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Anomaly + Lisa
Before it was a stop-motion movie, Anomalisa was one of three sound plays developed for the Theater of the New Ear project by Charlie Kaufman and the Coen brothers. The 2005 plays featured an impressive lineup of actors (Steve Buscemi, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Peter Dinklage, and Meryl Streep) seated on stage, reading from scripts, surrounded by musicians and sound effects artists like in an old-timey radio program. There were no costumes, sets, or stage direction—the focus was on audio input. According to the program notes, in these quirky plays, “your mind paints the picture itself in that meaningful but not quite visual way that dreams play out.”1 Recordings are lost to time or DCMA takedowns.
The Coen brothers wrote and directed one of the sound plays and Kaufman another. Francis Fregoli is credited as the writer/director of Anomalisa, but this is just Kaufman under a Kaufman-esque alias that gives us insight into the work. Fregoli delusion is a condition where a person believes others are a single person who changes appearances, like when you were a kid and thought your mother or her spies were everywhere. The delusion is named for Leopoldo Fregoli, an Italian performer famous in the 1890s for his quick costume changes. He was so fast critics suspected his act relied on multiple people pretending to be one man, echoing plot elements from The Prestige (2006).2 Here’s a clip of him portraying a series of composers, which is impressive for many reasons, including the audience’s ability to recognize composers.
In both the sound play and stop-motion movie, David Thewlis voices Michael, Jennifer Jason Leigh portrays Lisa, and Tom Noonan provides the voice for everyone else. Except for a cabbie afflicted with a Cincinnati accent, Noonan uses the same nauseatingly pleasant voice for the people Michael encounters on his way to Porkopolis (yes, a real nickname for Cincinnati) to give a speech on customer service. Airline passengers, flight attendants, hotel staff and guests, and Michael’s former lover are little more than empty vessels that carry Noonan’s voice and will. When he calls home after arriving at the hotel, we hear Noonan’s voice emerging from Michael’s wife and even his five-year-old son. As an actor who has been everywhere since the 80s (Robocop 2, Last Action Hero, The X-Files, two varietals of Law and Order, CSI: Crime Scene Investigator, etc.), Noonan is well cast as the ubiquitous voice.
The characters also have identical faces, which becomes clear when we see Michael struggle to identify others by sight (and voice when he’s on the phone). The faces consist of two pieces that visibly hinge at the eyes, giving the puppets the appearance of wearing wire-frame glasses. The faces hold a vacant expression, i.e., resting crash test dummy face.
Despite being hounded by Noonan’s voice and an unremarkable face, Michael, whose accent discloses British roots, tries to keep calm and carry on. We see Michael twist in anguish as people in customer service assail him with small talk. As an author of a book on customer service, Michael knows the lie at the heart of his industry: the customer is your friend. The duplicity inherent in customer service fuels his sense that a god-like force is toying with his sanity or that he is losing his mind. Michael can’t even enjoy music or TV. Noonan’s crooning ravages the ethereal “Flower Duet,” and every channel carries Noonan. Michael’s only refuge is smoking and solitude, and the latter has turned into debilitating loneliness.
At the moment his mind finally unravels, Michael hears a unique voice in the hallway of the Fregoli Hotel where he is staying. He exits his room, frantically knocking on doors, seeking the non-Noonan voice. He finds Lisa and latches on to her like she’s a life raft.
Lisa is shy. She doesn’t feel smart or pretty. Men prefer her friend, Emily, who is both. Lisa also has a scar on the side of her face she hides behind her hair. Michael is drawn to it, eventually asking to kiss the marking that distinguishes her from everyone else.
Lisa sings Girls Just Wanna Have Fun in English and Italian for Michael, moving him to tears. Her voice is unmistakably ordinary, but it is her own and not Noonan’s. Michael lies down with her, undressing and caressing her, as she speaks about her utterly typical day. Emily picked her up at seven that morning to head to the hotel for the speech, and they stopped at Starbucks for a mocha frappuccino. Michael hears these mundane details and proclaims they are extraordinary, that she is extraordinary. Encouraged by his praise, Lisa informs him that Brazil is an anomaly as the only South American country that speaks Portuguese. She loves the word “anomaly” because she has always felt different, and the word somehow celebrates her oddness. Michael christens her Anomalisa, a nickname she loves.
Everything Lisa says is as uninteresting as the chitchat from the cabbie and hotel workers. Lisa’s renditions of the Cyndi Lauper song is no better than the “Flower Duet” performed by Noonan, yet the former sounds profoundly beautiful to Michael. These are the reactions of a man who believes he has miraculously found the only other real person in the world, but it’s also the reaction of anyone who has been infatuated with a new lover. Everything your lover says is unique, brilliant, and captivating. Through rose-tinted glasses, even facial blemishes are intriguing. But when infatuation fades, reality reemerges like a body buried in a shallow grave. Your lover is revealed as ordinary, every utterance banal. Your lover is just like everybody else, and everybody else is awful.
While there have been significant advances since Gumby, who is almost certainly the favored emissary of Satan (right?), stop motion has retained its eerieness. This eternal quality of stop motion makes it the perfect medium for a movie where the protagonist and the viewer always feel something is not quite right. Also, stop motion allows Kaufman to show intimate moments while avoiding an NC-17 rating. Gird your loins; you will see puppets make love.
You can watch Anomalisa for free on Kanopy if you have a library card.
Written by Charlie Kaufman; Directed by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson
Yes, I learned abou Fregoli on Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge