Charlie Kaufman in his infinite anxiety has blessed us with another interior monologue veiled in film. Wrapped in his own head is the abyss of death and life whose frigid edges gnaw at our unused moments. The man is clearly so scared of getting up in the morning. Someone please check on him.
How appropriate it might be that this movie is released on Netflix. In most cases, I find a film released through streaming services as having suffered a weakness, however slight, of not having the full theater experience which I love so dearly. Crowds emanate a faint, near-imperceptible energy that enhances the experience. But not here. Experience this film as good old Charlie would convince us we truly experience life: alone.
Experience. “That word should have new meaning for all of us today,” says the president in Independence Day. To say that a film is an experience is a platitude of its own, but it tolls true. This movie is about experiences in our lives forming who we are, whether they be our parents, our readings, our relationships, or even our movies.
My music taste, for example, was primarily a product of my father. He made a series of mixtapes for my mother, each titled with her name, a Roman numeral, and a subtitle. Mixtape IX was subtitled “Where We Were, Where We Are, and Where We’re Going.” This film could copy that subtitle word for word and make itself slightly more approachable while keeping its spirit. Where do we come from? is the question at the center of the film, and Where will we end up? is its sequel.
Where We Were: “I’m thinking of ending things.”
Lucy barely mentions her own parents; as an imagined figment of Jake’s mind, she has none worth mentioning. On the way to Jake’s childhood home Jake even calls her an “ideal” woman. The problem with that kind of fantasy is that it cannot be pure, and eventually becomes a brain stew. Jake’s own insecurities about his awkwardness, his lack of intelligence, and his inability to communicate his own thoughts confront his ideal woman and he realizes that she would not really want him. Why would she? Like all fantasy’s, Lucy is a projection of past experiences. The women in Jake’s life, from his mother to the highschool aged Dairy Queens, have made him feel unsure of himself and prone to outbursts and fear. Even his perfect fantasy girl would at least have a sliver of thought growing at the back of her mind. For him, she is too sweet, like a soggy oreo blizzard.
When they do arrive, Jake’s parents teach us his influences. He was raised in a very blue-collar background, with a mother whose coddling pride in him comes across as embarrassing. Seeing his mother fawn over the little he has done undercuts his actual accomplishments in his head. His father, a lesser role in the film, shares Jake’s abrasive I-know-better-than-you attitude without the knowledge to back it up, implying the need to be right that Jake clearly has. We watch them grow old, prune sickly, and die implicitly. How nice it would have been to live through that with someone by your side. The fantasy is sliced into pieces of life as we review the milestones of their geriatric years. Jake comes from this lonely fear of what age and death does to people.
His childhood room is like a Rosetta stone. Lucy gazes over his piles of literature, poems, movie reviews, and video cassettes. It is here that we first see an inconsistent version of one of the parents, and it is here that Lucy starts her peeking through this illusion. As they drive away from the home, she even notices some of the previous inconsistencies, acknowledging that a lot of what Jake says about the visit doesn’t connect correctly. As this creature of perfect imagination, she can see through the illusion Jake is wrapping himself in and starts to acknowledge just the beginnings of the truth.
Where We Are: “Other animals live in the present. Humans can not, so they invented hope.”
As a bored child, stories would bounce around my brain. My imagined science-fiction characters would appear tiny to my eyes, dancing around the supermarket aisles and outside car windows in their action sequences. Some of them were self-inserts, carrying out the life I wished to lead outside my comparably plain one. “Vague in my head stuff” could be the name of my biography’s first chapter.
This film is just one of those played out by adults. Jake, as an old adult janitor, looks back at his life and wishes he could have met someone he could love. Someone to show where he came from. Someone to share his fear with, of maggots and mothers. That is the setting for the movie. Delusion. Hope. Ipseity. Whatever you want to call it.
The scene where the couple stops their homeward journey at Tulsey Town is more about the janitor version of Jake than his fantasy. It is breaking down as Lucy comes into her own. The blondes who whispered about the janitor are here, making him turn away again. The unique girl working there, also from the halls of high school, tells Lucy she doesn’t have to go forward in time. It’s true. She only exists in Jake’s head; if she moves forward then eventually she’ll fade.
But she must. The internal eternity can’t go on forever.
Where We’re Going: “It’s good to remind yourself that the world is larger than the inside of your own head.”
The couple arrives at the school, and the janitor and Lucy meet. The janitor is dumbfounded that he’s brought this intangible person to life. Or perhaps he is taking inspiration from her in this moment, and secretly this is the first scene chronologically. An influence!
Regardless, Lucy says goodbye to the janitor, leaving the fantasy behind. The climax of the film is a glorious dance, not like Astaire and Rogers, but like the ballet that the janitor was watching before. Another influence! It is up for interpretation exactly how this is to be seen, but I feel that we finally see Lucy freed from the janitor’s mind here as the dancing avatars of she and Jake fight him off in a swarm of mosquito-like snowflakes. What that means next for her is uncertain, but the freedom is more real than anything she’s lived off of until now.
Finally, the janitor has finished his work for the day. He clears off his truck and readies to start it. But he can’t go home. His worst fears are realized; time has caught up with him! He is dying, and a maggoted pig escorts him to his final fantasy: heaven. There, he, as a younger Jake, quotes the final monologue ripped directly from the 2001 Best Picture Winner A Beautiful Mind. From the Tulsey Town jingle to the musical number from Oklahoma, we are once again brought into a testament to Jake’s own hubristic media obsession. Lucy is old now, perhaps independently alive and rejoining him in his final moments. It is a fantasy where everyone finally acknowledges Jake for everything he wanted to be. We fade through blue to oblivion, and Jake is dead. He’s no longer thinking; things are ended.
I don’t want to see my loved ones get old and die. I don’t want to watch my parents or siblings or girlfriend or friends have to continue this crazy train ride. Please let my stop be first. That sounds excruciating: to watch each of the other passengers in my small compartment shuffle out like withered leaves.
I’m sorry. Kaufman movies get me really stuck in my head. Treacherous landscape. Do not fret however. I think the film’s strongest message is that we must learn to live, here, and now. Not for distracting purposes, but rather let us go out and be something to someone.