Anomalisa: Act 1

I can’t stop thinking about Anomalisa. It isn’t the best or even the most entertaining film I’ve seen this year, but it’s stuck with me. Every fourth or fifth day since seeing it, when I’ve forgotten to busy my mind, allowing reflection and existential dread to set in, I think about it and another crisis of self and Other presents itself, and strikes a chord.

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Returning to Anomalisa in this piecemeal way – via the abstraction of my fading and, I’m sure, altering memory – I find myself caught in Charlie Kaufman’s web. Am I self or Other? Am I alienated or comforted by his artful depiction of loneliness and yearning? I am lonely? Am I yearning?

I never really reach determined answers to these questions but I do spend a lot of time thinking about the different types of relationships in my life and how I feel about them. And instead of writing a review, or an analysis or any sort of critical piece about Anomalisa and the back catalogue of Charlie Kaufman’s weird and wonderful films, I’m going to write a series of responses to my encounters with this film.

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My first response to Anomalisa, on reflection at least, was fairly superficial. It spoke to me most forcefully as a movie about customer service. Though I really enjoyed the likes of Clerks (1993), Empire Records (1995) and  High Fidelity (2000), the reality of working in a video shop (or a book shop, fashion retailer, museum, etc, etc) is decidedly different – less broody for a start.

Having worked in customer service for twenty years, one of the strangest things to get used to is the crisis of equality that it kicks up.

The true success of any relationship rests upon an equal balance of power between the two parties involved. But this is essentially impossible in both customer service and Kaufman’s mind. While there is at least a theoretically attainable equality in friendships and sexual relationships, customer service is built upon the foundation of one person serving another.

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Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) is the miserable author of a famous book about the secrets of great customer service: to treat customers as humans not consumers. He’s so successful that even the hotel he’s staying in (The Fregoli) has improved their service and increased business by some absurd percentile somewhere around ninety. Despite his success, he just can’t seem to actually connect with anyone – to him, they all look and sound the same – that is, until he meets the titular Anomalisa.

This is the part that’s relevant to working in a video store and, customer service more widely. Stone knows how to do business related human things like; optimise customer satisfaction and increase sales through approach and response strategies. But none of this involves connecting with people in any real or meaningful way. Quite simply put: making money hasn’t really got much in common with being human.

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And this is why, despite how great it is to feel like an individual (the video shop is a far cry from corporate sticks) I just end up seeing myself as the slightly less successful, awkward, occasionally irritating, squawky voice of Jennifer Jason Leigh, rambling on about insignificant things with scrambled eggs in my mouth when I should be smiling constantly, well groomed (probably) and more enthusiastically helpful when people ask for rom-coms.

But then again, the soft crooning of Tom Noonan stands in for the bland endlessness of so-called ‘great’ customer service, and that’s just the pitiful result of measured, distanced, interaction. So, while a high standard of service; politeness, efficiency, perhaps even servitude, is generally preferable in the industry, there’s nothing unique or sincerely empathetic about it.

The only conclusion, then, is that it’s better to be Anomalisa… right?

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Check back next week for further reflections on this beautiful, bleak film.