Friday, January 29, 2016


seen @ Kew Gardens Cinemas, Kew Gardens, Queens

In 1970, Professor Masahiro Mori, an expert in the field of robotics, theorized that as robots start to look more like humans, they'll become easier to empathize with. If one were to chart this progression on a graph, in which the x-axis represents human likeness and the y-axis equals familiarity, the points on the graph would form an ascending line. At a certain point, however, as the theory goes, a robot can look too human, and empathy quickly changes to revulsion. On the graph, there would be a dramatic descent in the line. When a robot's resemblance is no longer in sync with that of a human's, the line re-ascends. Eight years later, this concept was given the name "uncanny valley."

In animation, as technology has improved, especially with computers, the quest for making the perfect-looking human has escalated. Every year, movies and video games continue to push the boundaries when it comes to making more lifelike humans. In recent years, performance-capture technology has produced animated human characters of varying quality in films like The Polar Express, A Christmas Carol, and Beowulf.

Stop-motion animation is different. This is something I've talked about here before: somehow, at least for me, the most photo-realistic computer animation doesn't make me feel its "realness" more than stop-motion, probably because even the most photo-realistic computer animation still amounts to nothing more than illusions, phantasms. Stop-motion uses real materials that are manipulated in real space, not on a computer screen - and seeing real objects appear to move that don't normally move can be very unsettling, especially when you're looking at objects made to look as much like humans as possible.

This brings us to Anomalisa. The first time I saw the poster (that is, in real life and not on a computer screen), I was fooled into thinking it was a live-action movie, but then, I wasn't looking very closely. If I had, I would've noticed the seams running along the eye-line, across the bridge of the nose and up and down the sides of the face of David Thewlis' character Michael. Every "claymation" puppet in the film is like this, and as I watched it, I thought at first that perhaps it was a necessity in order to better animate the face. All I knew of this movie was what I saw in the trailer when I went to see Room

Without those seams, the characters look quite realistic - and maybe that's why they're there in the first place: to avoid the uncanny valley effect. (Once again, I'm writing this without having read about the movie, except for the one piece I happened to read last week, so my impressions will be fresher.) Even with those seams, they looked real enough, to a degree I don't think I've ever seen in a claymation picture before. I kept thinking the eyes, which people usually say are the dead giveaway as to whether animation looks real or not, must be CGI - and maybe they are. I'm not sure. The way light reflected off of them, plus the way they moved, couldn't be stop-motion like everything else, could it?

And then there's the puppet sex. I knew Anomalisa would have it, and I also knew that it wouldn't be treated like a joke, like in Team America, but I was utterly unprepared to see how far directors Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson were gonna go with it until I saw it unfold. (Spoiler alert: they go ALL THE WAY with it.) I found watching that scene unsettling. Part of it was the uncanny valley effect, but part of it was also the level of intimacy at work. It doesn't play like a sex scene in a typical Hollywood movie; there's uncertainty, shyness and a few false starts, yet I have to admit, as a scene, it worked.

So I guess now's a good time to talk about the story. Thewlis' character Michael is a corporate executive whose specialty is customer service (he wrote a book about it), and he has flown into Cincinnati to give a lecture before a group of retail/customer service employees, including Jennifer Jason Leigh's Lisa. Michael, a married man with a kid, looks up an old flame, but their conversation quickly turns sour. He gets depressed over roads not taken until he meets Lisa, with whom he has a pretty passionate one-night stand. Things look different the morning after, though, in more ways than one.

The film doesn't play out quite this simply. Every other character besides Michael and Lisa, looks similar, men and women both, and are all voiced by the same actor, Tom Noonan. This irritated me at first, until I understood why: it was meant to make Lisa stand out that much more. One thing Michael adores about Lisa when he first meets her is her voice, which is supplied by Leigh and not Noonan. Ironically, Lisa, while a nice girl, is not that extraordinary. She's introverted, almost painfully so; going about in the shadow of her more vivacious friend. She also has a scar on her temple that she hides with her hair and she's quite self-conscious about it. And then there are Michael's disturbing dreams...

Look closely at the faces of everyone surrounding Michael.

On a meta level, one can understand how even someone like Lisa can stand out in a world where everyone else literally looks and sounds similar. For Michael, she shines like a beacon in the dark, and he's ready to leave his wife and son for her, but then something changes. I won't reveal it here, partly to avoid spoilers, partly because it's difficult to describe. It's where the movie lost me.

Michael struck me as a dude going through a mid-life crisis, who needed Lisa to feel young again. She already idolized him, having read his book and come to hear him speak. She's not as demanding as his wife; in fact, she's practically putty in his hands. I wasn't completely convinced that what he felt was love, though we're meant to believe otherwise. I suspect the change that takes place might be as much his fault as anything else's. A conversation I heard in the bathroom afterwards would seem to confirm that, though I'm not sure.

Anomalisa isn't bad - the animation alone makes this a must-see - but given all the breathless raves for it, I expected something spectacular, and that's not what I ended up with. This is without a doubt one of those "see it again" movies, because there's clearly much more going on than meets the eye, and I'd be willing to do so. It just irks me that so many other people "got it" the first time and I didn't. Oh well.

P.S. If you're in the New York area, the Museum of the Moving Image currently has an Anomalisa exhibit running through next month.

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