By J. Adrián Tolentino García (Mexico City)


Anomalisa: Nihilism and Paranoia

“The most human of all desires is the desire of being desired.”
Francisco Galán

To contrast reality from the mental has been a subject of debate for many centuries, since Platonic times. Psychologists, psychiatrists, philosophers and even theologians have pretended to answer this two-dimensional problem. In philosophy’s history we find two big and influential factions fighting among them to solve the enigma: realists vs idealists. The main thesis of philosopher Humberto Maturana’s ‘The tree of knowledge’ is enough to demonstrate how this problem is not that simple. He argues that it’s not a matter of dichotomies or divergencies. Everything is more complex. The question is not if we see (reality) or imagine (mind). The question is: how do we see while imagining, and how do we imagine while seeing? Maturana speaks of a circularity. What we see is mentally complemented, and what we imagine is complemented by our sight. Reality is thus constitutive of the mind and mind is constitutive of reality.

Mind constitutes reality through language. The concept we have of things confers them meaning. It is not the same to see a vertical corrugated cylinder with a big green spot on its top than seeing a ‘tree’. Calling it a ‘tree’ connotes other sort of properties. By calling it a tree, what we actually see is flora and fruit, the production of oxygen, the deep roots, the combustible wood; even if it’s invisible. “Language enables experiences”. And language is mental, cognitive. This is how mind constitutes what we see in reality.

Of course, there happens to be psychiatric disorders that modify the way people perceive reality. There are those who suffer these kinds of diseases, as, for instance, schizophrenics. They have on their eye something that lies not in reality, but inside their minds. But they have the firm conviction that it is ‘there’. They could almost feel physically what they have in their minds. Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson present their last movie with uncommon lucidity. The spectator will interpret this film in a thousand ways —as is usual in Kaufman’s works—. The representationalist debate on reality is just one style of watching Anomalisa. It’s full of images, symbolisms, philosophies, diseases, thoughts and emotions. This is why it’s “the most human film of the year”. The brilliantness of this film, without bearing in mind the magnificent special effects, sounds and filming, compresses the contemporary humaneness in one day-to-day situation. Achieving all this with no human elements, but the voice.

Michael Stone, the spectator-captivating protagonist, is a writer. He publishes self-help books. His latest book has brought him fame. The usual motif of the successful man with a tormented spirit returns to the screens. Michael is thus unhappy. At the airport, his gaze evokes the melancholies of a man who spends his life helping others without even achieving to help his own. He wears his earphones and listens to ‘Flowers Duet’, from Delibe’s opera, Lakmé. The operatic scene remits to a surrounding of joy and peace. Two Indian women picking up flowers, in nature’s tranquility. The wonderfulness in this piece is listening to their voices. But not for Michael…

He arrives at the Cincinnati hotel, ‘The Fregoli’, which, on the basis of a remark given by Michael’s ex, Bella Amarossi, is a big and fancy one. He necessarily comes across with many persons: the cab driver, the room clerk, the hotel porter, waiters, among others. His weariness is evident. His behaviour is rude and impatient. The spectator will notice immediately that the faces and the voices of all the people he meets are identical. And they care not about his rudeness. Actually, they seem to be happy about it, they seem serviceable. This evokes the Fregoli delusion (no wonder why Michael is staying at it), in which all the people are only one, but in disguise. A neurological solipsism. Such ailment is treated with pharmacotherapy. Michael is seen swallowing pills. Can we say that our protagonist suffers this syndrome?

The climax of this trip takes place when Michael knows Lisa. Immediately, she is perceived as someone real. His face is different from the rest, but what Michael admires the most is her voice. “You have a miraculous voice!”. Believers, today, think of miracles as an extraordinary event. So extraordinary that it astonishes, amuses. The Bible does not mention, in any versicle, the word miracle, but ‘signs’ and ‘wonders’. Lisa is for Michael a sign. His world was so repetitive, so boringly routine, seeing and hearing just one person always, that she appears to him as a signal of hope. Of better coming times. The spectator is admired by the way Michael admires himself by Lisa’s presence. The desperation of living is manifest.

This film has wonders in every scene. Not just on its sharpness, not just by the oddly pleasurable feeling produced by the animated characters, not just by the touching soundtrack of Carter Burwell. But by Michael and Lisa’s emotions. Let’s ignore whether Kaufman and Duke are trying to depict the daily life of a Fregoli delusion patient or simply a life-hating guy suffering of a worser disease: unhappiness. Surely, the directors wish not to restrict the hermeneutical capacity of the viewer. Be it a paranoid or a successful nihilist, Michael Stone teaches the audience how miserable the lockage in the daily might become. To stop amazing. Anomalisa’s axis resides in the voice and the face. Emmanuel Levinas invited us already to revere the Other starting from the Face.

To become bored by the daily happenings leads us to ignore many things. Reality transforms itself into a heavy schedule to which acquiesce. If knowledge has its origins in a continual interchange between the brain and reality, definitely feeding up will turn our world into hell. On the other hand, to appreciate the wonderful in the little things will turn our world into heaven. Certainly, Anomalisa is the goddess of heaven.



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