they saw. A kidnapped IT consultant is treated as on a par with soldiers. Let's not get on to how or why a soldier might experience guilt, or whether or not the feeling is rational or justified. (This isn't, and doesn't have to be, a work about the British occupation of Iraq or Afghanistan.) The point is that this narrowness seems symptomatic of treating the play as a set of pullable quotes. You cut up the cloth to make your patches, and the big picture cannot help but be lost.
There's also more prosaic problems. I find I need time to tune in to the heightened nature of Shakespeare's language, and the everyday English of the testimonies kept throwing me back out of it. And the lack of narrative leaves the performance with no real momentum. We don't just not get the play's ending, we really don't get much of an ending at all.
Lin Gardner's Guardian review summed the problem up as not enough 'Macbeth'. But perhaps it was the other way round. For what I found to stay speaking to me afterwards was not the Bard’s timeless verse but the survivor testimonies. Perhaps they, set among the soundscapes, would have been enough. Or perhaps they could have been interspersed with multiple quotes from literature and poetry which seemed to suggest at post-trauma, rather than trying to pin the whole of it onto poor Banquo.
Some intriguing ideas made for an interesting failure. But still, a failure.