Anomie, Anomaly, Anonymity, and ‘Anomalisa’

I found ‘Anomalisa’ on the newest addition to my life: my Amazon Prime subscription. I knew little about the film before I watched it; I did not even know it was animated. The movie surprised, shocked, and made me feel things enough to push me to write a review. I don’t watch a lot of TV or films, so count this as a rare occurrence in this blog.

Michael Stone is a popular motivational speaker for those working in customer care. The plot is unnervingly simple, and the characters only few. He is in a plane, heading to a business trip. As the initial indistinguishable chatter morphs into clearer background conversations, it strikes you immediately as odd: they are all the same. (It was originally shot as a radio play, and I could see how this would’ve worked.) There are also two planes in the sky: a symbol for two realities, one that Stone sees, and one that actually is? There is no worker more alienated from the act of his production, as Marx would put it, as Stone is. Throughout the movie, we see him slowly disintegrating, asking his fans and listeners to look at each customer’s difference, and focus on that – the key to a good customer service. Yet all he sees are puppets, with the same face and the same voice, with a disconcerting line that runs from their ear to their jaw – making their ‘unnaturalness’ so much more obvious.

Is it because of his Fregoli syndrome? It is after all, referenced multiple times in the film – from the name of the hotel he stays in, to his answer to his former lover on why he ran out of the relationship so suddenly. During his stay, he hears something he never thought he would – another voice. He runs out in a hurry to find Lisa, a shy, awestruck fan girl, who is as ordinary as ordinary can be.There are many fan theories trying to assess the psyche of Stone – diagnosing from this rare psychiatric condition in addition to narcissism, paranoia, and a more generic sounding ‘mid-life crisis’. I do not wish to add upon that. Instead I urge you to look at him as you would look into a mirror. Haven’t you ever felt that everything else was in order, arranged by some hand, and you were the only one lost? Haven’t you gotten utterly bored by the same old script of small talk? Haven’t you stared at a person you have loved so deeply, for so long, yet suddenly find something new and slightly unsettling?

There are multiple fan theories on the ancient odd Geisha doll that captures Stone’s fancy immediately. Did he know it was a sex toy? After all, by that point, he had realised he walked into a wrong kind of a toy store. Is it a metaphor for Lisa? (They have scars in the same places, like several posts point out.) Is Lisa real? (Yes. Emily has a real face, in the only scene you see through non-Stone eyes).  What caught my attention most was the half mechanical and half organic structure of the doll – and that is how, I feel, our social relations are held together.

Durkheim, in his most famous argument, speaks of anomic suicide as not a decision of an individual for personal reasons, but deeply intertwined with his/her disillusion with the way society functions. He calls it ‘anomie’ – a normlessness that arises from a sense of deep apathy and detachment with the rest of the world. Anomie would not exist in a world where social solidarity has been achieved “organically”; it is only from the era of industrialisation that anomie is even possible, perhaps even inevitable, because of a particular “mechanical solidarity” artificially imposed on us.

Stone calls Lisa an anomaly in their most intimate moment – not just because she is the only other person with a different voice, but also because she is the first person he sees whose puppet features don’t show. He hears her voice, just as he had noticed his own – so finding another human relaxes him. (Until he realises the next morning, that she too, after all, is like others.) In his desperation to find “the only other person in the universe”, he gives out his promises freely – to abandon his life and family behind. We can join the dots and figure out what might have went wrong with his former lover. Spoiler: he does go back to his family full of the same but strange puppet-faces, and finds solace (with a resigned sigh) only in the Geisha doll.

The film also reminded me of theories of urban anonymity and the strangeness of alienation in a new city. It is so easy to be one of the faces in the crowd! It is personally a source of calm for me – like a quick getaway to the mountains, without all the travel. Stone is returning to a city he left ten years ago, and finds everything so different, yet utterly the same (“the same old zoo, the same old chili”). He has changed, but so has the city, like two trains moving in different directions – but not so much that you can’t see the other train anymore. Would you say that when all the faces in the airport seem to him as just one face, it is not only because of his Fregoli? You and I have also experienced it, when our minds are distracted, and we aren’t quite paying attention to who else is in that crowded bus or train.

As a post-script: a reflexive thought on writing this post. Writing an immediate reaction-piece has become harder for me. I can no longer distinguish between the abstract theories I learnt in my sociology class but can only look at them relationally (good thing). However, my need for validating my theories has increased – I can no longer come up with absurd fan theories, but instead have the urge to read everything that has already been written on it, to ensure I’m not being repetitive. The most I have done to come out of my academic writing is to link wiki articles (I can hear academics going “oooh”). To my non-social science readers, I do hope this has not been too boring.

(1043 words)

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