Back to the movies

For long stretches of my life, I’ve stayed away from the movies. Sometimes it’s just that other, real-life things get in the way. More often, it’s that I get fed up with one or another basic feature of the movieland world– the violence and misogyny, or the all-beautiful-people-all-the-time thing, or just the beautiful apartments that struggling young people are so often shown living in. I even remember getting pissed off at how easily the heroes kept finding parking places in “Manhattan Murder Mystery.”

You can see, it doesn’t take much for a movie to piss me off.

But then something always happens to draw me back. Often it’s that I get involved with someone who really, really cares about the movies, and that by itself is enough– I follow along to movies I wouldn’t otherwise consider seeing. Or occasionally some real-life disappointment sends me scurrying for movieland escapism. Back in graduate school, I narrowly missed out on what I thought was my lifetime dream job. I spent about a week moping around the apartment, until my then-wife dragged me to see “Blazing Saddles”– a more or less instant cure for those particular blues.

Right now, I’m back in movie-going mode, helped along by the fact that Toronto is such a fantastic movie-going city– lots of movies showing, from lots of places and in lots of genres, and in non-pretentious venues. You feel like you’re just going to the movies, not to a Culture Event as you sometimes do in other places. That quality-of-the-venue thing is a big deal for me, since I almost never watch on the small-screen options at home. The few times I’ve fallen into the video-watching habit, it’s mostly left me feeling drugged and depressed.

Getting back into the movie habit these last couple of months has reminded me, there really are things you understand from the movies that nothing else can teach you. Not exactly headline news to movie-lovers, I know, but given my on-again, off-again habits, it always hits me in a big way. A couple of weeks ago, it was the extremely great Turkish-French movie “Mustang” that delivered the lesson– in that case, teaching the rest of us what it’s like to be a teen girl/young woman, with the mix that state includes of reasonableness, outrageousness, anxiety, toughness, fatalism, etc etc etc. Could you do all that in one of the other art forms? In theory sure, but it’s hard to imagine anyone getting so many of the complexities that the movie-makers packed into a couple of hours.

I had the same feeling from “Anomalisa,” a genius-level movie that’s probably not to everyone’s taste. (For a brilliant, spoiler-filled account, see Zadie Smith’s wonderful essay about it.) Among its off-putting qualities, it teaches some things you might actually want not to know, like about the huge (according to the movie, basically impossible) obstacles in the way of any human relationship. Here too, you could get the general idea from other sources, say a careful reading of Remembrance of Things Past, but only if you had lots of time to spare, and even then without the same oomph. And I don’t know where else you’d get the lessons that “Anomalisa” offers about sex, which it depicts in ways that are more real and more touching than anything I’ve ever seen, in any format.

All of this is before you add in the pure travelogue dimension. I’ve never been to either Turkey or Cincinatti, where “Anomalisa” is set, and yet now I have some ideas about them.

So this movie-watching phase is still going strong. But that doesn’t mean the troublesome issues have gone away, even with movies I like enormously. Exhibit A: the young women of “Mustang” are presented undergoing some experiences that all young women go through, but they also happen (all five of them!) to be beautiful, giving the movie some of the phony gleam of Hollywood fantasy. The challenges they confront get a parallel reworking, into your basic good guys/bad guys struggle. It makes for wonderful drama– but the propagandistic overtones get pretty heavy, with a serious tinge of Orientalism. Meaning, this wonderful account of basic, badly understood human emotions also encourages us to demonize a particular set of people.

“Anomalisa” is an altogether different kettle of fish. It eliminates the beautiful people problem by simply eliminating the people, replacing them with puppets that interact in a scale-model environment. The puppets look a lot like real people, at least most of the time, but they and the environment they move in are distant enough from reality that they take on a weird, creepy patina. Every so often, the movie pushes the artificiality thing further, and underlines the idea that these are mechanical objects, not human beings.

And yet it’s “Anomalisa” that gets closer to real life than “Mustang,” possibly the closest I’ve ever seen a movie get. It shows people who mix attractiveness and grossness, just like us real, non-Hollywood humans; and they interact just like we do, even at moments (like that sex scene) that you might think puppets couldn’t really handle.

What does it mean that these non-human actors come closer to the human realities than the real humans of a very good movie like “Mustang?” I realize there are whole academic disciplines that center on some version of that question: aesthetics and big parts of literary theory, just for starters. From that angle, “Anomalisa” is just one example of the paradox thinkers have wrestled with for 2,000 years– why is it that well-done artistic fakery can strikes us as more real and more human than the real human encounters we experience every day? Why do we care more about a Velazquez portrait of a beggar, say, than about the real-life beggar we pass on the street?

But there’s another angle we might consider, which you might call the “way we live now” angle– because the not-quite-humans in “Anomalisa” reminded me of the not-quite-human elements turning up so often in our daily lives now.  Already lots of our interactions take place in non-physical, electronic spaces (for the kids, even telephoning has a little too much physical immediacy, hence some of the enthusiasm for texting). That electronic dimension is only going to expand (at least as long as the electricity holds out), and the futurologists are already worrying about how we’re going to handle the robots who’ll soon be part of our daily lives, including our sex lives. There’s plenty to worry about in that electronic-robotic future, but “Anomalisa” reminds us that maybe dehumanization doesn’t have to be one of the worries. At the least, it tells us that the elements of our humanity are way, way more complicated than we might have thought.