At long last I watched Anomalisa, the new Charlie Kaufman movie with stop-motion characters. This is a weird movie. Thankfully its weird in a good way. The way that makes you think about something harder rather than dismiss it outright. As soon as I finished watching it, I searched desperately for what other people had to say about it. You should watch this movie more than once and you should watch it on as big a screen as possible.
Here’s the setup. Michael Stone is a customer service self-help writer of some acclaim. He travels to Cincinnati to give a speech where he stays at a hotel called The Fregoli, a nod to a psychological delusion that plays a role in the film. Michael Stone sees everyone as having the same face and voice. We as the audience see the world in the same way that Michael Stone does. It’s likely that the other characters don’t suffer from the same delusion. In his hotel room, Michael hears the distinct voice of a woman and frantically searches for her. He finds her and takes her to the bar for drinks. Soon Michael and the woman, named Lisa, are in Michael’s hotel room where they have sex. The next morning Michael starts hearing Lisa’s unique voice as the voice of everyone else. Instead of running away with Lisa, Michael decides to return home to his wife and son.
This movie requires attention to detail for it to be analyzed. There are a lot of very subtle signs that may or may not reveal larger thematic ideas. To properly analyze this movie, one would ideally have taken notes while watching it and possibly rewinded the movie during key scenes to watch them again.
This film could be analyzed from a material perspective. That is to say, what meaning can be found in how the film was created. The film walks a line between reality and fantasy. The events that take place could easily exist in the real world, so why did Kaufman use stop-motion animation for this particular story? Who really knows? Is the animation style merely a gimmick?
Not every story needs to have a lesson. I am somewhat familiar with this idea. Many stories exist to be didactic, meaning they have a specific lesson or moral. Often an entire story can be distilled into one specific lesson. This is true of fairy tales and stories in the Bible. I would say that the moral of Anomalisa is to look for beauty in other people, the basic gist of Michael Stone’s customer service speech. Empathize with other people. Everyone has pain and everyone is a unique being. Smile because it requires little effort and could potentially make someone else’s day a lot better. Anyone who has worked in customer service already knows this. It’s not a radical new idea. Everyone claims that Michael Stone’s book greatly improved their business, yet his advice seems obvious. He is telling people obvious ideas that they should already be implementing.
Also, Michael sees every other person as having the same face and voice so why would you take his advice. He literally treats all other people the same because they are all the same in his mind. Michael is also the kind of guy who immediately attempts to cheat on his wife the second he arrives in Cincinnati. His credibility is suspect. Maybe his advice works for other people, but his own life is certainly a disaster.
Later in the film, Michael remarks to Lisa, “Sometimes there’s no lesson. That’s a lesson in itself.” I really like this quote despite its circularity. No lesson is a lesson to people who expect lessons from stories/experiences. This might be the major theme of Anomalisa. This is also a depressing idea to think about. One can always look for a lesson so why deny someone this ability? I’m not sure where I’m going with this. I suppose I like lessons sometimes, so I’m not willing to accept a scenario where there are no lessons, especially in a movie where everything is seemingly littered with meaning. Humans are predisposed to find and create meaning wherever they can. To me meaning and lessons are practically interchangeable. If there’s no lesson at all in Anomalisa, then what’s the point of watching it?