On the Concept of “Pretentious”
I’m calling this, “Some Thoughts” because I do not even know where I want to end with all this.
But I wanted to begin by suggesting that it is okay to like weird things. Many people could say (and may in fact already have said) that the latest Charlie Kaufman movie is “pretentious.” This word is used to express a situation where they feel as though the intelligence of the director is being leveraged over the viewer.
But in the 21st century, art and its collection in the mind has far less to do with intelligence and simply more to do with reference and a wide enough knowledge base. Much of this referential work in I’m Thinking of Ending Things (abbreviated as ITOET from now on) is the reading and research that Kaufman did in making the movie. If you want the endnotes from the film, watch the incredibly small text at the end.
You want the footnotes? They’re in the movie.
So I would say less that the film is pretentious and more that the film is explicitly referential. At all times, movies “reference” things whether we realize it or not. Language is borrowed in scripts, and visual language is borrowed in shots. The dolly zoom. Dutch angles. As new technology arrives, so too do the references expand.
This movie just happens to be more in-your-face about it, more obvious, with things like a speech from A Beautiful Mind, a movie that is sitting on Jake’s shelf.
But I did not even realize that until I read an interview on IndieWire of Charlie Kaufman on the subject.
So I think to call the movie pretentious is us kvetching at having to work hard to understand the film.
That said, what a strange time to be alive, where a person can see on Netflix a movie called The Old Guard, a sort of basic bitch action romp, and then several tiles over could also see ITOET and think to themselves that this is a weird-looking sort of movie. “I’ll think I’ll give that a try.”
To have them both existing in this kind of simultaneity is shocking and wonderful and I think is great. As a kid, getting hold of weird films did not really happen for me until junior and senior year of high school when I could go out on my own to Blockbuster and rent a movie that happened to be available. And weird back then also happened to be low quality.
To have both the action schlock and the indie headscratcher on hand is exciting for the next generation of directors. To have cameras and ideas and equipment democratized enough is exciting to get into the viewer’s visual field. It’s important I think to have films speak to each person.
I’m sort of mincing around this movie by providing a lot of disclaimers because I’m scared to talk about this film.
Because what a strange film it is. I respect it in the same way that I respected Synecdoche, New York, but I did not like the film nearly as much as I like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The latter is my favorite romance movie, because it speaks so eloquently to a young person about what the charge of falling in love also entails, which is plenty of headache and boredom. But also, also, there is a sort of beauty in the mundane that Clementine and Joel are particularly good at exploring (poor as they are).
I thought as I finished the movie that ITOET was about getting older. Each of the moments leading from beginning to end has time as its major theme. Louisa (Jessie Buckley) is meeting Jake’s (Jesse Plemons) family for the first time, but has misgivings about the relationship in general. Her “ending things” is about the possibility of breaking up with him. They spend quite a bit of time driving to the house to have dinner, as Louisa anxiously wishes to get back home to work on a research paper about rabies.
Throughout the movie, there are skips in time, jumps back and forth, and each skip has Louisa, who is the central point of view character, unsure and unclear on just where exactly people are. Clothing changes, hair changes, and what could have been the most frenetic costume-changing one act play becomes instead a claustrophobic movie. Oftentimes the camera is abusively close to the character’s faces. The script plays out in a verbose way (as always from Kaufman) while edits mostly stick to the performance.
In the first half of the film, the movie uses time as a sort of backstage prop. In the latter half, the movie goes off the rails and has time doing the heavy lifting. “People think that they are points moving through time,” Louisa says on the drive home after dinner. “But now I think that time moves through us.” Hearing that in the trailer, and then seeing it at such a conclusive moment, gave me the impression that that was the crux of the film. That Kaufman is debating growing older as a filmmaker and artist, and that much like the characters in the film, they speak to the romantic notions of youth as the time when the real artist’s work gets done.
But then the film keeps going, and what was most frustrating about the film is in the realization that I had it wrong the whole time. That it wasn’t about Louisa, getting older, and relationships as they mingle with time. It’s actually about Jake, and delusion/fantasy. For those who see this image above and have watched or researched the film enough, it makes much more sense than someone watching it for the first time. That can be pleasurable, in the way I guess that Donnie Darko is pleasurable. Once Louisa hugs the janitor, she effectively hands over the point of view to Jake, and the process of dying (for either character, or both) can begin.
It reminded me quite a bit of Gravity’s Rainbow. In Thomas Pynchon’s novel, the closest thing to a protagonist literally dissolves piece by piece. A similar thing happens here with Louisa, where each change has her for a long time retaining some element of her uniqueness. And though each rendition has her reciting poetry that is not hers, or film criticism that is…also not hers, she has a corporeal form that we can follow. That is until the dream ballet, and after that Jake takes over. He looks back with guilt and regret about what his life could have been and what it is instead.
To me, the most frustrating element of this movie was in the inability for Louisa to have the chance to end things, fictional and fantastical though she might be. There are several occasions where she could. I suppose the real answer to the phrase lies in the janitor/Jake and his decision to kill himself by hypothermia, a method that Louisa conjectures “wouldn’t be so bad.”
Stranger than Fiction starring Will Ferrell did a much better job of taking someone’s life believed not to be one’s own and empowering them to make choices that still manage to have an effect. Emma Thompson’s character is the author of Ferrell’s life, and when she realizes that her character is real, the interdependence on the two reaches the point that she decides she could not possibly let him die, going against her modus operandi as an author. Ferrell succeeds in change so drastically that Thompson is the one who loses. And she’s the author!
So it’s clearly possible for a fictional character to still retain some agency in a piece of artwork where the question of reality is up for grabs. I have no problem with her realizing she is a figment of Jake’s imagination, but I wanted her to realize it, not have her disappear in favor of a stage production of “Lonely Road” from Oklahoma!.
All that aside, is it a film that is a particularly fun movie to watch? I’m not sure if “fun” is the word I would choose. The car rides there and back have a listless nature, and the content is touch and go. The problem with reference is if you like the reference, you’re fine. But if you don’t, and you find the reference tedious, you’ve got a problem. A goal of cinema would be to guide the viewer along to create a situation that both the viewer and filmmaker can agree on. And if you haven’t read “E Unibus Pluram” by David Foster Wallace, you’re screwed. If you haven’t read the poem “Bonedog” from the collection Rotten Perfect Mouth, don’t worry, it’s all there. And Kaufman manages to include an overwrought undergraduate conversation about “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” that we have all heard before.
It’s about rape, guys.
What you realize is that this a film meant to be rewatched, but to do so, as Salon reviewer Gary M. Kramer admits, “just feels excruciating.”
I also agree with Kramer that the film could have been amazing, at least to me. As a thirty year old, much the same age as Jake and Louisa, these sorts of encounters at the midpoint between childhood and middle age have this timeless feel that we know is simply health and so much of it. I know that I am lucky, and when I find myself seeing young people who don’t know that at all and old people who know it too well, I too am navigating time, going back and forth much like Louisa does in these farm scenes. Couldn’t we have stuck with just that? Does density have to be explicitly referential? Does it have to be turgid and reciprocal? Or can we leave density in the eye of the beholder? I’m all for the anti-Spotify stance some movies need to take. Where songs now have to compete in the first five seconds, and at a track by track level, rather than embracing the full album. There is something to be said for creating a film that requires paying attention. That requires staying off our phones and watching the whole way through.
It is okay to like weird things. But with this weird thing, does it have to be so hard to like? That seems to be the central question in opaque art.