Nobody looks at the world quite like Charlie Kaufman. He showed himself to be an incredibly talented writer with Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In 2008, he added the role of director for Synecdoche, New York.
These films share a view of life as Rubik’s cube with all squares the same color. Why do we keep watching? Because he makes you believe he’s on the verge of figuring it out.
Kaufman is a wizard at showing us truths about ourselves without preaching. His characters just happen to go through learning experiences that are similar to the ones you and I encounter. Which brings me to his latest film, Anomalisa.
This story began as part of composer Carter Burwell’s 2005 project called Theater of the New Ear. Kaufman, together with Joel and Ethan Coen, wrote one-act plays were called “sound plays”. Actors read their scripts on music stands, with musicians and a Foley artist sitting nearby.
The sound play Anomalisa only had three performances, but that was enough to create interest in making a film from it. Funding came primarily from a Kickstarter campaign. Somewhere in the transition to film, Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson (Community’s stop-motion Christmas episode) decided to render Anomalisa entirely in stop-motion.
It’s helpful, but not essential, to know an item of psychological trivia before taking on this story. In Fregoli syndrome, the patient believes someone who keeps changing appearance is menacing him/ her. The hotel in Anomalisa is the Al Fregoli. Most of the characters sound alike, because Tom Noonan voices all but two of them.
The protagonist, Michael Stone, is given a lot of vocal subtlety by David Thewlis. Michael is an inspirational speaker par excellence, traveling to Cincinnati so he can give a speech called “How May I Help You To Help Them?” It’s a speech he’s given a few dozen times, and his lack of enthusiasm shows.
Michael has women on his mind. He’s thinking seriously about leaving his wife. Besides that, he’s in the same city as Bella, a woman he abandoned eleven years before. Michael can’t resist calling her-they are in the same city, after all. Their reunion goes every bit as well as you’d expect.
When you least expect it, in the middle of humdrum chaos, Michael meets someone. Her name is Lisa, and she adores Michael’s work. Lisa, who is voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh, brings the promise of a spark to Michael’s rather bland routine.
The three voice actors-Thewlis, Leigh, and Noonan-are terrific. All reprise their stage roles here.
For scoring, Burwell used some themes from the original performances but also wrote new ones. He wrote, “In some ways, the musical challenges had not changed-I was trying…to emphasize the humanity and vulnerability of the characters so that, as they open their hearts, we open ours to them as well.”
Johnson said in an interview with Variety that a typical animated film spends two years on research on development. Anomalisa had only six weeks, virtually unheard-of in the industry.
Every item on screen had to be fabricated. The pictures hanging on the wall, glasses used in the bar scenes, even the buttons on character’s clothing. Johnson also mentioned in the Variety interview that the male character’s belt buckles work. The film used 18 Michael figures and 6 Lisas.
Lighting the small set posed special challenges, as did lighting the characters. Trying to get light reflected in the character’s eyes without casting glare onto the character’s faces was, in Kaufman’s word, “crazy-making”.
The end result justifies their efforts. You acclimate quickly to Anomalisa’s not-quite-natural world populated by hinge-headed puppets. You recognize its everyday banality-the empty greetings, the pat conversations. When you are most off-guard, Kaufman presents his message about love and the dangers of having it compete with one’s killer angels.
Theme: Stop Motion
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