Film

Stephanie Zacharek: Why Movies Need to Be Seen Big. Plus: Charlie Kaufman’s Feel-Bad Puppet Sex

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VENICE — Today is my final day in Venice. I have come to this festival several times now, and leaving always makes me wistful. But for some reason, today it’s also led me to think a little about the purpose of film festivals in the first place. Writing about them is always a challenge: There’s almost no way to avoid the “I’m here and you’re not” aspect of being among the first people to see brand-new and often astonishing pictures. And in the days of digital streaming, more and more outlets around the world have decided not to send critics and journalists at all. Why send human beings to an actual place, when they can watch smaller, independent, and/or international movies as they sit slumped in front of their computers?

I’ve been brought to Venice to participate in a panel connected to the festival’s Biennale College, an initiative in which three emerging filmmakers are chosen from a long list of applicants and given 150,000 euros, and a great deal of guidance, to complete a film on an extremely compressed schedule. The three films this year, the third year of the program — Kohki Hasei’s Blanka, Kuba Czekaj’s Baby Bump, and Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits — are the program’s strongest yet. You can tell each was made without waste, and without messing around. Two of these films, Blanka (about a young girl living on the streets of Manila) and The Fits (the story of a young girl of color, a tomboy boxer, who longs to join a community dance group), could easily find a place in almost any art house in the United States, and Blanka has already been picked up by M-Appeal, a Berlin-based sales company.

But I can guarantee you: If any of these filmmakers had sent me a blind note, accompanied by a link, imploring me to watch their film, I’d be 95 percent unlikely to do so. In New York, it’s not uncommon for 25 films (or more) to be released theatrically in a week. Who has extra time to watch a little film, with no distributor, on a computer you already spend way too much of your life on to begin with? We’ve been so busy lauding the digital age as a boon for movie lovers — and to a degree, it is — that we’ve lost sight of the fact that movies were originally a means of getting us out of our houses and into a foreign environment (the old movie palaces were the best of these), a way of heightening the effect that we were entering another world.

Watching movies small doesn’t necessarily make them small. But it can, sadly, make them feel insignificant. The best way for a filmmaker to make his or her film seem big is to show it big — to sit people down with a “This is worth looking at!” flourish — and a festival is the first and best place to start. Yet as fewer publications send critics and journalists to festivals, especially the international ones, the impact any small film might possibly have on the world shrivels. Simultaneously, festivals everywhere struggle with shrinking budgets. It’s a disheartening equation, and I wish I had a solution. But it seems to me that, in a world where we can do everything online, a gathering place where professionals can see films together on a big screen and then write and talk about them becomes more crucial rather than less. That’s important not just to journalists and critics (whose ranks keep shrinking anyway); it’s important to the world of movies.

In the midst of tussling with all these questions — in one of the world’s most beautiful and mysterious cities, no less — I also wrestled with Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s Anomalisa, a film that many here at the festival (and at Telluride, where it has also been shown) seem to love. This is an intensely naked picture, and its bare-skinned fervency is only heightened by the fact that the characters are stop-motion-animated puppets. These aren’t even real people, yet they move through a world of unsolvable human suffering. Michael (voiced by David Thewlis) is a hugely popular motivational speaker — his specialty is customer service — and when we first see him, he’s staring blankly through the window of an airplane. He lands in Cincinnati and checks in to his faux-fancy hotel. After what seem like hours of hesitation, he calls an old flame he’d walked out on without explanation years earlier. He’d been thinking about a final letter she’d sent to him, and had become wistful about her: We hear someone read the letter in voiceover, but the voice belongs to Tom Noonan — in fact, as Michael goes about his all-too-human hamster-wheeling, every voice he hears, male and female, is voiced by Noonan, a genius idea that amplifies Michael’s distance from his own feelings, as if he were moving about in a stage production being playacted by the wrong people.

Michael, it turns out, is close to cracking up. In desperation, he runs from room to room on his hotel floor, knocking on door after door, claiming to be “looking for a friend.” That’s hardly a lie. And it’s how he meets Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a young woman who, along with a colleague, has come from Akron for the sole reason of hearing Michael speak. When Michael hears her voice — hallelujah, it’s not Noonan’s! — his previously dead eyes light up with wonder. At last, he has found someone genuinely human. Lisa — shy, slightly overweight, and with a minor facial disfigurement — is amazed and flattered by Michael’s attention. They sleep together, tenderly. (This is the movie’s finest scene, a feat of technical precision that connects cogently with the way real human beings move and speak and bump into each other in awkward ways when they’re having sex for the first time — and this is puppet sex we’re talking about.)

Michael promises Lisa the moon. She knows the moon is no one’s to give, but she begins to believe him anyway. How many love, or nonlove, stories have begun this way? Michael is a shell of a person, struggling to be a person. He’s also a megalomaniac, a reality the film doesn’t quite cop to: He doesn’t seem to realize that everyone else is alone in his or her own skin, too. With Anomalisa, Kaufman (making his first film since his 2008 directorial debut, Synecdoche, NY) and Johnson (whose credits include Adult Swim’s Moral Orel) riff on the nature of human disconnection, tangoing close to the point where everyday, garden-variety alienation becomes mental illness. This is a raw piece of work, the sort of thing generally applauded for its brutal honesty. But, perhaps paradoxically, I find its very forthrightness more distancing than moving. These puppets, moving blankly through their world, each step causing or shaken by deep, psychic pain, speak to us every second, but the message is “Please feel something for me!” Their pleading is deafening.

These are supposedly complicated characters, yet there are no layers to work through — their nerve endings are all on the surface. Anomalisa also has some handy critic-proofing built right in: How can any decent person review, harshly, something that suspiciously seems more a therapy session than a movie? The only answer is to face the idea that decency has little to do with the power of art. I admire Anomalisa, but I can’t feel deeply for it, no matter how much it beseeches me to do so.

And yet — because contradiction is the motor for everything, isn’t it? — an even artier, more self-conscious, and yet possibly more naked picture that I saw here in Venice delighted and moved me. Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog begins with an animated segment in which we hear Anderson tell of a recurring dream she’s had: that she’s giving birth to her rat terrier, Lolabelle, but it’s no kind of immaculate conception — she has actually had the dog, fully grown, sewn into her stomach, so that she can then give birth to her. Those of us who love our pets as family members know what this is all about, and the fact that Anderson goes to such extremes — even in her dreams — is good for a laugh. But Heart of a Dog — which features much footage of the fetching and insouciant Lolabelle, including some clips of her playing the piano, a skill she discovered late in life — is about much more than obsessive pet love. It’s mostly about death, though it’s among the most cheerful and inquisitive movies about death I’ve ever seen. Anderson has lots of reasons to be thinking about this subject: Her beloved Lolabelle no longer walks this Earth, and the film is dedicated to her late husband, Lou Reed, who died in 2013. And if her observations lean a bit too heavily on Buddhist philosophy, there’s still something comforting about the way she ultimately connects the idea of loss with the nature of enduring love. Living through pain is the only way to live, period — there’s no other way to move forward. Bring it on, and make it big.