There is a wonderful joke that goes around university philosophy departments about how incomprehensible Postmodernism is. This joke is so prevalent that there is a website where you can generate your own Post-Modernism essay. In one click you can random create your own indecipherable essay, footnotes and all, on a topic that makes absolutely no sense. It is funny because it is true. Philosophers who have dipped their toe in the waters that is Postmodernism (also known as Post-Structuralism) are usually lambasted for being terrible writers.
There are two things to prefix this review of Charlie Kaufman’s newest offering I’m Thinking of Ending Things :
- I have the highest admiration for Charlie Kaufman as a supposedly “Postmodern” writer and director.
I urge everyone to see Being John Malkovich. It is perfectly constructed and paced. Watching it is simultaneously haunting and cathartic, especially that bit where John Malkovich dances, effortlessly juggling deep thinking with dark humour. Anomolisa and Synecdoche, New York also achieve this perfect balance.
2. I am not an idiot.
“But its Post-Modern! You just don’t get it” says the insecure pseudo-intellectual trying to mask the fact that they are unable to think for themselves, instead relying on The Guardian to be their anchor for moral and aesthetic knowledge. They are the kinds of people who will claim to have read Baudrillard only to have watched a YouTube video essay on Simulacra and Simulation instead.
The film appears to follow a woman meeting her boyfriend’s (who she is thinking about ending things with, ha ha) weird parents. Oh wow! Things are so weird! Oh wow! It is not really about her at all! Look her clothes have changed colour! Look! It is not about her at all! Its about an old man who is, no way, ALSO THINKING OF ENDING THINGS (things being his life, duh).
Over two hours the film descends into cognitive gallimaufry with talking pigs, a Nobel Prize address, and the musical Oklahoma!. This sort of Intertextuality is a common feature of Postmodern art. It is the same idea behind most of the reference-heavy humour in Family Guy, or a parody episode of the Simpsons; the meaning is there but only if you understand what is being referred to. Needless to say, if you do not understand the reference then you will be left bewildered. Ironically enough I have seen Oklahoma! But I did not understand the many references to it in I’m Thinking of Ending Things, including a whole song near the conclusion of the film. Maybe you have to be a Rodgers and Hammerstein scholar to really get it.
Is it so much to not feel like I have to read an “ending explained” article after having watched a film? What if I do not want to feel intellectually castrated by something that is supposed to entertain me?
I admittedly did read up on the film and the source material afterwards and can say that it makes more sense after a brief gleaning of Wikipedia. But that is cheating and frankly an excuse for bad film-making. Do not get me wrong, I do not think that every film should be a paint-by-numbers CBeebies level of Teletubby intellectualism. Films that tickle their audience’s cognitive ability usually draws them deeper to the fundamental core of the film, the big question or conflict that drives the narrative, and make for a grander cinematic, and artistic, experience. Film is a unique medium that is best at marrying aesthetics and story. So why does Charlie Kaufman squander it to ruminate on senseless and meandering philosophical discussions without any discernible direction?
One section of the film, about twenty minutes long but it felt like years, is constituted by a discussion of the nature of time (how ironic). This is all well and good but if I wanted to read about the philosophy of time, I would pick up some Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit from the library. Another section of the film saw a couple, dressed like the protagonists, dancing in a school hall whilst snow fell around them. It was a despondent throwback to the marvellous puppet/John Malkovich dances from Being John Malkovich and I was reminded of what Oscar and Bafta winner Charlie Kaufman is capable of as a writer.
Żal is technically capable of forging truly beautiful and heart-wrenching films. He worked on Paweł Pawlikowski’s gorgeous monochrome masterpiece Ida, and then outdid himself with Pawlikowski’s follow up Cold War which was robbed of a best cinematography (and best film) win at the 2018 Oscars. Both of Pawlikowski’s films orbit incredibly fleshed out characters whose melancholia simply bleeds through the screen and Żal is able to amplify this emotion through his masterfully crafted cinematography; the narrative, characters and presentation are all co-dependant and parasitic, intertwining with each other to fashion truly beautiful cinema. Because I’m Thinking of Ending Things lacks that emotional core and narrative, Żal’s cinematography has nothing to enhance and his talent is wasted.
The protagonists are simply weird, a shtick that gets tiresome very quickly; the amorphous sense of confusion soon collapsed into boredom. There was a point where I was curious to know why nothing made sense; I longed to find an answer or to be at least fed a nugget of vital information that would keep me hooked. But sitting, weary eyed, through two hours of drab conversations and awkward idiosyncrasies I gave up.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is the kind of film I would love to be able to say I get just for the clout. But like Postmodernist literature, the meaning is often too clouded by such dense and muddled presentation that there is often no point even trying to climb the cerebral mountain.