Rated R for weirdness and language, I guess. Like, the film is an existential horror film, but a lot of the things that happen in the movie happen in the unexplainable. There are dance numbers and surreal things. This is one of those movies that makes the normal look absolutely grotesque. Perhaps it is the feeling of unreality, but the it is a genuinely disturbing film, despite the fact that it is really hard to pinpoint what makes it so off-putting. R.
DIRECTOR: Charlie Kaufman
I want to be a smart man. There are times where I absolutely know that I'm the smartest person in the room. I know this probably doesn't ingratiate me to you, but I would like to counter that I also know that there are many times that I know that I'm the dumbest person in the room. I'm sure that a lot of people probably adore this movie. "It's not about getting it," I hear them say. I can think back to all of those grad classes where I was taught that trying to make sense out of the senseless robs us of the value of the art itself and other elements that I've now forgotten. It's just that...
...I need something.
I'm going to always champion the weird out there. Some of my favorite things in life are absolutely bizarre and baffling to people. Heck, a lot of it comes from writer / director Charlie Kaufman. I mean, I simply adore Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I keep forgetting to put it on my favorites list, maybe consciously or unconsciously. But there's a line in the sand that I always run into when it comes to weird. Sometimes, things are just too weird. My gut reaction is to dismiss these films as "weird for weird's sake", but that's probably problematic. I'm putting my inadequacies on someone's art. I'm sure that Kaufman has very specific things that he wants to express with this movie that probably aren't coming to mind. I remember in undergrad that I complained that I just didn't get something. I actually did that a lot. Part of it came from the idea that I rushed something, but a major element was that I didn't treat the piece with respect. With I'm Thinking of Ending Things, I came in with a respect, but I married it to the concept of expectation. A Netflix movie from Charlie Kaufman was supposed to blow my mind. It was supposed to be the movie I would talk about for the next decade. Heck, I was ready to get annoying about my obsession with the film. After all, the trailer looked like the right level of bonkers to me and I knew that it was going to speak to me.
So when it didn't all come together, the effort I had put into understanding seemed like a bit of a betrayal. The film opens with a criminally long car trip in the snow. Like, it's a gutsy cut. To have the experience of going on a long car trip, Kaufman subjected us to a long car trip. As part of this trip, he starts teasing the idea that we're not dealing with an objective narrator. There would be contradictions. The Young Woman's name would change. The phone would give us hints that things weren't quite right with the world. I really love this kind of stuff. My wife and I would point out irregularities. We watched the movie somewhat eagle-eyed, hoping to piece together the message that Kaufman was telling us behind the story. We had all kinds of theories. It's not that we were wrong with these theories. After my wife scoured the Internet for details, we realized we gleaned a lot of the themes of reality and love. We talked about aging and the role of the outsider in a family. It's got all of that on its sleeve. But what it doesn't really get to is the choice-to-choice moments. There are a lot of things in the film that seem like spectacle for spectacle's sake. If I was forced to, looking at the Oklahoma! scenes could be an ironic way to look at passion and adolescence. The fact that the Oklahoma! dream ballet takes place in a high school toys around with the idea of a removed personhood from teenage years to adulthood. (That person did this. I can only spectate on those events because they are so removed from the younger me, who only serves as an avatar.)
But it never came together. I needed it to come together. It's going to get annoying, me dropping the same movie again and again, but Eternal Sunshine came together beautifully. The weirdness was all related. The narrative was confusing, but it was solvable. Every uncomfortable moment I sat through was justified eventually. But with I'm Thinking of Ending Things, it could technically go on like this forever. The messages can keep going. The really nice thing that justifies my dumbness / frustration is that a narrative has the ability to focus themes and concepts. The tease that Jake is a man who lives in this fantasy world of potential futures and regrets is fun, but what is the meaning behind that? Is it saying that all relationships are fictional imaginations of the other? Then we can hopscotch to the idea of parents and parents aging? Are we simply how our parents view us? Does aging take away our senses of self? Are we defined largely by our relationships? These are all awesome questions that should be explored. But the anti-narrative that I'm Thinking of Ending Things produces leaves a lot of these questions in the world of the abstract. Rather than going deeper, we tend to go wider instead of deeper. When a thing gets too complex, attentions drift from scenario to scenario. To be fair, what is created is something new and unique. I can't ever judge this film for not creating something. The emotion, which is flavored with a heavy portion of confusion, is a valid response to a film like this. I think that's what Kaufman was going for.
Sometimes the art is for the artist and not the audience. I suppose this allows me a doorway into respecting the piece as a whole. On Letterboxd, I was going to give this film two stars when I had to sit down and objectify this film. But I guess there is something to be said to not caring what an audience things? This movie is a bit of dance and play. Rather than saying, A has to lead to B, the movie decides to be so complex that it has to be simplified to the gut reaction to the film. I won't deny that my frustration led to dislike of the movie. If you asked me about the movie to my face, I would probably claim that it was trying too hard and that it annoyed me for the most part. But I also know that I went through...something. That something is a valuable thing. Because every story has been told and that every emotional experience has been cataloged, something that is unique, even partially, is part of the human condition now. So having Jesse Plemons sing and dance while potentially being a psychopath is something that has value. The fact that we don't know exactly what is happening with the Young Woman has value. For those of us inclined, we can also read the book to give us insight into what's going on with the film. That's completely reasonable. But sometimes not knowing what's going on is its own thing. I mean, it's rarely my thing. But it is a thing. And again, this may be simply for the select few plus the artist. After all, when looking at an art gallery, the pieces that you get immediately often have little resonance given time.
While I haven't read the book, I understand that the movie is somehow different from the book. Both are apparently examples of absurdism in their own ways. (I apologize if I'm misusing the philosophy of absurdism, but it's been a while.) I don't know who Charlie Kaufman is as a person. The closest thing I can really do is think back to watching Adaptation and assuming that is the man I'm dealing with. But it must have been an experience to see this book that is already pretty odd and mostly unfilmable and still decide to make major changes. It's odd writing out this idea, book v. film, when I haven't read the book, but that's probably something that comes from the need to be an artist. I know that Alejandro Jodorowsky kinda / sorta panned the Dune trailer because it didn't surprise in any way. Read that blog entry to explain that decision. Perhaps Kaufman is in the same camp. Maybe a film needs to be something new and something different to scratch the creative itch for some.
I guess I'm leaving on a point of respect. While I can't in any way say that I liked the movie, because I really didn't beyond the visuals, I can see why such a film needs to be made. I held a lot of it to an unfair standard and I genuinely hate feeling dumb (hence a blog where I analyze and over-analyze everything I watch). But it is its own thing, so who am I to judge?
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.