Windows on the Will

The Polar Express

a film directed by Robert Zemeckis

Anomalisa

a film directed by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson
Michael and Lisa, voiced by David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh, in the stop-motion animated film Anomalisa
Paramount Pictures
Michael and Lisa, voiced by David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh, in the stop-motion animated film Anomalisa

On a wintry afternoon, alone with the kids, I visited the Central Park Zoo. It’s not a very big place, just zoo-sized, and after seeing the animals, we found ourselves lining up to enter the little movie theater to watch something called The Polar Express 4-D Experience. A Christmas-themed spin-off from the 2004 movie, it employs the same “performance capture” animation technique, familiar from video games, in which an actor’s movements are turned into computer-generated images. “Hero Boy”—the original protagonist—is still only about ten years old. We find him in his room, enduring his own voice-over, as spoken by his avuncular adult self, Tom Hanks:

On Christmas Eve, many years ago, I lay quietly in my bed. I did not rustle the sheets, I breathed slowly and silently. I was listening for a sound I was afraid I’d never hear: the ringing bells of Santa’s sleigh.

Hero Boy looks like a human, his flesh is fleshy, his yellow pajamas flap and wrinkle, and his hair has the hair-like quality of hair. But those eyes! They belong to a puppet, a waxwork, an automaton. Realistic eyes prove a step too far for 3-D imaging. The effect—as many noted the first time around—is creepy. Uncanny valley. But kids don’t care. My children loved Hero Boy and his dead zombie eyes, and the snow that fell on their heads from the ceiling of the theater and the breeze blowing out of their seats onto the backs of their tiny necks. And because I was alone with them I had nobody to talk with about my own 4-D experience, no one with whom to express that vague dread adults tend to feel in the face of an attempt at absolute verisimilitude. I had no one to bore with a Schopenhauer reference:

The true work of art leads us from that which exists only once and never again, i.e. the individual, to that which exists perpetually and time and time again in innumerable manifestations, the pure form or Idea; but the waxwork figure appears to present the individual itself, that is to say that which exists only once and never again, but without that which lends value to such a fleeting existence, without life. That is why the waxwork evokes a feeling of horror: it produces the effect of a rigid corpse.

For the children the great interest of the movie—aside from its reality effect—was the manner in which it probed the ontological status of Santa. Is Santa real? For Hero Boy is having a crisis of faith and, sneaking from bed, pulls out a volume of encyclopedia and looks up the entry on the North Pole. “Stark and barren,” he reads. Also: “Devoid of life.” My thoughts exactly.

The rest is easily summarized: the Polar Express arrives, Hero Boy and some other dead-eyed zombie children get onboard, and we, the audience, get snowed on, blown on, and shaken—as if on a real train—until we reach the real Santa, who exists, and drops a little silver bell from his sleigh, which the boy later finds. The thing about this bell is that only those who “believe” can hear it ring. While other children grow up and cease being able to hear the ringing of the bell, Hero Boy always hears it, for the rest of his life, even when he’s late-middle-aged Tom Hanks. He believes.

It has no denomination, this belief of the boy’s: it belongs to a generalized American faith that long ago detached itself from any particular monotheism, achieving autonomy in and of itself. Believing in belief is what makes Luke a Jedi and Cinderella a princess and Pinocchio a real boy, and my children have been believers of this kind from the earliest age—ever since they could say “Netflix.” This is the lesson: If you believe—it will be real! The movie ended, more snow came down. I wiped the foam from my delighted children and we went back out into the light.

By aesthetic coincidence that evening I had a date to see Charlie Kaufman’s new movie Anomalisa, with my friend Tamsin, a professional philosopher, a Nietzsche scholar by trade, but not averse to the odd Schopenhauer reference, should a layman—or woman—try to force one upon her. During that long week of solo parenting I’d been carrying around my little pocket Schopenhauer, On the Suffering of the World, and it had become, for better or worse, the filter through which I saw everything, from the wants of insatiable children, to the global bad news in the Times, to the snow falling from the sky. As we walked to the movie theater we considered the idea that all Kaufman’s movies have been somewhat Schopenhauerean, in the sense that they concern suffering in one way or another: the experience of suffering, the inevitability of it, and the possibility of momentary, illusory relief from it. This relief tends to arrive, for Kaufman, in the form of a woman (although these women are almost always the cause of much suffering, too). I thought of Catherine Keener, as Maxine, in the film Being John Malkovich all those years ago, ravishing in her white shirt and pencil skirt, offering a schlumpy depressive—a classic Kaufman protagonist—fifteen minutes’ relief from his suffering:

ERROLL: Can I be anyone I want?

MAXINE: You can be John Malkovich.

ERROLL: Well that’s perfect. My second choice. Ah, this is wonderful…. Malkovich! King of New York! Man about town! Most eligible bachelor! Bon Vivant! The Schopenhauer of the twentieth century!

Now, that last line was cut from the film, but I can take a hint. “It had puppets in it,” Tamsin noted, as we took our seats, “And this one’s all puppets?”

“All puppets.”

For the second time that day, then, I waited in the dark for something not quite human—and all too human—to begin. A model airplane flew into view through modeled clouds. Everything to be seen on screen was modeled, either by hand or digital 3-D printer, and is the work of the stop-motion animation specialists Starburns Industries. In order to suggest the animate quality that surges through all living things—that makes plants reach for the sun or a woman fall to the ground or a man scream, turn, and run—these puppeteers move each model minutely, by hand, photograph it in that position, and then move it once again. The sixty seconds the model plane took to fly through those clouds therefore represented one week’s labor for god knows how many people. And on that little plane, in the year 2005, sits Michael, a British customer sales expert, living in LA, but on his way to Cincinnati for a conference, who is now reading an old letter from an angry ex-girlfriend, Bella. As he reads she appears before him in ghostly puppet form:

November 12th, 1995. Dear Michael. Fuck you. Just fuck you. You just walk away?

After all you said to me? After all we did? After all those fucking promises? After all that fucking fucking?

Many viewers, as soon as they hear Bella’s voice-over, must at once understand the central conceit of the movie, but I don’t think I was the only one initially misdirected by wonder. I was too busy marveling at the puppets, at the mixture of artifice and realism they represent, with their peach-fuzz skins of silicone, and their hair-like hair, and not-quite fluid and yet entirely recognizable human gestures. Although not physically proportional—they are slightly shorter and squatter than us—they seem to buy their clothes from the same big-box stores, and pop the same pills, and use the same neck rests. They fly the same bland planes and land in the same anonymous airports. But across their eyes and around their hairline they sport a visible seam, indicating where the separate plates of their puppet faces fit together. Usually these seams are obscured in post-production; Kaufman and his codirector Duke Johnson decided to leave them in, feeling they “related to the themes that were in the story.”

A scene from The Polar Express
Warner Brothers
A scene from The Polar Express

The effect is uncanny, but not of the Polar Express kind. The seams feel Brechtian: reminding us that Michael is not real, but representation. Running contrary to this, though, are his eyes, which really appear to see as we see. Images pass over their surface, light filters through them. “The eyes were a big thing,” Caroline Kastelic, the head puppeteer on the film, told The Hollywood Reporter. “They had to have realistic eyes that reflected the light properly.” A special enamel was found—one that wouldn’t bubble—and hand-painting them took weeks. The digital eyes of Hero Boy cannot compare. And yet I would not say that Michael’s eyes look real, exactly: they look like a puppet’s eyes. He belongs to a strange new category: a puppet who can see, who feels pain—who suffers! Not an analogy for us, in the Brechtian sense, but rather an example of us, in the Schopenhauerean sense, for Schopenhauer thought puppets essentially what we are:

The human race…presents itself as puppets that are set in motion by an internal clockwork…. I have said that those puppets are not pulled from outside, but that each of them bears in itself the clockwork from which its movements result. This is the will-to-live manifesting itself as an untiring mechanism, as an irrational impulse, which does not have its sufficient ground or reason in the external world.

Yes, to look in Michael’s eyes is to know he’s suffering. The question is: Why? You find yourself diagnosing him by his symptoms. The kind of man who pursues a woman, falls deeply in love, only to then leave—the moment the love is returned—without any explanation, not even one he can give himself. The type who suffers intensely from the boredom and banality of everyday life, who sits in the cab from the airport, wincing in pain as his driver offers unsolicited tips for the overnight visitor:

The zoo is great. World class, they say….

Ya, you should check it out. And you gotta try some Cincinnati chili. It’s chili like you never had…. You don’t need more than a day for the zoo. It’s just zoo-sized….

More than anything, Michael suffers from acute loneliness, which can strike you particularly strongly if an overly friendly bellboy called Dennis happens to lead you into the perfect brown-beige sterility of an upscale hotel bedroom (king-size, smoking) and leaves you there.

But it was only at this point, as Dennis shut the door behind him, that I realized the bellboy had the same voice as the cab driver, as Bella, as everyone on the plane—as everyone in the world. That all these people look alike—despite their various heights, weights, genders, and hairstyles—is a little more difficult to discern, but also true. Everybody is one person (with the voice of Tom Noonan) except Michael (with the voice of the British actor David Thewlis). When Michael calls room service, it’s Noonan. When he phones his wife and son, they’re both Noonan. Rewind a little and you notice the name of the hotel Michael has just checked himself into: the Fregoli, a reference to the Fregoli delusion, a rare psychiatric disorder in which a person believes that many different people are in fact a single person. But a narrowly neurological interpretation of Anomalisa (i.e., the trouble with Michael is he has a brain lesion) can’t account, I don’t think, for the profound identification the viewer feels with Michael’s experience, or the strong part desire plays in the scheme of his suffering.

The ex-girlfriend Bella sounded like no one else when Michael wanted her and then like everybody else when he didn’t. One obvious diagnosis, then, might be that Michael is suffering from a bad case of misogyny. It’s a misogynist, after all, who puts a woman on a pedestal only to knock her off, who believes she is speaking to him only, with a voice unique among her kind, until, all of a sudden—and usually after he’s detected some minor alteration in her person—she sounds like all the rest of ’em. (“Did you change?” asks Michael of Bella, during an ill-fated reunion in the Fregoli’s bar. “Did anything change? Did a change occur?”) But if it were only misogyny, it’s unclear why the sameness of Michael’s experience should affect everyone he comes across equally, from the bellboy up to and including his own son. Narcissism, then? Certainly Michael has his moments (“They’re all one person,” he cries out, during a vivid dream. “And they love me!”) although far more frequently we see him straining toward compassion.

Michael wants to know and understand the people he’s hurt, and never exhibits any self-love. But if not narrowly narcissistic Michael is surely solipsistic in the obvious, wider sense that we all are, limited, as he is, by his own subjectivity, his only possible window on the world. Our eyes—popularly “windows on the soul”—work precisely the other way around, bringing the world to us, in the form of a representation of reality, and it happens that through Michael’s own hand-painted enamel everybody appears as one person, or (which amounts to the same thing) as nobody in particular. (In the final scene—the only one Michael is not in, and therefore separate from his subjectivity—we see characters restored to their unique faces and voices, no longer phenomena presented to Michael’s consciousness but precisely people in particular.)

Yes, only when Michael desires someone does she become fully real to him. At all other times he is struck by an all-encompassing Weltschmerz, into which misogyny, narcissism, solipsism—and a brain tumor!—might all easily be folded. Weariness pervades everything he says and does, the simplest human interactions elicit sighs and groans, and yet this weariness of the world includes his own part within it; or, to put it another way, whatever is driving all the phenomena of the world surges up through Michael, too, taking the form, in him, of a kind of blind striving, a relentless desire for something, which, the moment it is achieved, is already exhausted. After you get what you want, runs the old song, you don’t want it. When you get what you want, you don’t want what you get. This is, essentially, the charge Bella lays before Michael. Schopenhauer saw it as a general malaise:

Desiring lasts a long time, demands and requests go on to infinity; fulfillment is short and is meted out sparingly. But even the final satisfaction itself is only apparent; the wish fulfilled at once makes way for a new one.

Once Dennis has left the room, Michael picks up his hotel phone. He is hungry, thirsty. His needs are not complex. But when he tries to order the bibb lettuce salad and the salmon, this happens:

ROOM SERVICE: Yes, sir. Would you like anything to drink tonight?

MICHAEL: No. I’ll find something in the mini bar.

ROOM SERVICE: Very good. Dessert? We have a lovely—

MICHAEL: No, no, no, no thanks.

ROOM SERVICE: Very good, sir. So that’s a Bibb lettuce, Gorgonzola, prosciutto, and walnut salad…

MICHAEL: Yes.

ROOM SERVICE: …with honey raspberry vinaigrette dressing…

MICHAEL: Yes.

ROOM SERVICE: …and the wild-caught Copper River Alaskan salmon almandine…

MICHAEL: Yes.

ROOM SERVICE: …with baby asparagus and black truffle broth.

MICHAEL: Yes.

ROOM SERVICE: Very good. And that’s for room 1007?

MICHAEL: Yes.

ROOM SERVICE: Very good. It’s…9:13 now. It should be there within thirty-five minutes, which will make it…9:48.

MICHAEL: Thank you.

ROOM SERVICE: Thank y—

One way of dealing with the boredom of our own needs might be to complicate them unnecessarily, so as always to have something new to desire. Human needs, Schopenhauer thought, are not in their essence complex. On the contrary, their “basis is very narrow: it consists of health, food, protection from heat and cold, and sexual gratification; or the lack of these things.” Yet on this narrow strip we build the extraordinary edifice of pleasure and pain, of hope and disappointment! Not just salmon, but wild-caught Copper River Alaskan salmon almandine! And all to achieve exactly the same result in the end; health, food, covering, and so on:

[Man] deliberately intensifies his needs, which are ordinarily scarcely harder to satisfy than those of the animal, so as to intensify his pleasure: hence luxury, confectionery, tobacco, opium, alcoholic drinks, finery and all that pertains to them.

When Michael hangs up on room service his puppet face is struck through with boredom, an emotion unknown to wild animals, whereas, for us, boredom “has become a veritable scourge. Want and boredom are indeed the twin poles of human life.”1

Michael’s hotel room is, in literal miniature, the concrete expression of the problem. In such a room you can, in theory, get whatever you want, and many things you didn’t even realize you wanted. (Try the chili! insists the cover of the glossy yet depressingly parochial magazine on Michael’s side table. It’s zoo sized! screams the billboard outside his window.) Hotel rooms exist to satisfy. The water in your shower may at first be too hot and then too cold (“Fuck you! Fuck you!” screams Michael, naked under the faucet) but you can be sure the perfect temperature is achievable, and that when you adjourn to your king-size bed you’ll find a chocolate on your pillow. Yet if hotel rooms exist to anticipate desire, to meet and fulfill all our needs, why do we so often feel despair in them? Is the fulfillment of the desire itself the despair?

From his upscale hotel room Michael calls Bella; it’s been eleven years since they last spoke. The conversation is awkward. She compliments him on his lodgings. (“It’s boring,” he groans in response. “Everything’s boring.”) Somehow he manages to convince her to meet him in the hotel bar for a vodka martini. It goes badly: he can’t explain why he so suddenly stopped wanting her, and when he asks her up to his room to discuss it further she walks out. He finds himself out on the street, drunk, still pursued by a ghostly vision of Bella (“And the next minute you’re out the door with barely a goodbye!”) and seeking a store in which to buy a present for his insatiable son, Henry. In the only kind of “toy” store that’s open at night, Michael finds an antique mechanical Japanese sex doll. She consists of a mechanized torso, half-covered in porcelain, with the face of a geisha and her mouth permanently open. She stares out at Michael with her dead zombie eyes. He stares back with the glazed, happy look of the momentarily satisfied customer.

Arthur Schopenhauer; drawing by Wilhelm Busch
Arthur Schopenhauer; drawing by Wilhelm Busch

“Thus the subject of willing,” Schopenhauer writes, “is constantly lying on the revolving wheel of Ixion, is always drawing water in the sieve of the Danaids, and is the eternally thirsting Tantalus.” But what, if anything, lies on the other side of all this endless wanting, getting, and wanting again? Back in his room, Michael takes that shower and begins singing Delibes’s “flower duet” from Lakmé, in which two voices so beautifully merge they can seem to be one. We heard it in the airport, too, playing on Michael’s iPod, and again when Michael tried to hum it to himself in the back of the cab. (Driver: “That’s British Airways!”)

Approaching the mirror, he wipes away the steam, stares at himself. He seems on the brink of a realization. We realize his face is moving without him consciously willing it, just like a puppet’s face: his eyebrows jerk up and down, his mouth makes odd, unnatural shapes, and dozens of distinct expressions dart over his features. Out of his mouth come strange, unindividuated noises: the indistinct chattering of many people, then the clatter of mechanical gears—or perhaps it’s the striking of typewriter keys—and finally a rushing, whooshing kind of emptiness. (Ah, that’s what the world would sound like, I found myself thinking, illogically, if there was no one present to hear it.) Michael reaches for the separate plates of his face: he’s about to peel them back. Is there a way out of wanting? Perhaps if he were not Michael at all? With his unique face, voice, desires? If he were, in reality, someone, or something, else? Something both less and more than Michael, something…

MICHAEL: Jesus! Someone else!

Just then, Michael hears a voice in the corridor, a unique voice, unlike all the others! Whatever he was about to realize he instantly forgets: he lets go of his faceplates and they click back together. He rushes around the room, seeking his trousers. It is the sound he was afraid he’d never hear again! The voice of someone else! And when this voice speaks, Michael, just like Hero Boy, hears something nobody else hears, something that makes him believe. Madly he runs down the corridor, half-dressed, deaf to the warnings of Schopenhauer, as if he’s got no idea at all what’s going on here, as if he thinks this whole bloody film is about him, Michael, when in reality of course it’s all about Schopenhauer:

The striving of matter can always be impeded only, never fulfilled or satisfied. But this is precisely the case with the striving of all the will’s phenomena. Every attained end is at the same time the beginning of a new course, and so on ad infinitum.

Her name is Lisa. She’s staying a few doors down and she’s a lovely, homely girl, perfectly average. She has a scar on her face that she tries to cover with hair: people usually prefer her friend Emily. She likes Grande Mocha Frappuccinos, and Cyndi Lauper and Sarah Brightman, she works in a call center in Akron, drinks mojitos made with apple schnapps, and is generally the very definition of what we might call, if we were being uncompassionate, a basic bitch. To Michael, though, she is the only other person on earth. She has “a miraculous voice” (which belongs, in reality, to Jennifer Jason Leigh). And to Lisa, too, Michael is magic, an especially individuated individual, because he’s famous, he wrote the book How May I Help You Help Them?, a customer service guide that raised productivity, Lisa informs him, by “90 percent” in her department. When he walks her to his hotel room for a nightcap, she’s so anxious she falls flat on her face, succumbing to the will of the world, in the form of gravity. “It happens all the time,” she assures him.2

The following extended love scene is of such a delicacy and beauty that it reduced the audience to nervous giggles, as if embarrassed to be intruding upon such intimacy between puppets. But before anybody takes off their clothes, Michael, besotted by Lisa’s voice, asks her to sing one of her beloved Cyndi Lauper songs, and Lisa, fearful she is being ridiculed, closes her eyes and cautiously begins. This song should rightly, thematically, be “True Colors” and so there is something unexpectedly amusing about Lisa opening her miraculous mouth and singing “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.”

We get the whole song, in all its lyrical banality,3 and it acts as a prelude to sex that proves equally pared down, simple, human, and from which all the usual cinematic fantasy has been stripped. The two sit on the edge of the bed, undressing to reveal our own lumpy bodies. When he gives her head, she is a little shy, as we can be, and he, in his turn, silent and workman-like, as often happens. When they shuffle up to the headboard, they move as we move—laboriously, without elegance—and then lay with each other as we all have, moving back and forth slightly, and finishing about a minute later. What strikes us above all is the gentle compassion these two bodies show each other. Elsewhere in this film, in many chilling glimpses, we see people treating each other without any compassion at all, or with brutality, pushing past one another, yelling at strangers, or standing by the icemaker in the hotel hallway repeatedly telling each other to fuck off. Everywhere you look, the world is pain:

The life of the individual is a constant struggle, and not merely a metaphorical one against want or boredom, but an actual struggle against other people. He discovers adversaries everywhere, lives in continual conflict and dies with sword in hand.

Still, amid Schopenhauer’s pessimism there is this shred of light: compassion. Even if the idea that we have separate bodies at all is a form of illusion (only enabled by the supporting illusions of space, time, and causality), these bodies of ours still feel pain, still suffer when they are subjugated, oppressed, exploited, or simply laughed at. For Michael (and Kaufman) certain women are both a vital source of this compassion and the unique recipients of it.4 Lisa, for Michael, is an anomaly. An Anomalisa. And this compassion, this choosing of each other, is objectified in their miraculous voices: David Thewlis’s Northern English mix of reticence, pragmatism, and despair, and Leigh’s cloud-free all-American innocence.

Noonan, Leigh, and Thewlis were in the original cast of Anomalisa, in its previous incarnation as a radio play, and their sublime performances lend the film a rare aural self-sufficiency: you could close your eyes and still enjoy it. And yet, in the 2016 Oscars, this witty and profound script has received no nods, nor is the film nominated for its acting or direction.5 A reminder that alongside its noted myopia toward distinct genres, races, and subcultures, the academy has also proved reliably blind to a more general category: genius. (Which category, so problematic for us, is, for Schopenhauer, easily defined: “The gift of genius is nothing but…the ability…to discard entirely our own personality for a time, in order to remain pure knowing subject, the clear eye of the world.”)

That same night of the compassionate hookup, Michael—self-confessed “sloppy sleeper”—thrashes in his bed. He’s having a nightmare, though as it’s happening we think it is real. In this dream, the central problem of the film is restated—everybody is one person—but with an added, paranoid twist: they’re out to destroy Lisa-and-Michael! For one of the features of the compassion Michael now feels for Lisa is that he is able to make, in Schopenhauer’s words, “less of a distinction than do the rest” between him and another person; he recognizes, in some sense, that Michael and Lisa are one—and now it’s them against the world. As he runs from that world, down the hotel corridor, one of his faceplates falls off entirely—we see the gray, gaping cavity beneath—and when Michael wakes up he finds he has hit his new love in the face with an elbow. But what if this nightmare (that Michael, too, is nobody) is not dream at all but a glimpse of a deeper truth?

Life can be regarded as a dream and death as the awakening from it: but it must be remembered that the personality, the individual, belongs to the dreaming and not to the awakened consciousness, which is why death appears to the individual as annihilation.

That we believe ourselves to be separate from each other, and separate from the apparent objects of our desire, was, for Schopenhauer, the root of our suffering. A better consciousness was possible, one that recognized our essence as “will” (expressed in us as will-to-live, and objectified, with varying degrees of consciousness, in our urges, desires, and actions), and that this essence was not individual but rather shared with all people (not just Lisa), all animals, all plants, all the phenomena of the world. What we can know intimately through our bodies has, for Schopenhauer, its equivalent in the keenness of the iron to fly to the magnet, in the determination of water to flow downward, in the force of gravity itself, and though such knowledge is not a synonym for “force” or “energy,” it contains both those terms.

The will lies behind all, contains all, is the “thing-in-itself…the innermost essence, the kernel, of every particular thing and also of the whole,” a somewhat loopy metaphysics that real academic philosophers, like Tamsin, must take with a large pinch of salt, though it has captivated artists for generations. Is it possible that the problem in Anomalisa is not that Michael thinks everybody is the same but that Michael thinks he is Michael?

Your individuality is not your essential and ultimate being, only a manifestation of it…. Your being in itself…knows neither time nor beginning nor end…. It exists in everyone everywhere.

The erroneous belief that one is an individual at all—what Schopenhauer called the principium individuationis—may be the deeper truth hiding behind Michael’s faceplates. (It would also help explain his fondness for Lakmé, an opera set among the transcendental Brahmin, for whom ultimate reality is likewise “All-One” and individual existence merely an emanation, made possible by the illusory veil of Maya.6) In the dream we are separate beings. In reality we are one. If only there were a way to reach out to the hinges of your individual faceplate and tear away all that stops you from knowing that! But Michael never reaches this awakened consciousness: like so many of us he remains stuck between those twin poles of want and boredom.

With Lisa the change comes far sooner than with Bella. That same morning over breakfast, Michael begins to realize that Lisa’s unique voice is disappearing and Tom Noonan’s already starting to overlay it. “Who would’ve thunk it?” asks Lisa, and Tom Noonan. “It’s just so beautiful. Life can be. Things can work out. That’s the lesson.” But the next time she speaks there will be no Lisa, there will be only Noonan. Michael hangs his head in preemptive despair. “Sometimes there’s no lesson,” he replies. “That’s a lesson in itself.”

When Michael finally gives his speech on customer service, at the conference podium, it starts pretty well (“And always remember, the customer is an individual. Just like you…. Each person you speak to has had a childhood. Each has a body. Each body has aches”) but soon turns strangely philosophical (“What is it to be human? What is it to ache? What is it to be alive? I don’t know. What is it to ache? I don’t know…. Our time here is limited. We forget that. Death comes, that’s it. Soon it’s as if we never existed. So remember to smile…”) until it veers off its track altogether and becomes a pessimistic Schopenhauerean rant (“This is not working. The world is falling apart. The president is a war criminal. America is going down the tubes and you’re talking about goddamn intelligent design!”).

The horrors of the will are historical as much as personal and seem to have no end in view. “History shows us the life of nations,” writes Schopenhauer, “and finds nothing to narrate but wars and tumults; the peaceful years appear only as occasional brief pauses and interludes.” What we might find bleakly funny in all this is that Schopenhauer’s proposed and partial remedy to this situation—compassion—sounds not very different from Michael’s customer-service bromides:

So remember to smile. Remember there is someone out there for everyone. Someone to love. Remember every person you speak to needs love. Remember to—

Conference over, Lisa abandoned, Michael returns home to find his wife Donna throwing him a surprise party. The surprise is he knows nobody and they’re all the same person. His son grabs his present, the Japanese sex toy. It starts singing. A liquid oozes from it. Donna asks Michael if it’s semen. But Michael does not find that an important line of inquiry. Instead he turns to his wife: “Who are you Donna? Who are you really?” (“If only,” whispered Tamsin-the-Nietzschean in my ear, “there was a way to stop asking that question!”) Our final vision of Michael is of a man stuck in the middle of a party of nobodies—all with the same face—who is choosing to focus on a singing doll leaking semen, in which substance Schopenhauer saw a clear manifestation of the will, seeking only its own replication and continuance, without regard for what we, as individuals, may “want.”

What Donna “really” is, in Schopenhauer’s view, is the same thing semen is, really: will. Reality is the will, expressed in everything that we do and are and see, independent of belief; we are both the prisoners and perpetrators of the will, it never lets us go, not even in late middle age, although, every now and then, there will come along an object or experience of sufficient beauty—an aria, say, or an antique Japanese sex doll, or a really good film—that offers itself up to us as an object of aesthetic contemplation, by means of which we might be able, for a moment, to will-lessly contemplate the will. Oh, and also? Be kinder to Donna. Compassion helps. You might not sleep the deep, unruffled sleep of Hero Boy, but in Kaufman’s reality (and Schopenhauer’s) that’s about as good as it’s going to get.

  1. 1

    Schopenhauer argued that a mild form of boredom could be detected in some domesticated dogs and cats. 

  2. 2

    We learn that Bella, too, struggles with gravity—”I have a fake tooth in the front because I fell and hit a cement bench with my mouth”—and perhaps this is where comedy and Schopenhauer meet, somewhere in the tragi-comic inevitability of the pratfall.  

  3. 3

    In accounting for the impact of Lisa’s simple rendition we might turn to Schopenhauer explaining the power of folk songs: ”Everything superfluous is prejudicial.” 

  4. 4

    Schopenhauer—though he wrote so poisonously of women, hated his own mother, and famously pushed his landlady down the stairs—also argued that women tend toward compassion more consistently than men.  

  5. 5

    It’s up for Best Animated Feature, with Shaun the Sheep and Inside Out

  6. 6

    The lyrics of the Flower Duet can be read as a transcendental merging of the many into the one: ”Thick dome of jasmine/Under the dense canopy where the white jasmine/Blends with the rose…/Come, let us drift down together.”