Anomalisa – A tragicomic search for Intimacy & Meaningfulness
Shadows within the Self Obsessed Networked World
This blog explores the dark shadows that lurk within the self obsessed networked world that we may discern around ourselves – comprising of successful, well connected, yet perhaps delusional, paranoid and immensely lonely individuals, by building on a cinematic masterpiece – Anomalisa.
An animated film, written and co-directed by Charlie Kaufman, Anomalisa is immensely provocative, magical, and tender to the plight of Michael Stone – a successful middle-aged expert consultant, who suffers from the Fregoli delusion. Let me begin with an ode to Anomalisa for it impacted me deeply and poignantly before I go on to build on its relevance today.
Charlie Kaufman refers to the Fregoli Delusion as a backdrop for the narrative – this is a rare disorder in which a person holds a delusional belief that different people are in fact a single person who changes appearance or is in disguise. The syndrome is often of a paranoid nature, with the delusional person believing that he / she is being persecuted by the person in disguise.
The movie begins with Michael Stone traveling to Cincinnati to promote his book on customer service – the narrative poignantly picks up a series of inane yet polite and lengthy conversations – between him and a co-passenger, a taxi driver, a bellhop, and a receptionist at the hotel (aptly named as Hotel Fregoli) where he is staying in. The viewer is intrigued as each of these encountered characters have the same voice and the same eyes, as they lapse into polite noises that are at one level meaningless but also necessary to explain away a human interface structured by market capitalism.
For example, Michael manages to barely survive a long and tedious, but polite interface with room service, as he ‘orders’ his dinner, mulling over relentless options that are offered, and then settles into a so familiar hotel room – impersonal, cold, and radiating cold detachment. He calls up home and engages with another well-rehearsed conversation with his wife – explaining away his entry into Cincinnati, his hotel room, his meal of choice etc. – a ritual that endorses a stale marriage and meaninglessness.
The people opposite him have the same voice – dull, a little accusative and demanding, and yet bereft of any melody and warmth.
Michael sits down and then reads an old letter from an ex-girlfriend – an angry lover of his past who lives in Cincinnati – a lover whom he had spurned many years ago before getting married to another, having walked away from her giving no explanations.
Dark humor and pity accompany us as we watch Michael wishing to reconnect with her, perhaps longing for a one-night stand that may offer and rekindle ardor and passion – but this possibility quickly evaporates over a drink with her in the bar. Michael just remains self obsessed – quite insensitive to her feelings, her self hate, her pain, and her rage. The rendezvous ends quickly.
A distressed Michael walks out and sees a shop selling toys – reminding him of a chore to buy something for his ‘greedy’ son – the shop turns out to be an adult store to buy sex toys. It is here he encounters a Japanese animatronic doll.
On his return to the hotel, the narrative makes a brilliant shift as he hears a melodious woman’s voice – for the first time in years maybe from a neighboring room. He seems possessed in many ways, as woman’s voice is an anomaly to his world. I would not like to be plot spoiler – but the narrative has its magical moments as he pursues the owner of this voice (Lisa), and seeks to build an intimacy with her. As it turns out and rather conveniently – she is a great fan of his book and is so awed by his intellectual prowess, while carrying huge ambivalence around her own sexuality and attractiveness.
She finds it difficult to believe that Michael sees something special in her… For the movie-buffs, this is the only R rated animated movie that has been nominated for an Oscar apart from having won many other awards – for there is a really long love-making scene that heralds Michael’s enchantment with Lisa, and how the relationship then slowly dies out …
A forlorn and devastated Michael finally gets to give a speech on Customer delight and service to a large audience. As rehearsed in the beginning – the speech is all about corporate jargon that is meaningless and inane and yet people love this kind of stuff. For example there is a hackneyed line that all customers are human beings and have feelings – and how it is necessary to ‘connect’ with a pet line or two to establish some commoditized intimacy that may be necessary to broker the deal …
And it is here Michael experiences not just a meltdown but a complete breakdown.
As he gets in touch with his own loneliness and deep pain, he poignantly states how he wishes to weep and yet no tears roll down – there is no release! There is no promised catharsis – but just the prolonged agony of a delusional and paranoid man. He intersperses this with all the inane and sanctimonious advice of the Expert consultant and finally the audience boos him out! This is not what they paid top dollar for.
He flies back home and there is a surprise party for him – but he now no longer recognizes anybody – they all look the same person. He rejects any real engagement.
His son notices the gift but cannot make sense of either the Animatronic Doll or the semen like fluid that she is covered with …
Kaufman’s insistence on using puppets to tell this intense tale smacks of creative genius. There are many twists that I have chosen not to talk about in this blog. But on the whole, the movie questions many aspects of human existence today.
In Search for Intimacy and Meaningfulness in a Networked World
Perhaps the reader may find it blasphemous that I am relating a social networked world that thrives on customer-supplier and collaborative connects, steeped in win-wins and innovation, structured on appreciative conversations and mutual affirmation, with deep inner isolation and loneliness. But I think it merits to explore the shadow of this otherwise ‘sexy’ and brave new world – a shadow that lies repressed in the unconscious of the ‘vibrant network’ of achievers and winners.
I did not believe it myself several years ago, but the more I engage with people from this world of success and achievements, the more I get to see a deep sense of isolation and a yearning for human touch. The treadmill of relentless and perhaps meaningless engagements suck away a certain warmth and a faith … behind the journey of achievements and trophies that one collects on the way, what is left behind are traces of lonely sighs and unshed tears.
Like Michael – impersonal hotel rooms at best offer at best a refuge from ‘customer-supplier connects’ – a refuge where the other in my world is not selling me an idea, or seeking information, or demanding a service, or promising a contract that would be mutually self-centric, a refuge where I can let go of the facade of the smiling professional, of the benign expert and reflect on whom I really am.
The Fregoli Delusion & the Omnipresent Consumer
The Fregoli Delusion that underlies Anomalisa, to me stands, for the omnipresence and omnipotence of one being – that of the Consumer. In a networked world – there is a Consumer’s voice behind every voice for the node of any network gets co-created by the Customer-Supplier.
Thus, as Michael experiences it, wives, children, colleagues, strangers, lovers, service providers – behind their respective unique and salient voices lies the dull and shrill lament of the Consumer – the expectant consumer, the disappointed consumer, the angry consumer et al.
Fearing Real Intimacy
Michael in the film has a nightmare, where he encounters strangers and familiar faces (all looking alike and with same voice) professing love, anguish, and need and he runs – as he runs his face falls off – and all he sees is a machine-like skull in its place – shorn of all humanness. Kaufman takes us deep into his paranoia of being possessed and owned. As he runs away from his deep inner fears, his world becomes steadily empty and lonely. While he laments about the short-life each of us have – he finds it increasingly difficult to change his context.
There are times, when I wonder whether we play the Volume versus Depth game as well in our social networks – and whether ‘likes’ and virtual connects with multiples of thousand social networks can really compensate for inner isolation and fear of intimacy.
Can I be vulnerable in the Network?
I think the movie points to the near impossibility of exploring and expressing one’s ‘vulnerability’ and angst in this world – for this is a world of tangibles and of trades. What does one trade and barter ‘vulnerability’ and ‘aloneness’ with?
This is where networks are different from groups. In groups – one can create an emotional scaffolding and designate spaces and forums where the group can collectively share, explore and experiment with such themes. But as groups get replaced with virtual and complex networks – emotional scaffoldings and infrastructure do not fall in the desirable priorities of performance.
Can Networks be Feminine?
This is one question that I have not answered for myself. Anomalisa is in many ways a narrative told from a masculine perspective and a man’s eyes. Beyond the masculine emphasis on giving and receiving tangible and value-adding gifts to one another – do networks offer a potential for static and or dynamic feminine to express.
I would love to say yes – but I am not too sure. What I am sure of is that civility, politeness and tactful appreciation of one another is not akin to femininity.
Networked Systems, connecting us across the world, on specific designated processes are a reality in the world that I live in. Gone is the safety of working in finite small groups that are local and that have the wherewithal to develop sentient systems or systems of affect.
In light of the new post-industrial world, boundaries are getting blurred and confined to Customer-Supplier nodes that question past concerns around structure, roles, hierarchy etc. While we celebrate the onset of this world that is quite agile and reinforces ‘accelerationism’ – it is also useful to discern its shadows and what lies beneath the surface.
Anomalisa is a brilliant take on what may lurk beneath … You may say that Marx predicted this long ago – but the psychological costs come alive today.
Those familiar with the EUM framework may critique this blog on a certain ‘either-or’ being posited and explicated by me between the two universes of UPA (Universe of Purpose and Achievement) and UMI (Universe of Meaningfulness and Intimacy) – but I stand with conviction – In a highly networked system, there is little chance of an ‘AND’.
Readers in India – please choose Amazon Prime – and watch the movie… its fantastic!!