In 2011 an article published on film academic David Bordwell’s website presented the results of a simple, but fascinating experiment by a psychological researcher on how viewers observe movies. The objective was to answer the following question: when we watch a movie, exactly where does our gaze go?
Academic Tim Smith attached eye trackers to 11 adults to follow, every millisecond, where their pupils were moving while they watched There Will be Blood. The choice of that film was largely incidental, though the study required one where reasonably long takes were favoured over rapid cuts.
Smith produced heat map visualisations illustrating his findings and an in depth explanation of them. The long and short of it is that, as he wrote: “Our eyes will mostly be focused on faces and spend virtually no time on peripheral details”.
Perhaps the finding isn’t surprising given how greatly we tend to study each other’s faces in real life; as if believing we can extract the details of the soul from shapes of bone and layers of skin. But it also has powerful implications on what ultimately rouses our attention in cinema and the relationship actors’ faces have to the rest of the frame.
I remembered reading about Smith’s study while watching Anomalisa, an adult stop motion animation comprising a universe of doughy looking puppets. It is the latest journey into the curious mind of Charlie Kaufman (writer of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovich, and writer/director of Synecdoche, New York) who adapted the script from his own play and co-directed the film with Duke Johnson.
Every character — with two important exceptions — has exactly the same face. Not the same hair, or even the same eyes (though the latter are eerily similar), but the same face: all virtual facsimiles.
The exceptions are protagonist Michael (voice of David Thewlis), a motivational speaker with a niche in yabbering on about the virtues of customer service, and his love interest Lisa (voice of Jennifer Jason Leigh).
Does the repetition of faces — the same one coming up again and again, attached to different bodies — compel us look at them more, or less?
In one sense this odd directorial choice suggests something humane: that on the outside we are all slightly different versions of the same creation but real differences are found under the skin. In another sense it seems to come from an almost alien-like perspective: human beings are largely indistinguishable objects falling off life’s 3D-printed production line.
The characters in Anomalisa move kind of slowly; then again they are marionettes. They speak slowly too, in unhurried and often uncertain manner, their conversations much closer to the rhythms of real life then we are generally accustomed to watching on screen.
Kaufman and Johnson chip away at their protagonist, a complex individual who arrives in Cincinnati, Ohio for a conference. Michael is not a particularly nice person, though there’s a sense we aren’t meeting him at his finest hour.
The film begins when he’s mid-flight but it is mostly set in a hotel, where the (maybe) mentally unwell protagonist attempts to reconnect with an ex-partner. He then goes drinking with two strangers who are in the city for his speech, one of whom is the character referenced in the title — an anomaly because she looks different to everybody else.
When Michael says: “I think you’re extraordinary” it doesn’t feel like he’s lying, and he’s backed up by an aesthetic that pushes this point. But we also know he is desperately and selfishly lonely (though married with a child) with a tendency to say things that propel his own interests.
Michael’s hunger for human interaction is the cavity at the heart of the film, colouring it in shades of grey. Should we feel sympathy for this character, or hold him in contempt?
Anomalisa is darkly and comically subjective. The fact Lisa’s appearance is unique — at least to the strange creation observing her — is almost despairingly downplayed. Her face is noticeably different, but carefully modelled so it doesn’t stand out much: a visual message, perhaps, that she is not the Personal Jesus that Michael is longing for, or somebody whose presence alone can resurrect his life.
The slather of repeated faces, which create a vaguely Twilight Zone-esque lacquer of freakiness, is clearly an aesthetic linked to the protagonist’s mind rather than literal description of the world he lives in.
Perhaps it’s a commentary suggesting that the same thing can be seen in people everywhere; misanthropy, or perhaps something less harsh – distrust or ambivalence – to an extent where virtually no human interaction can feel quintessentially new or different.
I suspect audiences will watch the faces in Anomalisa even more than they observe those in other films. What that says about us, or the character they are supposed to reflect, is more difficult to pin down.