A few weeks ago I spent some time with a group of lefty friends a bit older than me, who have been active in workers’ rights and other struggles for a very long time. Someone said: “If you want to see where progressive communication is happening today, don’t look at organizing committees and marches, look at TV and movies. Look at Hollywood.”
She mentioned one particular show (Transparent) as an example of really smart, progressive writing, and it turned out everyone could think of their own example. We ended up agreeing that yes, indeed, many of today’s most popular shows and films are promulgating awesome progressive messages in ways that nothing else is.
Then, last week, I saw Anomalisa, Charlie Kaufman’s new masterpiece. A few minutes into the film, I became aware that it was affecting me on two levels: the personal, that resonated intensely and sometimes painfully, and the political, its trenchant critique of modern capitalism practically clobbering me over the head.
By the middle of the film, the personal and the political began to merge. It was emotionally intense, but there was what felt like a political component to that intensity, and it remained constant throughout. By the end of the film, I recognized that it was, among other things, a powerful indictment of capitalism in its craziest (i.e. present-day) form, a critique whose force came from being so elegantly interwoven with the personal. I felt certain this film had the potential to help people see new aspects of the insanity we’ve brought into our world.
Then I went home and read several reviews, all from mainstream outlets. Shockingly to me, none of them—not one—mentioned the political side of the film.
Hollywood and television may be where political ideas are being disseminated—but if nobody notices these big political trees falling in the forest, do they make any sound?
Well, yes. If I could see Anomalisa‘s indictment of modern capitalism, many thousands of others will see it too. But if reviewers were to tease out this angle of the movie, it could help not just thousands, but millions, to see it as well.
So why don’t reviewers go there? Before tackling that question, here’s my take on the film. (If you haven’t seen it, skip to the last five paragraphs. Seriously. Go see it first.)
Michael Stone is a massively famous author of a customer service how-to book which, we hear more than once, boosts productivity by 90%—we don’t know how it does that, but the culture that Stone’s book and life abet completely pervades the film: from the bubbling of the (same) voices in the plane in the opening shot, to the asthmatic taxi driver’s profoundly inane chatter about the two things that are good to do in Cincinnati, to the bellhop’s phenomenal level of automatism, and so on, through to the end of the film.
Lisa—the most evidently effaced non-individual of them all, the clearest product (and victim) of the film’s (and our) culture of commodification—suddenly becomes the object of Michael’s overwhelming affection because, completely arbitrarily, he hears her voice as distinct, alone among all the rest: everyone else he perceives as essentially identical, the product of a corporate culture hell-bent on efficiency at all costs, that inexorably creates more of itself no matter what.
Stone and his book are a big part of that culture. Stone is all about the Taylorizing of emotion: in his speech to the customer service reps (the reason he’s in Cincinnati), he instructs them to recognize, when they talk to their customers, that those people have full lives—not because they do, not because that’s important, but because that’s what will bring in sales. He also tells them to smile when they’re talking, even though their smiles can’t be seen over the phone—again, because that’s what works. It doesn’t matter what the reps are actually feeling—which in Stone’s case is total anguish, as out of place to the audience he’s addressing (and that he’s partly responsible, in “reality,” for creating, through the huge success of his book) as actual feelings are out of place in the culture that, by this point in the film, we recognize as our own.
And that’s what the movie is about. It’s not only about a “commonplace narcissist” who is “fundamentally alone” (as per the tenor of the reviews I read); it’s about that which brings about Michael Stone’s anguish on a mass scale: a culture in which even emotions, insights, and facial expressions are Taylorized for the sake of “productivity,” bringing about a sort of mass Fregoli delusion, in which we more and more come to see people as mere functional duplicates with no real lives of their own—a syndrome familiar to most Americans, I suspect, at least in some milder version.
Syndromes arise and subside with the times. Neurasthenia was a 19th-century condition thought by Freud and others to arise from the stresses of an increasingly competitive business environment (it was often called “Americanitis”). Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and ADHD are obviously diagnoses tailor-made for our own business environment, as is Michael Stone’s Fregoli delusion, which makes perfect sense in a world that requires the standardization of feelings and interactions for the sake of profit. Ultimately, like Stone, we may find a semblance of love only in the mechanical, whether in a wind-up Japanese sex doll or in something with an Apple or Samsung logo.
Stone himself bears much responsibility for creating the world of which he is a victim. And that’s the main point of the film: what our world does to all of us, even those who play a part in creating it—which, after all, is everyone.
My progressive analysis is simple enough. And since it felt self-evident to me, I assume it did to thousands of others. So the question remains: why did none of the film’s reviewers bring out this political message?
I don’t know the answer. But I suspect it has to do with current cultural permission to discuss a filmmaker’s “insanity” (one reviewer called Kaufman “certifiable”), and even to recognize those sorts of insanities in oneself, rather than consider the ways that the system we’re a part of is itself insane, and crazy-making, perhaps begetting these (and most) other forms of “insanity.”
Our insane system: does it feel too risky to bring this up in the mainstream press?
It’s important; cultural products can have a tremendous effect that trickles out to politics and changes elections. Michael Moore’s movies allowed us to use the word “capitalism” and even “anti-capitalist” for the first time in decades. Occupy Wall Street (a performance piece, in a way—it was nowhere near Wall Street, after all!) got millions talking about inequality, and is probably what made possible the election of Bill De Blasio, and the candidacy of Bernie Sanders, a very viable presidential candidate who uses the word “socialist” to describe himself.
It’s time for film reviewers to realize they can talk about the ways that films talk about capitalism, and to be a part of the culture that’s trying to take our world back.