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FILMMAKERS USE STOP-MOTION ANIMATION TO REVEAL HIDDEN RESERVOIRS OF EMOTION

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Michael Stone, voiced by David Thewlis, arrives in Cincinnati to take part in a conference. He is the author of a bestselling book on successful customer service practices, techniques that work based on their ability to help practitioners focus on establishing strong interpersonal dynamics, whether via phone or in person. It is obvious though, in Stone’s interaction with his seatmate during the flight, that he has serious issues engaging with others. He is ill at ease, seemingly allergic to contact of any kind.

On its own, such a character trait would be more than enough for most skilled storytellers to fashion a narrative capable of reveling in the discomfort of the protagonist and those around him or her and for an intuitive performer to create levels of nuance in the face of isolation. But Charlie Kaufman, the mole king of buried humanity, dares to push even further down this dark and lonely hole. He and animator Duke Johnson mold a world of clay and breath life into it, giving it an ingenious spark of movement and energy along with a consciousness that so eerily mimics our own, yet boldly wanders off on its own thanks to a key decision.

Tom Noonan provides the voices of everyone in this world—male or female, young or old. Noonan is a gifted independent film scene talent, but an odd figure. A tall, imposing man with a baldhead that gives him the appearance of a crane, he nonetheless projects an unsettling calm that has been employed in more mainstream fare, on both television and in movies, for villainous turns. He is the freak of the week who walks the fine line between man and monster.

There is a delicious irony casting him here as the singular voice of every character in this world, and then not requiring him to disguise or alter his voice in any significant way. This clearly says something more intriguing about Stone. Kaufman wants us to appreciate the abject boredom and the oppressive sense of disconnection that Stone lives with each and every day. Life has no color, flavor or sensation, and in that way, Stone takes his place alongside the menagerie of characters that Kaufman has presented us in his past works. Think about Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) in “Being John Malkovich” or Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”; these were characters lost in a fog or, in the case of Barish, eager to retreat from the harsh reality of emotional engagement.

Stone’s perceptions change during a chance encounter with Lisa Hesselman (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a Midwestern woman who drove to the conference with a co-worker so that she could listen to Stone and bask in his presence for a brief and shining moment. She’s a “regular Jane,” unable to see herself as unique or attractive, but Stone “hears” her, the distinct beauty of her voice, and it wakes him up. We understand and appreciate the fact that he has never felt this before, not with his wife or his young son or some long-forgotten unrequited love in his past. Lisa becomes the anomaly that knocks him off track.

Lisa sings Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” to Stone and in that moment Kaufman shows us how much of a kindred spirit Lisa really is for this poor man. Not only is her rendition a melancholy miracle, but just when we (Stone and the audience) think she’s finished, she continues on, maintaining a stranglehold on this much-needed attention. She doesn’t want to let this spotlight instance fade.

It would be difficult to discuss “Anomalisa” without addressing the full-frontal nudity and the sex scene between Stone and Lisa. We’ve seen, thanks to “Team America: World Police,” puppet sex played for shock and laughs, but here, Kaufman and Johnson offer a degree of fumbling intimacy that is more human than most of the live action couplings of the past several years. Steering clear of concerns for lighting the actors properly, and the question of how close can the shoot get to the line between the tasteful and the pornographic (which Gasper Noe crossed in “Love”), “Anomalisa” simply lives in the moment.

And once it had past, Kaufman proves just how fleeting such feeling can be. I’ve always respected the neuroses in his characters, but never truly “felt” engaged by them. Yet, this time, I get the hurt that Stone finally feels. He has loved and lost, and it has left him even more hopeless than he was before. I wish he could watch the fourth season of “Louie” and see that such joy doesn’t have to be an anomaly.