“Most people are other people”, according to Oscar Wilde. It is, of course, highly cliché to begin a piece of writing with an Oscar Wilde quotation, “quotation”, of course, according to Oscar Wilde, being a “serviceable substitution for wit.” It is apt, therefore, that Wilde himself is here referencing Emerson, so when Jessie Buckley’s character in Charlie Kaufman’s i’m thinking of ending things quotes Wilde, she is actually quoting Wilde quoting Emerson.
Confused? When Jessie Buckley’s character in Charlie Kaufman’s i’m thinking of ending things quotes Wilde quoting Emerson, she is actually a construction of a school janitor’s subconscious mind quoting Wilde quoting Emerson as she looks at pictures she painted, except she didn’t actually paint them, the janitor painted them, except the janitor didn’t paint them, Ralph Albert Blakelock painted them, and the janitor has imagined Jessie Buckley’s character realising the paintings she thought she painted weren’t actually painted by her at all but by her boyfriend Jake, who is actually the school janitor, who has actually copied the paintings from Ralph Albert Blakelock in a film by Charlie Kaufman based on a book by Iain Reed because most people are other people. This is a good film, I promise.
i’m thinking of ending things is a crisis of originality put into film form. Except also put into ballet, musical, and cartoon form. Except it was a book before that. “This idea is new”, the Young Woman states at the beginning of the film, “[b]ut it feels old at the same time. […] What if this thought wasn’t conceived by me but planted in my mind, predeveloped.” On the surface, this line is merely Jessie Buckley’s not-quite-named character considering ending things with her boyfriend. By the end of the film, as we learn that this woman is actually a construction of a lonely, elderly janitor’s fractured psyche, the line takes on a more sinister note: all of her thoughts are predeveloped, because they are someone else’s thoughts. The thing she is thinking of ending is her life, and her life is actually the janitor’s. Most people are other people. The entirety of the film is a fiction created by the janitor as he comes to terms with his suicidal thoughts. He uses the memory of a girl he saw at a bar to construct a fantasy where he is young and in love, not old and lonely.
Even the plot of his fantasy is based on a film he watched: at one point, i’m thinking of ending things becomes the final scene of a fictional film, Order Up! (credits included), and from then on Jessie Buckley’s face, and the name of her character, shifts between her own and that of the lead actress in Order Up, as does the story of how she and Jake met. Her name starts off as Lucy, then shifts to Louisa, and to Yvonne as the janitor’s mind flicks from Wordsworth’s Lucy poems to Order Up. Her interest in conveying light and depicting interiority in her art is copied and pasted from the janitor’s interest in Blakelock’s ‘interiority and light’ collection. The poem she wrote is actually a word for word copy of one Jake/The Janitor had in his childhood bedroom.
Nothing here is original: the film is a palimpsest of one man’s subconscious. Iain Reid writes that “getting to know someone is like putting a never-ending puzzle together […] we get to know ourselves in the process”, and as the Janitor ‘gets to know’ the young woman, and Jake, and pretty much the entire film, by ‘putting them together’ based on books, memories, films, and musicals, he is getting to know himself, is coming to terms with ‘ending things’.
In a scene cut in the transition from book to screen, Jake – the Janitor’s self-insert into his own fantasy world – tells his girlfriend to ‘Just tell your story. Pretty much all memory is fiction and heavily edited. So just keep going.’ Kaufman’s adaptation takes this idea of our thoughts, our memories, being reconstructions, being predeveloped, and warps it into a disturbing film about the impossibility of originality. During a discussion on their way back from Jake’s house (read: ‘Jake’s’ ‘house’ – pretty much any noun in this film is deserving of scare quotes) the young woman and Jake discuss two theorists whose work can be read as central to the film.
In what I hope is a self-parodic reference to David Foster Wallace (both Kaufman’s and Foster Wallace’s work attract a certain type of dude-bro humanities student fan – “you have to read Infinite Jest/Synecdoche, New York, man.”), Kaufman alludes to an author concerned with the exhaustive nature of entertainment as simulacra, copies of copies of other people’s thoughts, so far removed from originality as to be completely meaningless: “it’s like we don’t know how to be human anymore.” The real key here, as far as this never-ending puzzle can ever really be unlocked, is in the discussion of Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle:“[we] watch the world through this glass, pre-interpreted for us. And it infects our brains. We become it. […] Like a virus.”
Everything in this film is a quotation of something else, a Frankenstein’s monster made up of popular culture: Wilde; Wallace; A Beautiful Mind; the song ‘Baby it’s Cold Outside’; Order Up; Ralph Albert Blakelocke; the film critic Pauline Kael, who at one point is quoted word for word by the young woman, her words being directly pulled from the book of Kael’s criticism found in Jake’s bedroom. “People all over the world spend countless hours of their lives every week being fed entertainment,” Kaufman states in his BAFTA screenwriters lecture, “it’s ludicrous to believe that this stuff doesn’t alter our brains.” i’m thinking of ending things turns this mediation of our life through the entertainment we consume, a kind of pop-cultural determinism, into something horrific.
The film is set in the landscape of the Janitor’s subconscious mind – “a landscape would attempt to express how I feel at that time”, the young woman says as the Janitor’s thoughts bubble up through her – where everything, every person and setting, is copied and pasted from something he’d seen before. The parents take a while to appear after being called downstairs, as if the Janitor’s subconscious has to load them in. The dog, an extraneous accessory to the fiction, only appears when mentioned, when absolutely necessary. The camera often moves before the characters, as if they are following a pre-determined pathway.
Casting Toni Collette, now practically synonymous with uncannily disturbing mothers, seems like the filtering of Hereditary into the film. She often repeats herself in exactly the same tone, and often freezes in place, like a glitch in a game. The girls at the milkshake shop are transposed from girls the Janitor saw rehearsing Oklahoma! at school. The kids put on Oklahoma! every year, Jake tells us; he begins to see them everywhere. Even the plot of the film mimics that of the musical: the janitor who paints this landscape is clearly a fan, Jake can reel off 19 musicals on the drive to his house. Two men, one dreamy, one creepy, are in love with the same girl. In the musical, Laurey chooses the dashing Curley over the creepy Judd. Real life is not, however, a musical: The Janitor’s version of events, depicted (of course) via dance, shows Judd/The Janitor murder Curley/Jake, then killing himself. The world the janitor has created is one constructed from the building blocks of mass media; Oklahoma! and Order Up! have infected his brain, his world has become spectacle, reality is heavily edited fiction, predeveloped thought.
The audience, too, is implicated here. We, too, are watching through a screen of pre-interpreted thoughts, the screen of the car window becomes the screen of our televisions at home. The janitor may be living a fantasy world woven together from pre-published fiction, but we are watching him, a character in a film woven together from a pre-published novel. We are watching a film in which the characters are unable to form an original thought, the dialogue a composite of various theorists, movie quotes, song lyrics, overused clichés about ageing, and lines from earlier on in the film itself. i’m thinking of ending things is mediated completely through the mind of the janitor, and his thoughts are literally media-ted, constructed through the media he has consumed. The square aspect ratio, a relic of antiquated filmmaking, suggests sampling of old footage, scenes recorded through the gaze of a pensioner raised on black and white film. It is possible to equate Kaufman with the Janitor, men attempting to create whilst being confronted with the impossibility of forming a new idea in a world where everything has been thought before, by someone else, where everyone is mostly someone else.
It’s difficult, as an English student whose life is spent thinking about the thoughts of others, writing essays about other people’s novels, articles about other people’s films, not to empathise with this exhaustion. The film we write in our head when we sit on the bus, as private or original as it may seem to us, has been written before. Even this article contains nothing original, and by now even this level of reflexivity is cliched, just another dude-bro that hasn’t even read Infinite Jest using French Marxist theory to pretentiously explain how film should “speak to us all, man”. The horror of i’m thinking of ending things is that, like a virus, it infects our thoughts, or rather reminds us that all of our thoughts have probably been thought before, even the thought that all of our thoughts have probably been thought before has been thought before, by Kaufman, before him Reid, before him Wilde, before him Emerson, ad infinitum. So, how do we trust our thoughts in this culturally mediated horrorscape? Just tell your story, the Janitor tells himself through Jake, just keep going, piece together a puzzle and get to know yourself in the process. Personally, I’m not very reassured.
Image – Flickr