Is adulthood somehow un-American?
In The Pale King – his unfinished last book – David Foster Wallace presents the postponement of adulthood as a kind of great American symptom. For him it is the indispensable metaphor of American malaise.
I rather go in for the idea that the deferral of adulthood can be seen to define the times in which we live – be they ‘postindustrial’ or ‘postmodern’ or even ‘late capitalist’. (I’m not sure if this should be considered comic or tragic, though.)
So we can see why Wallace tended to be sentimental about adult traits. A bit politically tone-deaf, he was inclined to overrate the virtues of unruffledly doing one’s duty or of just taking responsibility for shit.
This was less than adult of him. And it’s true: he wrote a lot about adulthood, but he never wrote an adult book. The Pale King is still full of the kind of sterile metafictional stuntwork of which it itself disapproves. Deeply at odds with itself, could it have been completed?
If this idea of a failure of adulthood really is the masterkey to the mute rooms of modern American sadness, then it makes sense that the recent American cinema has seen so little adult art. Typically it has mistaken ‘adult’ for adult, as if violent spectacle was a shortcut to seriousness. The Revenant, for instance, is a turgid tale of revenge with as much subtlety as a suicide belt – yet it was this film, not Charlie Kaufman’s ‘animated feature’ Anomalisa, that swept the board at the last Oscars.
And few American films are more fully adult than Anomalisa.
It’s about a man in middle age. This man, Michael, has made himself a kind of guru, a guru for the customer-services sector. He is in fact an authority on insincerity, having published a bestselling book called How May I Help You Help Them? The film is animated in stop-motion, and, since it’s animated, it’s free to suspend the demands of realism a little. It indeed sustains an oneiric slipperiness that enables everything in it to reflect Michael’s state of mind. Hence we learn that Michael is afflicted by any of the many disorders of consciousness that attract such diagnostic glosses as alienation, depersonalisation, derealisation and so on. Michael is lonely.
He has lived so long that nothing now seems new. Life’s daily domain is dead to him. He feels as far removed from it as man is from machine, animal from mineral. Not even his flesh is immune: his face, more than once, seems to reveal itself as synthetic, a sort of skin for a metallic substrate. The effect intensifies every day.
Increasingly distant from it as he therefore feels, the domain of ordinary life seems to him less and less differentiated, more and more dismally uniform. So it is a world in which only one actor does every voice. Tom Noonan voices Michael’s wife, his ex and even the bellboy – who is as oilily obliging as he has been taught to be by Michael’s book, but really only wants a tip.
The film is as secular in mise-en-scène as it is in sensibility. Amongst its settings are an airport, a hotel bedroom, a hotel bar. This is its domain, the domain of newsless life. And this – we do well to remember – is the domain which is in philosophy customarily cited as a saving category. Kaufman shows us that the philosophers’ appeal is a piece of misdirection. For ordinary life is what, in his film, is the problem. The problem is that such syndromes as alienation, depersonalisation, derealisation – these are ordinary. Loneliness is ordinary.
Into this lonely life bursts Lisa. Lisa is a ditzy Deschanel type, a pixie with a manic manner and a scar she hides behind her hair (it works as a visual index of her idiosyncrasy and of her vulnerability). Jennifer Jason Leigh furnishes her with the only female voice in the film.
At the beginning of Beyond Good and Evil Nietzsche asks us to suppose that truth ‘is a woman’. Kaufman, I think, asks us to suppose that heaven is. In the figure of Lisa he pursues a religionless notion of paradise that precisely works for us now, in the present in which we live. For his film is about what paradise is. In it, paradise is actual, but anything but absolute. It has, as it were, a local habitation and a name. And it has a date – indeed, a timestamp. It has a date of birth and a date of death. It expires. It is as fleeting as an intimate night.
The intimate night that Michael and Lisa spend together is the film’s best scene. Note that the stop-motion method is associated with films for kids, so this film’s adult sensibility, and Michael’s sensibility in particular – Zadie Smith calls it his Weltschmerz – was already remarkable for a film of this sort. But the sexual nature of this scene is still more anomalous – and perhaps it is as vividly raw as it is because the actors are not actors, and because we – as Weltschmerzy ourselves as is Michael – are so used to seeing actors fuck. When have we seen puppets fuck?
The word ‘Anomalisa’ is coined precoitally. In Michael’s bed Lisa is nervous. She starts rambling a little, randomly remarking that she learned the word ‘anomaly’ from his book (she is eternally ready to tell him how clever he is). When – absentminded himself – he alights on the word, she says she loves it and asks: ‘Will you call me that all the time?’ She is at what Philip Roth calls ‘the beginning of the indulgence of the fantasy of forever, the tritest fantasy in the world.’ She makes an adjustment: ‘There’s not going to be an “all the time”, is there? It’s just now. Some weird thing for just now.’
‘There’s not going to be an “all the time”, is there?’ And because there isn’t, that can’t be where paradise is. Paradise has to be had in time, in the anomaly. It is not a place. It is an anomalous moment of surrender to the specificity of another. It is this embrace, the embrace in which we briefly become anonymous.
This is the best film Kaufman has made. It has above all the audacity not to be disappointed (for the last thing the film is is sad). Love is alive in it, but Kaufman has not given us another Interstellar. His film doesn’t ask whether our loves – all of them anomalous – might be gathered up and unified as one principle. It doesn’t ask if our loves might be stitched, somehow, into a sort of shield. It is too adult for that.
Buy the film here.
9/10 | ☆☆☆☆☆