I'm Thinking of Ending Things: Stuck in a Lonely Mind
“If I am cured and well and oh glorious alive then my books should be different. Who wants to write about anxiety from a place of safety? Although I suppose I would never be entirely safe since I cannot completely reconstruct my mind. But what conflict is there to write about then?”
I suffer from sleep paralysis. One of life’s eclectic, cruel ways reminding me that I am a suffering human being. Alive in pain. Middle of the night, mid-morning, afternoon nap, it doesn’t matter; terrified to lay on my back, petrified when I accidentally slumber onto it. I’ve tried describing it to people, finding it ineffable. The closest I’ve come, I think, to putting it in words: feeling like you’re going to die just from insurmountable fear, my heart beating as if overdosing on cocaine (this simile brought to you by my recent binge-watching of Succession; Kendall Roy you poor, bruised soul).
Why am I telling you this? Because the only thing worse than external alienation is internal loneliness. Stuck in interiority. The inability to escape your own body. The only time that body and soul are inextricably tethered together, citing fear as their common ground. That’s what happens when I am paralyzed to my bed. I cannot move, fighting just to wiggle a toe as I am lost in whatever hallucination my subconscious has dreamed up (tornadoes on an airport runway; ghouls approaching my windshield; 1920s women- a recurring one for some reason- dressed in flapper dresses giggling in the corner of my room; a painter en plein air with me tied to a tree as his subject; it is funny I know; sometimes I don’t see anything at all, I just scream, sometimes it’s mute, sometimes I squeak something out) and I’m not ever sure if my eyes are open or not, but I am conscious of what’s going on. The more I panic or try to move, the faster my heart runs, terror expands. I have to think myself out of it. There’s no one around to wake me up. There’s never anyone around. It’s only me here. I’m alone in this. It’s not real. Rigid. Transfixed. Breathe. Calm. Slowly. Patience. Gasp. Come up. Awake. The rest of the night.
Why is this happening? As a creative, curious and contemplative person, I think of it as more than a symptom of my anxiety. A product of who I am, a result of the process of what I’m becoming. An agglomeration of all that I have learned and seen, what I am learning and seeing. Introspection in this epoch of life. The disillusioned intellect of youth. Millennial ennui. Where does this really come from? You use it for your creative endeavors. It’s just as influential as the seminal works of art that you love. Just as inspiring as the artists you admire. Just as life-affirming as a walk in a lush garden. It comes not only from you and your life, but from the world. I am the “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog” (Friedrich) and the woman in the field looking at the cabin in the distance (“Christina’s World” by Andrew Wyeth). Lost in lonely wandering, perpetually wondering.
I mention these two paintings because they both make an appearance in Charlie Kaufman’s new masterpiece I’m Thinking of Ending Things- one in dialogue, the other is seen in the opening. The main difference between myself and Jake, the troubled male psyche of the film is that I don’t create to escape life (not always at least) but to make myself more aware of it; awake, and to remind myself that I am worthy of being a part of it. What I see in these corporeal paralyzing dreams is not real, the fear is. Fear is a feeling, an element of living. And it can and will be overcome. I am alive. Jake- in my interpretation of this dense and rich film- is creating a fantasy to escape the world using his own intellect, insecurity, and the minds of other creative, influential people of the world.
To make the private into something public is an action that has terrific repercussions in the pre-invented world
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a film about our limitless ability to feel and how we construct our own subjective realities around those feelings. We’re all going to die, but we still feel hope. Time is merely a device, but we age. Loneliness is inevitable, but love exists to fight it. Society itself is not objective, we are indoctrinated into its past subjective creation the minute we are born, adhering to both its most rudimentary and abstract infrastructure. We’re simultaneously ourselves and derivative beings. A few tweaks here and there, some other prevailing perceptions and all of this could have been drastically different. Kaufman’s film, adapted from the novel of the same name by Ian Reid, is also about loneliness, but less about how we’re all interminably alone than just copies of unique loneliness. Everyone feels it but handles it in disparate ways.
The famous psychiatrist R.D. Laing once said that “insanity is a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world.” Jake’s coping mechanism- lost in his mind, unbearably alone, and unable to be a part of “objective” society- is extremely self-indulgent and delusional, inventing his own fantasy through the characters and intellectual minds that he has read and studied. They have shaped how he sees the world. This includes his dream world girlfriend Lucy, Luisa, Amy, or the “Young Woman” as she’s listed in the credits (Jessie Buckley). She’s ostensibly our protagonist of the film and very much a real, fleshed-out character, but something is off in her voiceover as she rides in the car with Jake to meet his parents. It’s like he’s telepathic, interrupting her thoughts and how she’s thinking about ending things with him. Even their vocal back-and-forths are too quick, almost overlapping, conversing about Wordsworth, physics, and Oklahoma! the musical which plays a vital role in the film and its relevance is one of the few references I could not grasp.
It’s the first of two very long car rides in the film, the meeting of the parents (Toni Collete and David Thewlis are wonderful creeps) is the interlude, providing the first instance of certain dissonance and proof that what you are watching is indeed a deliberately bewildering experience. There’s suspense, but subtle and so drawn out it’s almost unnoticeable. There’s dread, but only on whether your brain will have a grasp on what is happening, fear of the inscrutable. This is a horror film if you choose to see the horror in it, a thriller if you choose to be thrilled by it. Kaufman’s work isn’t for everybody. He’s always offbeat, idiosyncrasies and mysteries fused with realism, usually romantic relationships (see Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). I’m Thinking of Ending Things is his most enigmatic work yet.
There’s another long car ride, alluring and again festooned with more references, this time “The Society of the Spectacle,” David Foster Wallace, A Woman Under the Influence and the late great film critic Pauline Kael. Jessie Buckley is great throughout the whole film, but she’s staggeringly good in this road trip scene. Shot by Polish cinematographer Łukasz Żal with academy ratio framing a beautiful but dreary drive in a strong winter blizzard (the license plate says Oklahoma but I can assure you this is not Oklahoma, and we don’t own tire chains, this may be my one qualm with the film, I mean at least set it in Minnesota or something if it’s going to snow like that for hours), the camera movements and editing go hand-in-hand with the eccentric action. Dim, delirious, and isolating.
Kaufman’s bold inclination is well-known, but even the last 30 minutes is a bold sequence for him. Especially a film on Netflix, promoted on the home screen the day it was released mainly for people that despise movies like this. This past weekend saw the release of two huge blockbusters, the other mind-bending but much more superficial Tenet (review for that one coming later) and Mulan, a live-action remake that I am in no hurry to see. I applaud Netflix for giving Kaufman all the freedom here, because this is not an easy film. It demands head-ache inducing attention, rewatches, and thought and I hope it wasn’t side-eyed too much for the likes of Tenet or Mulan. In true Kaufman fashion, he has gone meta by making a film about loneliness, alienation, and stigmatization while the film itself will probably get the same treatment on its streaming service. Amazing but unfortunate.
Wrecked, solitary, here...
Jake says that you “can’t fake a thought.” What’s in your head is what you are. You do things you hate doing. Sometimes what you say contradicts what you feel. This quote, which is also in the book, is probably what drew Kaufman to adapt it to the screen. He is a man obsessed with the human condition through our own consciousness, how we see the world and how the world sees us. We are all self-absorbed, some more than others. We’re all a bit solipsistic or suffering from “main character syndrome” as some call it. When we interact with art, we relate it to ourselves, what we’re going through or what we’ve been through. When a work of art resonates with us, it’s usually because it reflects how we feel, how we see, and how we live. Cinema, at its best, is a mirror. The thing about I’m Thinking of Ending Things is that, for me, it didn’t only reflect my current state, it alleviated it. And that is cinema at its absolute peak. When it resonates and, even just for a moment, heals. I watched a film about loneliness and felt less lonely when it was over. I am reminded that others suffer from feeling alone too. I am not the only one that has anxiety or stress or sleep paralysis.
We’re all copies of unique loneliness. Stuck in our bodies, our heads, occasionally immobilized. But eventually we get moving again. It passes. Because there’s a world outside of ourselves. There are other people, some waiting right there with you for some cooler weather to blow in. You don’t grab a beer with yourself. Friends and family. I learn from you, you learn from me. You don’t kiss yourself or hold your own hand. Love. I live for you, you live for me. We’re irrevocably alone with ourselves, but we go to great lengths to avoid this truth or reduce it and maybe that’s okay, if done in a more healthy way of course. Because what Kaufman presupposes here is that loneliness can be fatal.
Somehow I responded with this hopeful and optimistic takeaway from a film that is actually pretty bleak and hopeless about its loneliness. The film explicitly questions how our own knowledge of mortality and hope can co-exist in our heads but I could write a whole other piece on that. I could write about this film for hours. It’s a wealth of discussion. A film lost in thought provoking thought. A think piece/masterpiece. Being alone is ultimately just fine, we do things almost just as much alone as we do with other people, and feeling lonely for a spell can be good, but watching I’m Thinking of Ending Things will make you want to make sure dying isn’t one of the those things in life you do alone.