by Emily Sammon
Since my first delighted viewing of Wallace and Gromit as a child I’ve been a huge lover of stop-motion animation, which I consider to be an entirely underrated and underutilized art form. So when I discovered that a full-length, R-rated, stop-motion film was in theatres, directed by the strange and existentially challenging auteur Charlie Kaufman, I was excited at the opportunity to see this dear craft elevated to a more sophisticated level. What the film ended up conveying to me was surprisingly honest and, I think, a good reflection on human desire as we gear up to explore the wants and aspirations of the Millennial generation during this year’s John Courtney Murray Forum.
I took a bus to the Landmark one Sunday afternoon, bought some nachos, and settled into my giant fancy recliner to see what psychosis-filled mind-trip Charlie had invented for this newest feature, “Anomalisa.” The movie begins with a constellation of muttering voices, which one quickly infers belong to in-flight plane passengers. A couple argues, seat partners exchange culturally relevant small talk, and a child nags her mother for greater attention. There is a muttered monotony to their voices that immediately suggests business-as-usual. But as the first few minutes of film reel past, the viewer begins to realize something odd about these voices: they aren’t merely representative of the flattened humdrum of everyday crowds of humanity, but are in fact The. Same. Voice.
This realization is immediately unsettling. However, the film’s protagonist, Michael, doesn’t seem to be deeply bothered by this fact—irked, maybe, but mostly resigned to it. Michael alone has his own distinctive voice, and one subtly realizes that he alone also has his own distinctive face, because despite differences in size, hair, and clothing everyone else not only sounds but looks the same, all of humanity sporting one androgynous, neutral face reminiscent of those given to crash test dummies.
Viewers eventually pick up from contextual hints that this isn’t the true reality of things, and that we are viewing the world through Michael’s eyes: this nightmarish world of uniformity is his own unique affliction. The story takes place entirely in a greyish-beige, almost intentionally over-generic-looking, convention center hotel. It is populated by a sea of silicon puppets who all look the same and speak and act in drearily predictable ways. Michael’s individual scenario is exacerbated by his ironic career as a customer service guru: he is in town to give a talk to managers and HR reps on optimizing their interactions with the public. “Always remember the customer is an individual,” he faithlessly opines to a crowd of identical faces, “Just like you.” Everything about this scenario, both on the tactile level of film-making and within the narrative itself, oozes artifice and a dearth of authenticity. The very atmosphere of such an existence almost justifies Michael’s very obvious malaise, and we are quickly tempted to pity his situation.
However, what comes next shifts our perception of Michael. During a night of heavy boozing and attempts to pick up an old flame, he suddenly hears another voice from an adjacent hotel room. It is an average, almost girlish-seeming woman’s voice, but to Michael’s tired ears it is positively mellifluous. He seeks out this woman, a call center representative in town for his event, and easily seduces her. Lisa has insipid interests, low self-esteem, and an ugly facial scar that suggests a history of abuse. She is essentially a human doormat, but to Michael, starved for contact with another “real” human being, she is a goddess. He lusts for her voice and asks, to her discomfort, to kiss her scar. The two have a disconcertingly realistic sexual encounter, and Michael murmurs to her, “I don’t want to lose you. I lose everyone.” Inevitably, he does: through his awakening to her faults and idiosyncrasies, Lisa soon becomes for Michael like the rest of the irritating masses who are not worth his time, attention, or love. The movie ends with Michael wrapped in the same old despair.
It hurt some to watch this movie, though I can appreciate that it hurt. The thing is, I think we all feel like Michael sometimes. The world— especially our post-industrial, mass-market, automated American world— seems primed to alienate us, and particularly the young among us. The Millennials stand on the cusp of adulthood, famously seeking “authenticity” above all other things in their world of artifice. But, largely divorced from organic local cultures or communities, this newest generation of adults seems particularly vulnerable to Michael’s brand of cynicism. We Millennials promised ourselves we would break free of the heavy capitalistic fetters that constrain us and condition our desires. We assured ourselves of a future where things would be better, more attractive, more fulfilling. We were sold on the promise that experience and novelty would fill that void meant for rootedness and meaning at our centers. Like the philandering Michael, many young Millennials have already found and cast aside a multitude of “Lisas”— in purchases, relationships, outings— only to be disappointed. Each new thing melts into a sea of sameness, each new person we greedily love dissolves into the ether. “You can’t keep her,” Reality sneers, “and she can’t save you: you are alone.”
And so we are. Alone, trapped in our inauthentic lives, primed to resign ourselves to Michael’s unending depression. Is there a way to escape? Catholic tradition has a predictable answer to such a question: yes and no.
The first of the Catholic hermits, the Desert Fathers, are famous for their short lessons from the desert, which often contain pithy aphorisms or takeaways. One of their most common lessons is also one of the most challenging: if one is tempted to leave one’s monastic cell, the solution is always to stay in one’s cell. The solution to restlessness is not to seek rest in distractions, but to confront the demands of reality as they most immediately present themselves. The most pressing reality for the Fathers, the one in their cell that they sought to escape, was God Himself.
The most pressing, abiding reality for Millennials is also God Himself, strange a thought as that seems. But when our world seems as plastic and off-kilter as Michael’s, how do we find the reminder of God’s presence? How do we discipline ourselves to remain in the cell of our lives, attentive to every moment instead of the hope of distraction or a better elsewhere? Perhaps stop-motion animation itself provides a clue. For all the drudgery of the plot of Anomalisa and for all the beigeness of Michael’s life, the animation impresses itself upon the viewer as something precious and miraculous. Each second of the film is deliberately staged and separately photographed; the producers assure us that in such a film “there are no accidents.” Every prop is hand-crafted, every expression subtly realized over hours of work. Little imprints of the animators can be seen occasionally on Michael and Lisa as they converse, hairs or clothing shifting slightly to the touch of unseen hands. What a perfect metaphor this medium ends up being for our lives, miraculously crafted and propelled forward by a Creator who is ever present but never seen. Bitter, dissatisfied Michael may have been oblivious to the care manifest in his slightest breaths and movements. But we ourselves can be present to the one who cares for us and nourishes us, if only we choose to embrace, for just a moment, our contemplative cell in the midst of the everyday.