A Winter Night’s Dream – I’m Thinking of Ending Things

9 October, 2020

I think there are certain things that film critics can approach with a certain kind of objectivity – more than enough can be said, impartially, about the degree to which a concept is (or isn’t) original, on how well (or badly) an actor is performing, on the complexity (or simplicity) of style and mise-en-scene. However, I’ve written enough to be pretty sure that, until one gets to have the final say about a film’s quality (which is oh so tempting to critics), there’s a load of things that stand in our way. And those are our political preferences (which are influenced by the life that we had led up to that point or the people who surround us, how our work is perceived and appreciated and by whom, and many others), our temperament, our personalities, sometimes even our given disposition in a certain moment. That is, not to mention the level of education, which is an oscillating element even within the professionals in our field.

Depending on all of this, we have certain predispositions that dictate whether we’re more inclined to like or dislike certain films or certain auteurs. We create arguments speaking from positions that we didn’t completely choose for ourselves, and, in spite of the obligation to have an “objective judgment” and to renounce our biases, I think that a film critic has a limited force of rhetoric. What they may do is generate discourse and, maybe, to share an informal judgment. Still, I think that many more things are simply related to what we call subjectivity than we’re comfortable to admit.

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I’m Thinking of Ending Things, director and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s latest film, is precisely the kind of film that will be liked or disliked in relation to what I would call, in order to summarize the above, our own luggage. It’s a product that asks for an intuitive, visceral kind of perception, rather than a rational one. Those who have a hyperactive mind, who are introverted, who cannot fall asleep at night because of what they have read these days, who suddenly jump from one topic to the other, or who dream of themselves as artists, scientists or actors, will probably generously judge Kaufman’s construction (based on Iain Reed’s eponymous novel) and will be empathetic towards it. Others will probably feel exhausted long before the final credits will start rolling, more than two hours after the first shot.

I’m not a fan of films that simply pull the rabbit out of the hat by revealing that we’ve been in the main character’s head filled with “psychosis” or “hallucinations” for “this whole time”, because it’s much too easy (but I must concede if the delirium in case belongs to David Lynch). But I find that what Kaufman does here is a form of subjectivism that plays along the lines of “everything is in character X’s head” which is validated by the construction’s meticulousness. The story regards a couple, a He and a She (whose name changes throughout the film), performed by Jesse Plemons and Jessie Buckley, who are on a trip in rural Oklahoma, visiting his parents together for the first time. The mystery (because, in fact, they are all characters in the head of a high school janitor), I found, was quite predictable – I would have liked for Charlie Kaufman to have left less useless “hints” and “pieces of the puzzle” lying around.

But the concreteness of the anxieties and the density of the loneliness that Kaufman transposes onscreen is remarkable. The director-screenwriter does nothing more but to give voice – or, rather, image and dimension – to a mind as the one that I have just described. It’s an educated and imaginative mind, but not especially intelligent, of a former “diligent” pupil, not an “astute” one (from what we discover from a scene midway through the film) who now works as a janitor. His decline is only hinted upon by Kaufman, against the backdrop of his parents’ mental alienation, depression, loneliness, and elderly age. Yet still, his mind soldiers on, either projecting itself onto a character or another, both man and woman. He remembers different ages of his parents’ lives as if it were a whirlpool (from youth to an old age eroded by dementia). Just as anyone, he needs attention and affirmation, love and touch. Never having had any of it, all that he has left is to cling onto the obsessive rings of “what if?”. He jumps from one idea to the other (from Oscar Wilde citations to book and film reviews, Pauline Kael’s A Woman Under the Influence being central) like a stone that ripples across the surface of a lake before sinking down.

If people have mentioned that in essay-films such as Histoire(s) du cinéma, Jean-Luc Godard uses image collages to reproduce the spontaneous, disorderly and sudden fashion in which his strain of thought functions and they seem to be quite happy about it, why are some critics so hostile to Kaufman’s similar endeavors? I’m Thinking of Ending Things might be for some “a flat and unseemly paste”, as Victor Morozov describes it in Scena 9, constructed by a “vain chief” that is intoxicated by “intellectualist fumes”. But how come Morozov seems to completely miss the fact that Kaufman’s film exudes angst and solitude, not exhibitionism, and that is the product of various anxieties and worries, rather than arrogance?

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Kaufman’s inclination towards a certain type of neurotic exhibitionism is obvious ever since his collaborations with Spike Jonze, especially in Adaptation. There, his alter ego, which as performed by Nicholas Cage, was a Woody Allen sans sex life, an introverted, anxious individual with a double personality. If one is to take mental illness out of the equation, the spaces explored in this eloquent Hollywoodian meta-film about screenwriters who run out of ideas were pretty common. I believe Kaufman’s creations have ups and downs, and the last up was Anomalisa. Constructed as a familiar romantic comedy about a blasé guy who falls in love with a timid woman, its final act is painful and distressing – love is suddenly revealed as mere infatuation, and the woman is lost (as easily as she initially appears) in the same crowd of faces and voices from which she emerged (by literally taking the only unique face and voice that the protagonist can distinguish around himself). I’m Thinking of Ending Things refines these themes and arrives at their only logical conclusion: a certain shape of egocentrism (dare I say, it’s Malkovich-ism) leads to agony, and the final act of Kaufman’s film is transposed to musical notes. In contrast to the shot in Anomalisa, with the protagonist sitting alone on the stairs to his house, the musical number of the protagonist of I’m Thinking… just adds a drop of kitsch into the mix; desperation is acted out as a spectacle, but it doesn’t have a stage name of its own.

Does it seem “too much”? So it is, and so it should be. If taken seriously, the depression that latches onto the screen can be neither funny, nor refined. It’s not something that takes on pleasing colors that tickle the cinephile eye, just as Morozov seems to expect, when he denounced its “flat images, lacking in any dimension” and the “tight and obsessive shots” in which characters appear “captive in cells that do not communicate with one another”. “Captivity”, “tight shots”, “flat images” – how are they not perfectly viable cinematic means? If there is anything “objective” in relation to I’m Thinking of Ending Things, it’s probably its impeccable style.

It’s one of the rare cases in mainstream American cinema in which form (cinematography, editing) and content (story, themes) are happily married. The night drive in the blizzard, imagined by Kaufman and his cinematographer Lukasz Zal, cannot mean anything but angst and a sense of being lost – and of course that a “lack in dimension” is precisely what is sought out here. When the moment of wandering through the snowstorm is interrupted by an island of neon lights, it comes across as purely Kafkaesque: an ice cream store that is open during winter, with employees who are sneering maliciously and refuse to serve the couple. And since we talked about egocentrism earlier, it’s only natural that the frequent compositions with Her (Lucy, Louisa, Lucia etc.) at their center, sitting at the table and talking about her job and about how she met Him, as if she were on stage, are not at all coincidental. All the while, the editing has an excellent approximation of the delirium and disconnect from reality: a cut oftentimes compresses entire minutes, and can mark the transition between Her standing up from the table during a discussion with Him and his parents to look outside the window, to a suddenly empty room. The effect is disorienting and the immersion in Kaufman and his collaborators’ world is not precisely pleasant, but rather dizzying and bizarre, while the few comic interludes that reside in the exchanges between the parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis at their best) are not meant to offer any respite. I can accept that some of the ingredients that Kaufman uses are somewhat stale, and not quite all of them are of top quality, but the way in which the whole of it is orchestrated is, for me, nothing other than quality cinema.

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Andrei Bangu Andrei Bangu
Andrei has been writing film reviews since he was 17. He was published for the first time in Observatorul Cultural magazine due to Alex Leo Șerban. He was part of the Cinemagia jury at TIFF 2005 and he publishes film articles on Filmreporter, Liternet. In his free time, he writes screenplays.