The Marvelous ‘Anomalisa’

ANOMALISA

David Thewlis voices Michael Stone and Jennifer Jason Leigh voices Lisa in the animated stop-motion film, ANOMALISA, by Paramount Pictures

Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s Anomalisa is a modern-day manifestation of the goals of the surrealist movement as establish some 90 years ago.While this review was written without the benefit of any special knowledge of the process by which  Anomalisa was created, (and process is central to surrealism), what we experience as an audience is Kaufman’s ability to make visible the very process of thought, just does Andre Breton declared as the goal of the surrealist project in 1924.

In Anomalisa, we see the world through the eyes of a successful business group, Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) who is in Cincinnati as keynote speaker to a conference on customer service. The stop motion animated puppets are all strikingly similar, all voiced by the same actor (Tom Noonan), regardless of gender, age, or other individual  qualifiers. All, I should say, except Michael and a customer service rep/groupie of his named Lisa, (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh). In fact, it is her voice that first attracts Michael to her. Obsessed with meeting the woman whose voice stands out against the aural monotony of everyone else, he tracks are down and finds that she also looks different  from everyone else. And while her personality, intellect, and appearance are all very generic, Michael find her fascinating and irresistible simply because she is an anomaly.

Anomalisa is a film that raises a lot of different issues within the small world of these characters. Stone is a man in search of something different. He’s mastered his profession and, like many middle-aged people, has lost the passion that brought him through his career. He’s also come to realize how very generic the world is. Even as we all know that each individual person is unique, we are more similar than we are different, and so Stone is at a point where he desperately needs to be challenged with something or someone truly different. In his pursuit of “something different,” Stone latches onto Lisa without really seeing who she is. It’s as though he’s actually imagining her and not really seeing her for who she is.

ANOMALISA

David Thewlis voices Michael Stone in the animated stop-motion film, ANOMALISA

The film shows Michael’s skewed perception quite directly, both through the use of sameness in voice and appearance of the characters and by showing the plainness of Lisa and Michael. It struck me in a sex scene between the two characters that you could never see this in a live action film because lead actors don’t look like real people for the most part and if their bodies do, they are usually not shown in sexual situations. It was strangely fascinating to see two people making love who, despite the fact that they are animated, more closely resemble the average person than any actual actors do in American cinema.

Kaufman, who wrote Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation, and Being John Malkovich, to name a few, and directed the highly underrated Synechdoche, always brings a touch of the surreal to his scripts, here succeeds in creating a world that is both absurd and totally recognizable, filled with characters who are irrationally rational, in a story that is very real but told with unreal visuals. It is at the core of the Surrealist ethos to occupy the spaces between the real and unreal, the logical and illogical, the rational and irrational, conscious and unconscious. Kaufman always succeeds in doing this in fresh ways that take Surrealism into the 21st century without reducing the power of that movement’s potential. He is a breath of fresh air in a cinematic landscape that resembles the world of Anomalisa, filled with strikingly similar films that no one seems to recognize for their dullness. I am so glad this film has been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. I saw it last year and I hope Cape Codders will get the chance to see it now that the Oscar nomination has brought it to mainstream consciousness.

 

 

Woods Hole’s Own Kristin Alexander Kicks off the 2016 Season

Back in 2002, I started a film screening series in the basement of the Unitarian Universalist Meetinghouse in Chatham. We showed underground indie films by filmmakers from New York, San Francisco, Boston, and elsewhere in two 10-week seasons a year on Friday nights. That went on for a couple of years and then I began showing films at various venues on the Cape, including the Provincetown Art Association & Museum, the Woods Hole Film Festival Winter Series, WHAT in Wellfleet, and Payomet Performing Arts Center in North Truro.

Now the Cape Cod Film Society screenings are back, this time at the Cultural Center of Cape Cod, right smack in the middle of the Cape, in South Yarmouth. Although the series is no longer a weekly program, this monthly format is going to be great, with screenings generally at 3 pm on the second Sunday of every month, September through May.

Woods Hole filmmaker Kristin Alexander is an extraordinary talent, with a background so diverse it includes dance, nursing, and of course, filmmaking. She kicks off our series this Sunday, January 10th at 3 pm with two short films she made about different aspects of life in Bermuda. One is about Mwalimu Melodye Micëre Van Putten, a fascinating educator bringing an Afrocentric curriculum to schools in order to rectify the systematic disenfranchisement of students of African descent, like many of the residents of Bermuda. The film, called Healing History, is an eye-opening account of Van Putten’s work and objectives that everyone needs to see.

 

The second film we’re showing, Trusting Rain, discusses water conservation efforts in Bermuda, which is something that should be of great interest on Cape Cod, even as we routinely waste water, in denial of the potential for drought.

I asked Kristin to answer a few questions to introduce you to her work. She will be attending the January 10th screening so you can ask your own questions of her at the Cultural Center of Cape Cod that afternoon at 3 pm.

Rebecca Alvin: When did you begin making films, and what drew you to fillmmaking?
Kristin Alexander:  I find filmmaking a creative outlet that also allows me to bring a voice to people and ideas that I feel are important.  Sort of visual advocacy.  I had some experience with film as a teenager, coming to Cape Cod in summer:  MAW productions, started by two brothers who made 8mm short films, which involved all the neighborhood kids in some way.  It was great fun and the films were quite good.  I studied communication and film for a time in college, in the days of linear editing.  When the digital revolution hit, I picked it up again.  At that time I was integrating film into dance performances on stage.  My first documentary Nothing without Joy followed 5 women on Cape Cod surviving cancer.  That was in about 2001.  I really enjoyed all aspects of making that film, from the cinematography to editing.  Since then I have completed 12 short documentaries, several of which have won awards on the festival circuit.  I have also assisted in several films as cinematographer, and participated in fundraising using my skills as a filmmaker.

RA: How did you come up with the idea for Healing History? What was your connection to it?
KA: Healing History evolved out of meeting Melodye, who is a teacher, poet and performance artist.  She is teaching African history from a new perspective, not one that most of us learned in history books.  I found her to be passionate and interesting.  We met through her husband, who had been in my film Trusting Rain [also screening on January 10th].  I asked if I could do a video portrait of her, and she declined.  I later asked again, and she looked at some of my previous work, and decided to give it a try.  She was skeptical, as her previous experiences with white folk had not been overwhelmingly positive.  She was teaching primarily black children and adults, to give them a sense of themselves and their history, teaching that they are descendants of genius, and are desperately needed in the world today.  The filming took several years, and spanned between her work in Philadelphia and Bermuda.  During this time it became apparent (via current events), that her work was even more necessary.

M7B4037-300x223

RA: What has been the reaction to the film?
KA: Healing History has been on the festival circuit, from Bermuda, to several cities in the U.S., Africa World in St. Louis and in Cameroon, Jamaica and the Pan African Cannes.  Interestingly, it has been invited to almost all of the Black festivals in which we applied, and only two of the mainstream festivals (as well as the Cape Cod Film Society).  It has been positively received, overwhelmingly in the Black festivals.  The Pan African Cannes and Bermuda Film Festival had a mixed audience, and the discussion was controversial at times, and quite extensive.

RA: Tell me about the film Trusting Rain? How did that originate?
KA: Trusting Rain is a film about rainwater collection in Bermuda, and the island residents’ relationship to water.  The island has no rivers or streams, and has historically been dependent on rain collected on roofs and stored in tanks below the house.  Times have changed, and as the island becomes more populated, this precious resource is dwindling.  Many tourists who come to Bermuda have no idea that the water used for drinking and showers is collected from rain.  I was fascinated by the stories of the ‘old timers’ and how careful they were with water, to the new generation and the overall waste, requiring desalinization plants to maintain the self sufficiency.

RA: That film seems to connect very directly to issues we have around water on Cape Cod. Do you agree?
KA: Potable water is a worldwide problem.  Certainly on Cape Cod, where there is seemingly not much concern about water shortage.  I had done a film about a scientist who is using a natural process to clean wastewater for re-use (Green Eco-Machine).  This kind of technology is so needed, but seems so foreign to people.  I feel clean water has become one of the great worries of our time.  We need to change our relationship to water, as a precious resource.

RA: You’ve made a lot of different films about different topics and in different styles.  Is there some sort of through-line in your work?
KA: My documentary films tend toward portraits of people, delving into their lives in various countries and at home.  I am very interested in people who are doing things to make a change in the world.  I enjoy filming nature, and finding positive work that is being done to help the environment.

RA: Are you working on any new films now?
KA: Currently I am finishing the edit on an older portrait, and have two ideas that I am working on, we shall see how that plays out!

Kristin Alexander’s films will be shown on Sunday, January 10, 3 pm at the Cultural Center of Cape Cod, located at 307 Old Main St., South Yarmouth, Mass. Tickers ($10) can be purchased in advance by calling the Cultural Center: 508- 394-7100,  or at the door that afternoon.

©2015 Rebecca M. Alvin All Rights Reserved

In Jackson Heights

MV5BMTY2NDUwMTEzN15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDcxMzQ1NjE@._V1__SX1331_SY615_

In Jackson Heights is a more hopeful film than what I expected from the director of High School, Welfare, and of course, the groundbreaking Titicut Follies.  Where Frederick Wiseman often exposes the weaknesses of large institutions, this time he celebrates a unique community in Queens, New York, in his portrait of a neighborhood I know well, Jackson Heights. And while his portrait is not all-inclusive – no documentary can or should pretend to be – it does encapsulate everything I have felt and seen about New York City since I left in 2000.

We enter the world of Jackson Heights through its LGBT community, including the city councilman Daniel Drom. It is an interesting choice to begin with this one of the hundreds of different minority groups in Jackson Heights. One of the reasons, perhaps even the main reason, Jackson Heights is my favorite New York City neighborhood, is because of its remarkable ethnic diversity. As someone in the film says, there are 167 languages spoken in the less than one-half a square mile of streets that make up Jackson Heights. But while I knew the Queens Gay Pride parade took place in Jackson Heights, I was never aware there was a gay community there. And while the gay community has often been associated (rightly or wrongly)  with gentrification of working-class neighborhoods, here they are not simplified into that kind of battle between hardworking ethnic minorities and well-heeled gay interlopers. In true Wiseman fashion, the complexity of the neighborhood and of the relationships between the different groups of which it is comprised, comes through in his careful editing, which is almost invisible. More noticeable is the beautiful camera work by John Davey, which captures the grit of Queens, as well as its vibrancy and color. But it is the editing that makes the 3 hour and 15 minutes slice of life a triumph of direct cinema (a.k.a. fly on the wall).

While the variety of ethnicities reveal their presence at all times (whether someone from Colombia talks about their heritage directly or by what is captured on screen in the background: everything from a Uruguayan cafe to a Malaysian restaurant and an eyebrow braiding salon for the Indian and Bangladeshi population), the focus of the film is on how these communities are coping with attempts to gentrify, changes to immigration policy, and in some cases, the dying off of their members (as in the small Jewish Community there).

I grew up in New York in the late 1970s and 1980s, and with the exception of a few years in Boston, lived there through the 1990s. After moving to Cape Cod in 2000, I have returned to visit several times a year, and what I have seen has been quite disheartening. There’s a scene in In Jackson Heights where a Colombian community organizer lays it all out for his compatriots, explaining how beautification and BIDs (Business Improvement Districts) sound wonderful but end up destroying communities. He cites most, if not all, of Brooklyn, Long Island City, and Astoria, as examples of how this works to push out everything that made those places great and replaces it with a wealthy elite and an onslaught of big box and chain stores that wipe out the uniqueness of each neighborhood.

New York once was a city of neighborhoods, but increasingly, when I return, I see each neighborhood folding into an abyss of GAP stores, Starbucks, and campaigns that push out ethnic diversity in favor of generic concepts of “beautification.” It is becoming a giant shopping mall for wealthy real estate developers, Wall Street bankers, and the white-collar workers and others who continue to live there in memory of what that great city once was.

While In Jackson Heights is of course about a very specific place, it speaks to a larger tendency in America, one that New York City may have been a last hold out against. And that is something that holds meaning everywhere, including here, even if you will not likely see this film shown anywhere on Cape Cod.

‘Brooklyn’ and the Immigrant Experience

brooklynThe immigrant experience is a favorite topic in film, particularly in the American cinema. It is no coincidence that Hollywood’s origins stem from a few ambitious immigrants who headed out west to get away from Thomas Edison’s patent enforcement, as well as for the sunshine, pleasant weather, and open landscapes. Those immigrants aside, America is a nation founded by immigrants that continues to grow and change with the addition of new ones. Immigration is the topic of the day for many political candidates, and it is a continuing fascination that is sometimes treated simplistically and other times with great complexity in the cinema. This week, a new film about immigration to America opens, but it is not a Hollywood production. Brooklyn is an Irish film about an Irish girl who emigrates to the United States in the 1950s. As such, there are a number of differences in how the immigration experience is envisioned.

The story focuses on Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), the youngest of two daughters to a widow in a small village in Ireland. Her older sister Rose (Fiona Glascott)  arranges for Eilis to have a job and a place to stay in America. Seeing nothing but small-town doldrums, Eilis goes on the journey and establishes a new life in America. But when she is called back home for a family emergency, she begins to question which life is more authentic to her true self.

The emigration of Irish people to the United States is so often framed around the early part of the 20th century, or even before, when immigration was at a peak for the Irish, Italians, and any number of other groups. It is surprising to see a tale of Irish immigration taking place in the 1950s. This choice of setting, (which comes from the Colm Tóibín book of the same name, upon which Brooklyn is based) reduces the usual dramatic tensions around ethnicity. And while Eilis does come to date an Italian-American boy, Tony (Emory Cohen) and the tensions between the Irish and Italians are referenced lightly, the prejudice the Irish once fell victim to has mellowed by the 1950s and is therefore not a major concern of the film.

Eilis’s world of 1950s Brooklyn is peppered with a colorful group of her countrymen and women. The Irish enclave resembles life back in Ireland, but only to a point; in America, people don’t care as much about your personal business, or at least in the urban neighborhoods they don’t. So when Eilis goes back to Ireland, the differences between small-town life, complete with modest expectations, irritating busy-bodies, and traditions that you’re expected to uphold, and the freedom to reinvent yourself and follow any dream you desire in New York City are accentuated.

Brooklyn is well-acted and absorbing, but the relationship between Eilis and Tony, upon which much of the dramatic tension rests, is lukewarm. Both actors are charming and in fact, adorable throughout, but the passion between them is awkward, leaving room for a lot of doubts that distract from the tension we’re supposed to be focused on. It’s a lovely film with a few wonderful moments, but more than anything, it makes me want to read the book and see all the color that is likely left out of the film. It also had me thinking about my own Irish roots and the nature of being Irish. For that, I was glad to see this film, which shows at Cape Cinema November 25 – December 10.