Friday, February 5, 2016

The Nightmare Before Lost in Translation, or Thoughts on Anomalisa

 Anomalisa (2015) is a brilliant stop motion movie with adult themes,  written and directed by Charlie Kauffman and Duke Johnson.  Because of the nature of the medium it has to be compared to Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), Team America (2004) and the Nightmare Before Christmas (1993).  Two thirds of the movies I listed are for children, and when I think of stop motion the old Christmas specials with Rudolph immediately come to mind, along with Ray Harryhausen’s glorious fighting skeletons in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958).
So despite a personal fascination with puppets, automatons and stop motion, which has been used throughout cinematic history from King Kong to BB-8, in my heart I do consider it a children’s genre.  That makes it difficult for me to accept nudity and sex scenes or really even serious drama in a film that is completely stop motion with no actual human characters.
Difficult, but not impossible; as the limitations of the genre compliments the surreal, off-kilter story you’ve come to expect from the creator of Being John Malkovich (1999, along with High Fidelity, arguably John Cusack’s last great film), Adaptation (2002), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and Synechdoche New York (2009).  Each of these films explores personal identity, artistic alienation and personal loss, as does Anomalisa, albeit on a much smaller scale.
Michael, a middle-aged puppet voiced by David Thewlis aka Remus Lupin, is experiencing an existential crisis where everyone he encounters has the same face and speaks in the same voice, as personified by Tom Noonan (the original Francis Dolarhyde in Michael Mann’s Manhunter, 1986).  But on a business trip in an anonymous hotel he encounters Lisa, a singular woman with a unique face and voice and experiences a brief respite of love and passion.  Lisa is voiced by the very singular Jennifer Jason Leigh, aka Daisy Domergue from The Hateful Eight.
This is literally a hand-crafted movie, with doll’s clothes, tiny wine glasses, mini rolling suitcases that both fascinate and distract from the scene.  I mean, how do you even make a tiny wine glass?  Something as simple as a puppet wiping fog off a mirror to see his reflection takes on a larger import.  Fortunately while the clothes, sets and props are all beautifully accurate; the puppets have seams and a deliberate artifice to both distract you from the inevitable uncanny valley and remind you that you are watching a representation of a human.  By the time the sex scene arrives you are invested enough in the characters that you will find yourself embarrassed by the intimacy, rather than titillated or amused, which I believe was the filmmaker’s intent.
I compared to Anomalisa to Lost in Translation (2003), but that really is a glib disservice to both movies.  They are similar in the sense that both feature a dissatisfied middle-aged man who checks into a hotel and meets a younger woman.   But the crisis Michael experiences is far more terrifying, surreal and existential than Bill Murray’s laconic and bemused fascination with Scarlett Johannsson. 
Japan has a tradition of classical puppet theater or Bunraku 文楽, with adult, Shakespearian themes of star-crossed lovers and suicide in which the narrator does all the voices of the characters, much like Tom Noonan’s role in this movie.  The original terminator exoskeleton was a combination of puppetry and stop motion, as was the alien queen in Aliens (1986).  It requires a Zen-like patience to photograph a model frame by frame, applying subtle gestures to simulate a movement that will zip by the viewer.  Time slows and can actually stand still for a moment, which fits in perfectly within the lonely hotel of Anomalisa.


my first novel? thanks for asking:) I wrote a 4 book supernatural martial arts series concerning the ongoing feud between a group of kung-fu killer witches in san francsico’s chinatown.