Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Film

Six Ways of Looking at Anomalisa

Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Film

Six Ways of Looking at Anomalisa

Article excerpt


One thing the academic study of religion does well is to get people thinking about the nature of human fulfilment. What do we humans ultimately want or need in order to address what seems to be our primal sense of lack or incompleteness? How can the part reconnect with the whole? The various religions propose widely different answers or approaches. Most direct our attention "elsewhere," insisting that fulfilment is possible only through an extraordinary or supernatural supplement to the ordinary world. Others-the Ch'an/Zen inflections of Buddhism, for example- hold that fulfilment is found in a more transparent relationship with things as they are. The effect of considering diverse perspectives on such an urgent question is curious. For some students, it is merely frustrating. For others, it becomes an enriching exercise in what Keats called "negative capability:" the ability to entertain contradictory points of view without attempting to reconcile them.1 It suggests the idea that the human world may require an ambiguous description.

Anomalisa (2015), the latest film from writer and director Charlie Kaufman, raises this fundamental religious question and exemplifies the salutary irresolution or openness that it can inspire. Specifically, the film explores the tensions between the yearning for fulfilment "elsewhere" and the possibilities inherent in our immediate circumstances. It does not answer the question it raises, but it illustrates some of the ways we simultaneously frustrate and fulfil ourselves in pursuit of our answers. In the spirit of the film, then, what follows is a sequence of six perspectives on Anomalisa, each of which is intended to illuminate important aspects of the film's concerns, and all of which open up more questions than they resolve. The aim is to show how the film's ambiguities mirror and comment on the perplexities that result from an engagement with religious questions concerning the sources of fulfilment in life.

1.Anomalisa is a "Charlie Kaufman Movie"

That is to say, Anomolisa is a member of an anomalous category.2 Usually when a person's name is attached to a group of films, the name refers to a director, actor, or character whose mark is distinctive enough to set the films apart in some way (e.g., Bergman, Bogart, or Bond, respectively). But Kaufman first became known as a writer of screenplays directed by others: Being John Malkovich (1999) and Adaptation (2002) by Spike Jonze; Human Nature (2001) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) by Michel Gondry. More recently he has begun to direct his own scripts: Synechdoche, New York (2008), and now, Anomolisa. All of these are "Charlie Kaufman movies" and all were written by Charlie Kaufman, so perhaps it is as a writer that he makes his mark. However, not all films written by Charlie Kaufman are clearly "Charlie Kaufman movies." In the one case where Kaufman did not have a significant degree of creative control over the finished product (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, dir. George Clooney, 2002), the results are dubious.3 Therefore, let's say that a Charlie Kaufman movie is one that makes it through production with the stamp of Kaufman's characteristic preoccupations intact. This definition works, at least for present purposes, because Kaufman's scripts do display a remarkably consistent set of preoccupations-a kind of thematic DNA that unfolds differently in each project but which is always traceable back to the mind of the maker.

This unifying theme begins where religious quests often begin-that is, with a sense of lack or incompletion. A person feels that something is wrong with his or her life, that something very basic is missing. Although they are alive, they feel that they are not really living. What they think they need in order to overcome the gap that separates them from a real or more complete life varies from film to film. Usually the focus is on relationships-achieving some sort of ideal union with another person (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine). …

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