Anomalisa & a Reflection on Student Detachment

Like other Charlie Kaufman films, Anomalisa unsettles its viewers with a surreal environment that rapidly becomes indistinguishable from its questionably sane characters. Anomalisa analyses problems rooted in pathology versus society, and whether there is truly a clear distinction. Is the surreal uniformity in which Anomalisa is anchored a mere disordered mental perspective of its protagonist, Michael Stone? Or is Michael Stone’s insanity derived from his environment?

Still more, how does the detachment of monotony and efficiency that is so implicit to the livelihoods of our industries, our workplaces, analogize to students in college?

The detachment assumed in the era of corporate efficiency and seamless repetition is symptomatic of larger social issues. Arguably, a college student, like a hotel concierge, dulls under the monotony of busy work, of efficiency esteemed over intrinsically-pursued tasks.

The human in us all, to put it simply, is tossed.

This makes it more difficult for us, as it is for Anomalisa‘s Michael Stone, to empathize with the humanity in others. To not recoil at the slightest interaction or flare at perceived interruptions to our daily toil. We become detached by a routine that we must engage in as parts in a larger system. College students know this too well. With everything standardized, we lose our spontaneity, our ability to accept imperfection. We manically focus on fulfilling requirements, turning in assignments, attending courses.

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Kaufman demonstrates with Anomalisa that this complete utilitarianism renders us incapable of  acknowledging humanity in the long-term. And if a human is unable to recognize the humanity in another, can it be a human?

Today, I am going to be drawing on Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa to compare the psychological expectations of employees with that of college students, and explore whether this utilitarian efficiency is detaching us from humanity at large.

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Anomalisa comes to life through the stop-motion animation of Duke Johnson and the irony of its protagonist, Michael Stone. Stone is an author who advises corporations on improving their customer service and employee efficacy. At the beginning of the film, Stone disembarks a flight in Cincinnati where he is soon to deliver an inspirational speech to his fans.

His inspirational adages read:

“Each person you speak to has had a day. Some of the days have been good. Some bad.”

and go so far as:

“Look for what is special about each individual. Focus on that.”

Apart from what his advice would lead you to believe, Stone isn’t tanned and dreadlocked, meditative, nor minutely concerned for others, so a bit of a mind-boggler it would be to catch him mining for something “special.”

Rather than being simply on the fringe and written off as an artsy type, Stone’s level of detachment from his peers, evident by his first few encounters, is critically relevant. For a 90 minute film, a lot of scenes are left to continue in real-time. Taxi rides and awkward interactions between minor characters all dawdle past the point of viewer discomfort. These aren’t the oversights of an amateur editor, but thematic springboards for the film. Stone is detached, undoubtedly. But, in what ways is he detached? Viewers come to understand, during Stone’s encounters, the ways in which he psychologically disregards the humanity of his peers in surreal feats only Kaufman could pull.

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Stone suffers from the Fregoli delusion and he sleeps in The Fregoli hotel .

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This means he perceives everyone, with all of his senses, as the same person. He misidentifies people as mere puppets in his daily experience. With increasing unreality, each minor character, looks and sounds invariably the same. The bellman, the hotel waitress, the concierge.

The tedium of their sameness irks Stone to a degree an annoying spouse would.

He picks up on their parroted remarks on the world.

He picks up on their mannerisms and habits.

And each encounter compounds with the last, culminating in a fiery loathe for customer service workers, who Stone may applaud in inspirational speech, but in daily life shirk due to their claustrophobic effect on him.

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Ironically, Stone doesn’t represent the consoling employer he counsels his fans to be in his book and his speeches. He has internalized his own guidance on improving corporate efficiency and exchange. In his subconscious, he is everyone’s customer. And everyone? Literal puppets.

Viewing his peers as puppets, inevitably makes each interruption, imperfection, each uniform repetition of pleasantry and inquiry all the more irritating.

This is Anomalisa‘s working foundation.

From here, Kaufman creates a short, but indelible film.

A film that provokes analysis into not just Stone’s paranoid condition, but the conditions that allowed a man like Stone to be in the first place.

Anomalisa is a critical analysis of a society that thrives only when detachment and efficacy exist simultaneously.  It’s an analysis of the human byproducts of this society and whether or not they can be “humans” if they lack empathy and compassion.

To quote a Tony Kaye film of this titular concept, Detachment:

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Examining whether detachment is symptomatic of a society that hard-wires or hardens, leaves me with more questions than answers.

Is this detachment a psychological defense? Do we we enter autopilot to maintain sanity? If the humanity in others were considered in each instance, would we be overloaded, pushed beyond the limits our roles (whether personal or industrial) require of us all ready?

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Or is detachment symptomatic of precisely American socialization? There are numerous individuals who accomplish great work because of their tedious lifestyles. They don’t view monotony as draining, or especially detaching, but as a neutral ground from which creativity can seed. Think Jiro from Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Hayao Miyazaki of Studio Ghibli, and Haruki Murakami of some of modern Japan’s bestselling novels. Notably, their sense of tedium is self-imposed.

Or–stay with me here– is detachment an extension of American consumer culture? A 2014 essay entitled, “Student Apathy and Disengagement in American Higher Education: Growing Problem or Campus Myth?” by Darielle Christman examines the oft-cited difference in learning styles, lack of concentration and drive, and apathy that students attribute their academic detachment to. Christman explores the researched theory that aims to discredit the psychological weight of these student claims, associating any academic detachment instead to the consumer model of college.

The consumer model of college was developed by researches in response to what they perceive as an emergence of consumerism in higher education. This model posits that student disengagement is rising for two reasons: “the growth of American consumer culture and the decline of state and federal funding for higher education” (Christman 2014).

In an attempt to survive in the marketplace, colleges and universities market themselves and the degrees they offer as consumer experiences.

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Consequently, the consumer culture that saturates Americans elsewhere, conflicts with post-secondary goals. Consumers (students) feel entitled to the degrees and experiences they purchase through colleges and universities. Through their degrees and experiences, as with other consumerist pursuits, they aim to create an identity, a self-image. Trying on clothes becomes synonymous with trying out degrees. What degree a student pursues is tantamount to their desired self-image. This consumer model, researchers argue, reduces academic rigor and enables student entitlement. Students expect “academic success with minimal effort” because they have embraced the consumer mentality. “They begin to view their college educations like any other economic exchange; they are the customers, their professors are service providers, and their grades and degrees are the deserved product of the exchange” (Christman 2014).

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Or a polar opposite way of viewing students within the consumer model of college featuring Noam Chomsky:

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Narrowing in on college, I can relate to feeling detached because I was a “consumer” that desired utmost control over her role in her education because I was paying for it, even if it meant skipping assignments or withdrawing from courses. But, I have also experienced profound detachment with being a “disciplined” academic most likely suffering from burn-out.

There were times when my academic detachment was a total cop-out. “I’m just not good at math” became my default at many low points.

But, there were also times when my detachment wasn’t so self-derivative. I felt determinedly done for a long period in college after I was disillusioned by my chances of finding a job with an English degree. Upon feeling disillusioned, I submit myself to the system at large. I agreed to college, as prescribed, and I agreed furthermore to obtain a job, reproduce, retire, and die, but only with my dignity intact. I wasn’t complicit.  I wasn’t exactly passionate about being another wheel in the working machine.

Determining what causes individual detachment leaves me with answers as clear as Michael Stone’s hotel mirror:

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Or as certain as David Thewlis, who voices Stone, is about in this excerpt from an interview with The Guardian:

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Hell, even Michael Stone found no redemption at the end of Anomalisa.

Here are some practical conclusions:

  1. You will experience detachment in your life. There are cultural forces larger than you that, like it or not, have some influence on you.

2. You are not going to be passionately in love with anything indefinitely. Not your job, not your major, not even your significant other. Why doesn’t anyone warn you about the ups and downs? Not really a slick marketing point.

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3. Piggybacking on the previous point about the world (or your emotions) not always working in your favor, it’s important to learn how to validate yourself and refrain from seeking fulfillment outside of yourself. If you’re looking to a career, a degree, or even a thrilling lifestyle to complete you, you’re inevitably going to plummet into a state of detachment only Michael Stone can parallel.

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4. Learn to regulate your emotions on a daily basis. This only improves your psychological skill and reaffirms you, when it’s time to make larger decisions, that you are not dependent on a career, a degree, or Real Housewives-extravagance to give your life its substance. Things will get shitty and you very well may obscure everyone, including yourself, as the same damn puppet, but it doesn’t mean there’s a point of no return from the inevitable, sometimes insufferable, but definitely workable sense of detachment.

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