I'm Thinking of Ending Things (Charlie Kaufman, 2020)

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Constable
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Re: I'm Thinking of Ending Things (Charlie Kaufman, 2020)

#101 Post by Constable » Sun Apr 18, 2021 5:31 pm

I could not make heads or tails of this film and judging by reviews I've read I'm not the only one. I want to ask two questions:

1) If, like me, you haven't read the book, did you understand the movie?

2) Whether you've read the book or not, do you think the film should be regarded as a failure if most people, including most critics, find it inscrutable?
mfunk9786 wrote:
Fri Oct 02, 2020 12:28 pm
TheKieslowskiHaze wrote:
Wed Sep 30, 2020 9:42 pm
And there was no "Directed by Robert Zemeckis" bit in book, sadly.
This was the result of a happy editing "mistake" of sorts, the editor slid in some footage from the closing credits of Contact as a placeholder for an assembly cut because it was nearby for whatever reason, and Kaufman laughed so hard that he asked Zemeckis for permission to keep it in place, which he was granted. Not because the film seemed anything like something Zemeckis would make, but because it so significantly didn't.
Interesting, I took that to be a dig at Zemeckis - saying that Zemeckis makes movies like that (I'm not familiar enough with Zemeckis to know whether he does) and I saw that one reviewer took it that way as well.
cdnchris wrote:
Wed Sep 30, 2020 12:51 am
I need to watch this again as soon as possible as I'm sure there's lots to pick up once you know what's going on. I'm sure Kael would have hated it.
Why do you say that?

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therewillbeblus
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Re: I'm Thinking of Ending Things (Charlie Kaufman, 2020)

#102 Post by therewillbeblus » Sun Apr 18, 2021 5:56 pm

1. Yes, I have several ideas but I've already mentioned them at length in this thread
2. No, it's a film that's more about an emotional feeling from an existential crisis as translated by Kaufman's visualization of his internal psyche using conflicting IFS parts. Going by that logic, Last Year at Marienbad would be a failure.

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Mr Sausage
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I'm Thinking of Ending Things (Charlie Kaufman, 2020)

#103 Post by Mr Sausage » Sun Apr 18, 2021 7:21 pm

Hell, by that logic the entire modernist period of art, literature, and music would be a failure.

There are other goals to art than being immediately apprehensible. There is a value in making things to be wrestled with, worked on, understood through effort and increased familiarity. You don’t have to fully understand something to like it or find it valuable. Movies like Inland Empire, books like The Obscene Bird of Night, and paintings like The Angel of the Home are largely obscure to me, but remain powerful works I’m grateful to have experienced, works whose value to me outpaces innumerable things I apprehended at first glance.

A strain of anti-intellectualism, a pride in ignorance and incuriosity, surrounds those who scoff at difficult or opaque art works for having those qualities. The same sort will also scoff at and dismiss any explanations you may attempt as pretentious overreading. I don’t think anyone here is doing any of that. But are those types really who you want to throw in with?

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Re: I'm Thinking of Ending Things (Charlie Kaufman, 2020)

#104 Post by TheKieslowskiHaze » Mon Apr 19, 2021 7:57 am

Constable wrote:
Sun Apr 18, 2021 5:31 pm
2) Whether you've read the book or not, do you think the film should be regarded as a failure if most people, including most critics, find it inscrutable?
No. But judging by its RT score of 82%, it seems most critics do not find it inscrutable.

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Re: I'm Thinking of Ending Things (Charlie Kaufman, 2020)

#105 Post by Constable » Fri Apr 23, 2021 5:00 pm

Mr Sausage wrote:
Sun Apr 18, 2021 7:21 pm
Hell, by that logic the entire modernist period of art, literature, and music would be a failure.

There are other goals to art than being immediately apprehensible. There is a value in making things to be wrestled with, worked on, understood through effort and increased familiarity. You don’t have to fully understand something to like it or find it valuable. Movies like Inland Empire, books like The Obscene Bird of Night, and paintings like The Angel of the Home are largely obscure to me, but remain powerful works I’m grateful to have experienced, works whose value to me outpaces innumerable things I apprehended at first glance.

A strain of anti-intellectualism, a pride in ignorance and incuriosity, surrounds those who scoff at difficult or opaque art works for having those qualities. The same sort will also scoff at and dismiss any explanations you may attempt as pretentious overreading. I don’t think anyone here is doing any of that. But are those types really who you want to throw in with?
How would it be anti-intellectual to insist a piece of art should make sense? The stance that says it doesn't matter if it makes sense is one the eschews intellect, literally.

I don't think anyone scoffs at difficulty (up to a reasonable point, which, yes, some canonized works exceed), but once we cross over into inscrutability I don't quite understand the attitude of I have no idea what it means, but it's brilliant.

As for ignorance and incuriosity, what is such a person ignorant and incurious about? What Charlie Kaufman meant when he wrote an inscrutable film? Is that a significant subject to be ignorant on? We're not uncovering the secrets of the universe or something that would merit deep analysis.

Abstract art is perfectly fine, but if, as an artist, you are making a point and making something that suggests meaning, logic and a narrative, then it should make sense.
TheKieslowskiHaze wrote:
Mon Apr 19, 2021 7:57 am
Constable wrote:
Sun Apr 18, 2021 5:31 pm
2) Whether you've read the book or not, do you think the film should be regarded as a failure if most people, including most critics, find it inscrutable?
No. But judging by its RT score of 82%, it seems most critics do not find it inscrutable.
Critics have no compunction in celebrating or indeed canonizing films or novels they can't understand.

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Re: I'm Thinking of Ending Things (Charlie Kaufman, 2020)

#106 Post by cdnchris » Fri Apr 23, 2021 5:25 pm

To answer you the Kael comment previously it was a lame joke sort of around the idea she only watched a film once and this one probably takes a couple viewings to get everything.

I get what you're saying but forgetting the notion that art needs to make sense (and I don't think it does if it at least conveys some sort of feeling for starters) the film really isn't that perplexing. I was lost at first but it eventually clicked what was going on:
SpoilerShow
The janitor is going to kill himself and is reliving a fantasy he has had over and over again for decades one last time, based around this one time he saw a girl and thought of asking her out but didn't. He's basically built up this idea that his life would have been better if he had actually done it and so he imagines this relationship and these scenarios, which keep changing as he goes, which is why the film and their relationship is all over the place. The character is also experiencing some serious self reflection, which comes to a head when the woman confronts the janitor.
That's it at its simplest, as there is a lot to pick out and a lot of things that can be interpreted. It's just a character study when all is said and done, and I'd say a really good one.

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Re: I'm Thinking of Ending Things (Charlie Kaufman, 2020)

#107 Post by knives » Fri Apr 23, 2021 5:42 pm

Shouldn’t art’s sensibility be judged by its own standards? I haven’t seen this, but Lynch as a comparison point doesn’t make narrative motivated sense, but that’s because he is writing through emotions and feelings and so the film has to be judged on if it is coherent in its emotional narrative.

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Re: I'm Thinking of Ending Things (Charlie Kaufman, 2020)

#108 Post by Persona » Fri Apr 23, 2021 5:51 pm

The film did not feel inscrutable at all to me.

Felt like a rich text that invited a lot of interpretation.

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Re: I'm Thinking of Ending Things (Charlie Kaufman, 2020)

#109 Post by Mr Sausage » Fri Apr 23, 2021 6:01 pm

Constable wrote:How would it be anti-intellectual to insist a piece of art should make sense? The stance that says it doesn't matter if it makes sense is one the eschews intellect, literally.
Because people who condemn experimental or avant garde art works for being incomprehensible generally show no interest in putting in the work to comprehend them. The objection tends to be prima facie and masking a discomfort with the new and the strange.

You're also making a straw man. You say the stance is that "it doesn't matter if it makes sense", while my post says "There is a value in making things to be wrestled with, worked on, understood through effort and increased familiarity." Eschewing intellect indeed. Very few avant garde works wish the audience to expend less mental energy on them than traditional works. It's generally the opposite; they tend to foreground the interpretive process or, in the case of filmmakers like Lynch or late Mario Bava, exercise modes of apprehension we use less frequently, eg. tracing emotional logics or patterns of symbols in order to grasp what the film is about.
Constable wrote:I don't think anyone scoffs at difficulty (up to a reasonable point, which, yes, some canonized works exceed), but once we cross over into inscrutability I don't quite understand the attitude of I have no idea what it means, but it's brilliant.
Plenty scoff at difficulty, often calling difficult works pretentious and dismissing both them and their admirers.

Art is not philosophy. Art does not need to be comprehensible to be affecting, moving, and powerful. You don't need to know exactly how everything fits together to be caught up in the overall effect of the thing. A powerful vision can nevertheless be communicated by a work that's mostly inscrutable. Franz Kafka is a signal instance of this. So is Samuel Beckett. One can't always say why things are happening in their works, but the overall vision of absurdity and irrationality, of the nightmare of absence and withdrawal, is keenly felt.
Constable wrote:As for ignorance and incuriosity, what is such a person ignorant and incurious about? What Charlie Kaufman meant when he wrote an inscrutable film? Is that a significant subject to be ignorant on? We're not uncovering the secrets of the universe or something that would merit deep analysis.
Ignorant of what things mean and incurious about what that meaning might be. Insofar as an artwork shows them what they already know or what they don't need to spend much time or effort in parsing, ie. the conventional, the happier they are. On being confronted with surface level difficulties or demands for increased patience and problem solving, the anti-intellectual scoffs and dismisses, happy to accuse those who do spend the effort to parse and analyse the difficult as pretentious over readers just trying to appear smart. All of which is usually couched in a rhetoric where the anti-intellectual positions themself as average joe, the regular guy on the street.
Constable wrote:Abstract art is perfectly fine, but if, as an artist, you are making a point and making something that suggests meaning, logic and a narrative, then it should make sense.
Either you don't think abstract art has "meaning, logic, and a narrative" or you don't really think it's fine.

Part of the problem is you haven't made clear what you mean when you say art should "make sense". Make sense how? I suspect you mean make sense on a surface narrative level, because you haven't given any indication you think Kauffman's film is incoherent on a level deeper than that. In which case, we disagree fundamentally. No work of art needs to be narratively comprehensible merely because it suggests it has meaning, logic, and a narrative (as if any of that were mutually exclusive).

A work of art can be inscrutable, indeed incoherent, on a narrative level (see: The Obscene Bird of Night) and yet comprehensible on many other levels (the emotional, the symbolic, the thematic). A movie like I'm Thinking of Ending Things is often incomprehensible on a narrative level, but comprehensible on a symbolic and emotional level. Just look at this thread. It's full of people who had no trouble finding quite a bit that's meaningful in the movie. There is a logic in the movie, just not the logic of a conventionally told narrative. You have to work harder and pay closer attention to get what's happening. It sounds to me like you find that too onerous. Fine. But that's not the film's failing.

An incomprehensible narrative is only a problem when the film is trying to have a comprehensible narrative. Tho' even that is not always a death sentence--genre fans love the leaps of logic in Italian horror films, feeling they lend an atmosphere of the bizarre and nightmarish. I don't always agree (Fulci films seems less nightmarish than indifferently constructed), but I see the point.

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Re: I'm Thinking of Ending Things (Charlie Kaufman, 2020)

#110 Post by Constable » Sun Apr 25, 2021 5:33 pm

Mr Sausage wrote:
Fri Apr 23, 2021 6:01 pm
Constable wrote:How would it be anti-intellectual to insist a piece of art should make sense? The stance that says it doesn't matter if it makes sense is one the eschews intellect, literally.
Because people who condemn experimental or avant garde art works for being incomprehensible generally show no interest in putting in the work to comprehend them. The objection tends to be prima facie and masking a discomfort with the new and the strange.

You're also making a straw man. You say the stance is that "it doesn't matter if it makes sense", while my post says "There is a value in making things to be wrestled with, worked on, understood through effort and increased familiarity." Eschewing intellect indeed. Very few avant garde works wish the audience to expend less mental energy on them than traditional works. It's generally the opposite; they tend to foreground the interpretive process or, in the case of filmmakers like Lynch or late Mario Bava, exercise modes of apprehension we use less frequently, eg. tracing emotional logics or patterns of symbols in order to grasp what the film is about.
Seems to me you make that exact claim that you're calling a strawman several times in this very post. Like here:
An incomprehensible narrative is only a problem when the film is trying to have a comprehensible narrative.
Constable wrote:I don't think anyone scoffs at difficulty (up to a reasonable point, which, yes, some canonized works exceed), but once we cross over into inscrutability I don't quite understand the attitude of I have no idea what it means, but it's brilliant.
Plenty scoff at difficulty, often calling difficult works pretentious and dismissing both them and their admirers.

Art is not philosophy. Art does not need to be comprehensible to be affecting, moving, and powerful. You don't need to know exactly how everything fits together to be caught up in the overall effect of the thing. A powerful vision can nevertheless be communicated by a work that's mostly inscrutable. Franz Kafka is a signal instance of this. So is Samuel Beckett. One can't always say why things are happening in their works, but the overall vision of absurdity and irrationality, of the nightmare of absence and withdrawal, is keenly felt.
Again, you called my "I have no idea what it means, but it's brilliant" accusation a strawman, but you're expressing it here.

You seem to shift your position from paragraph to paragraph. First you defend difficult art on the basis that it does make sense, it's just difficult and then in the next breath you seamlessly shift into saying it doesn't matter if it makes sense.

But these kind of discussions tend to get lost in abstractions if we don't discuss specific examples, so let's take 2001. Does it not bother you that no one can make sense of the whole post-stargate part of the film?

Now, you may have an interpretation and other people may have theirs, but it is completely impossible to deduce the correct interpretation from the information we're given in the film. Don't you think that's kind of a problem?

At that point, no intellect is being employed, the film is just triggering emotions in us through majestic imagery. I actually think that's kind of primitive rather than intellectual.
Constable wrote:As for ignorance and incuriosity, what is such a person ignorant and incurious about? What Charlie Kaufman meant when he wrote an inscrutable film? Is that a significant subject to be ignorant on? We're not uncovering the secrets of the universe or something that would merit deep analysis.
Ignorant of what things mean and incurious about what that meaning might be.
But, again, we are talking about the meaning of a piece of fiction someone wrote. It's not some profound thing to be ignorant on, we're not talking about the latest in physics or medicine. The person who employs a tremendous mount of time to decode what Mulholland Drive or Persona means is decoding... what? Some important piece of knowledge?

Seems like a silly thing to invest such time and effort in, so it should be perfectly understandable why so many people don't care to do it. It's not that they're anti-intellectual. On the contrary.

I remember reading an essay by Susan Sontag on Persona where she goes on and on about the different pieces of evidence for what the right interpretation of the film might be and I just thought why in the world would someone spend this much time on this and be this concerned about what the writer of a fictional film meant.

I don't see why this activity is regarded by some as somehow higher than the people who can tell you what the name of the third cousin of Luke Skywalker's sister is.
Insofar as an artwork shows them what they already know or what they don't need to spend much time or effort in parsing, ie. the conventional, the happier they are. On being confronted with surface level difficulties or demands for increased patience and problem solving, the anti-intellectual scoffs and dismisses, happy to accuse those who do spend the effort to parse and analyse the difficult as pretentious over readers just trying to appear smart. All of which is usually couched in a rhetoric where the anti-intellectual positions themself as average joe, the regular guy on the street.
Not at all, I would actually regard someone not impressed by inscrutability as the intelligent party.
Constable wrote:Abstract art is perfectly fine, but if, as an artist, you are making a point and making something that suggests meaning, logic and a narrative, then it should make sense.
Either you don't think abstract art has "meaning, logic, and a narrative" or you don't really think it's fine.
We misunderstood each other here. I DO think abstract art doesn't need to have meaning, logic or a narrative. When I say "if, as an artist, you are making a point and making something that suggests meaning, logic and a narrative" I was differentiating that kind of art from abstract art.

My point was that for films like this one the abstract art defense is often marshaled. And I was saying that if your art is fully abstract, then it's ok for it to not have meaning or logic, but if there is as much narrative and implied meaning and logic in it as there is in this film, then you lose the "abstract" defense against the inscrutable/doesn't make sense charge.

Part of the problem is you haven't made clear what you mean when you say art should "make sense". Make sense how? I suspect you mean make sense on a surface narrative level, because you haven't given any indication you think Kauffman's film is incoherent on a level deeper than that. In which case, we disagree fundamentally. No work of art needs to be narratively comprehensible merely because it suggests it has meaning, logic, and a narrative (as if any of that were mutually exclusive).

A work of art can be inscrutable, indeed incoherent, on a narrative level (see: The Obscene Bird of Night) and yet comprehensible on many other levels (the emotional, the symbolic, the thematic). A movie like I'm Thinking of Ending Things is often incomprehensible on a narrative level, but comprehensible on a symbolic and emotional level. Just look at this thread. It's full of people who had no trouble finding quite a bit that's meaningful in the movie. There is a logic in the movie, just not the logic of a conventionally told narrative. You have to work harder and pay closer attention to get what's happening. It sounds to me like you find that too onerous. Fine. But that's not the film's failing.

An incomprehensible narrative is only a problem when the film is trying to have a comprehensible narrative. Tho' even that is not always a death sentence--genre fans love the leaps of logic in Italian horror films, feeling they lend an atmosphere of the bizarre and nightmarish. I don't always agree (Fulci films seems less nightmarish than indifferently constructed), but I see the point.
Again, you have to decide what your position is. Is your position that the film is incomprehensible on a narrative level and I should just enjoy the sensations it causes in me or do I need to work harder to comprehend it.

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Re: I'm Thinking of Ending Things (Charlie Kaufman, 2020)

#111 Post by therewillbeblus » Sun Apr 25, 2021 5:54 pm

Can't subjective comprehension be as valuable as objective comprehension? I mean, as I read the film, it's about the subjective parts of one's psyche that exist on a spectrum of reinforcing fantasy and also refusing to engage with that fantasy, forcing sobriety to one's negative core beliefs. If these are memories it's a similar idea, memories that we escape into and manipulate to feel good but that also turn on us and expose a deficit. Does it matter if this is coming from any specific person or vantage point, or simply that we can engage with the film to elicit our own experiences? I don't see how making everything ultra-specific makes art better. I actually think it would be a problem to do so in certain circumstances, because such a move would help distract us into a carved-out space to disengage from what the film is trying to do. By refusing to deliver a "correct" or "clear" explanation, these films force us to engage more with the film, intellectually and emotionally. In fact, the way I read this film, disallowing that distraction is self-reflexively what the film is trying to say about the character's experience. I don't see how this eliminates intellectualism from its strengths, if anything it doubles down intellectually to make them stronger.

To use your 2001 example, the profound effect of watching the elusive nature of time and aging, exposing the quest for a definitive meaning of things outside of science in the realm of God or our spiritual blind spots as unattainable no matter how far you venture into space, holds immense subjective meaning and provokes intellectual and emotional responses that would be nullified by a clearcut logical ending. I'd go so far as to say that the film may not be considered a popular All-Timer if it had achieved that narrative closure, for it would have eliminated that opportunity for viewers to confront our corporeal limitations and meditate on the shadows of our knowledge, whether about ourselves or life itself. This movie is doing that too. To use your own language, I'd say it's far more "primitive" to demand an explicit objective answer to the subjective, grey nature of being.

I may never understand the irony of why some people ask for intellectual stimulation through conclusive means that would extinguish thought. I don't think you need to either go full-abstract or full-transparency either. Narrative can exist and be flexible to allow for more of that emotional-cognitive blend, using signifiers that are grounded in the narrative but whose connotations are just loose enough to allow us a liberal exploration of their value on a very personal level.

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Re: I'm Thinking of Ending Things (Charlie Kaufman, 2020)

#112 Post by Mr Sausage » Sun Apr 25, 2021 11:05 pm

Constable wrote:You seem to shift your position from paragraph to paragraph. First you defend difficult art on the basis that it does make sense, it's just difficult and then in the next breath you seamlessly shift into saying it doesn't matter if it makes sense.
And? These aren't mutually exclusive propositions.

Yes, difficult and inscrutable art does in fact have meaning and is interpretable. Even Finnegans Wake. Even The Cantos. We're not discussing the Voynich Manuscript here. It's pretty rare for art to be 100% inscrutable and forever resistant to understanding of any kind.

And, yes, art doesn't need to be comprehensible to be "affecting, moving, and powerful." I would add, and this is important: it doesn't need to be comprehensible to provoke questions, to get you to ask what things mean, and to look deeper. That right there is one way inscrutability activates intellect.
Constable wrote:But these kind of discussions tend to get lost in abstractions if we don't discuss specific examples, so let's take 2001. Does it not bother you that no one can make sense of the whole post-stargate part of the film?

Now, you may have an interpretation and other people may have theirs, but it is completely impossible to deduce the correct interpretation from the information we're given in the film. Don't you think that's kind of a problem?

At that point, no intellect is being employed, the film is just triggering emotions in us through majestic imagery. I actually think that's kind of primitive rather than intellectual.
Do I think it's a problem that a movie isn't a math proof with one correct solution? No. It's not a problem.

When you ask for a "correct" solution, you're also asking for its corollary: an authority who can pass such a judgement. But who is that authority? The film itself? But it's already telling you everything it needs to tell. The filmmakers? Well, some like to tell people precisely what they were trying to do, but art has a way of getting away from its makers, of containing meanings they didn't expect or intend. What is there but ourselves and the discussions we have, the arguments we make, the interpretive acts we engage in? You think that is what lacks intellect, next to an authority telling us what things mean after which we pass on our merry ways?

And, sometimes, ambiguity is the point. The difficulty of parsing events, intentions, the nature of things and ourselves, is something we're confronted with living in this world. You mentioned physics. Well, the more deeply you look into physics, the more odd and unknowable things become, the more our mental categories break down. So the cosmic sequences of 2001 can feel inscrutable, alien, and moved by intentions beyond our ken. That in itself is communicating something rather pointed about our relation to the cosmic. We're ants gazing into an impenetrable mystery. Far from repulsing me, the ambiguity seems, frankly, true. I sense I am butting up against the mysteries of the comos. This is what it is to attempt to parse the great mysteries. And what's beautiful about great mysteries is that they invite the search for meaning but don't just give themselves away. You can always dig deeper and find more; there is always something to think about.

Fundamentally: are you looking for meaning, or are you looking to be told what things mean? Are you someone who prefers answers or do you prefer questions? The people who like difficult art, the people who are ok with not knowing, who are not uncomfortable with ambiguity, are people who prefer questions and who prefer to look for meaning.

I'm with Alberto Manguel: "In reading, as in so many other things, difficulty obliges us to dig deeper and go further. I feel that almost anything that is easy is not worth doing. In literature, I call "easy" anything that has no depth, a superficial text over which you glide without being tempted to stop anywhere, to investigate more, to ask questions. An easy text gives you all the answers, like a phone book."

Constable wrote:But, again, we are talking about the meaning of a piece of fiction someone wrote. It's not some profound thing to be ignorant on, we're not talking about the latest in physics or medicine. The person who employs a tremendous mount of time to decode what Mulholland Drive or Persona means is decoding... what? Some important piece of knowledge?

Seems like a silly thing to invest such time and effort in, so it should be perfectly understandable why so many people don't care to do it. It's not that they're anti-intellectual. On the contrary.

I remember reading an essay by Susan Sontag on Persona where she goes on and on about the different pieces of evidence for what the right interpretation of the film might be and I just thought why in the world would someone spend this much time on this and be this concerned about what the writer of a fictional film meant.

I don't see why this activity is regarded by some as somehow higher than the people who can tell you what the name of the third cousin of Luke Skywalker's sister is.
Uh huh. This is the essence of anti-intellectualism. Culture doesn't matter. Meaning is unimportant. It's all a waste of time. Why are we bothering.

If you're content to be an empty consumer of art, have at it. But that's not the path to intelligence, and you're fooling yourself if you think you're the real smart one, up on all the tricks, seeing behind these fancy illusions fooling the rest of us. You're just ignorant, incurious, and proud of it.
Constable wrote:Again, you have to decide what your position is. Is your position that the film is incomprehensible on a narrative level and I should just enjoy the sensations it causes in me or do I need to work harder to comprehend it.
You can do either of those or both.

"Incomprehensible" does not mean "incoherent". I'm Thinking of Ending Things may be on the surface incomprehensible because of its non-traditional narrative, but it's far from incoherent, and even farther from having no significance. If you want to stop at the surface pleasures of its mood or atmosphere or formal arrangement, sure. If you want to dig deeper and think about what the film is trying to express by using its non-traditional narrative, all the better.
Constable wrote:My point was that for films like this one the abstract art defense is often marshaled. And I was saying that if your art is fully abstract, then it's ok for it to not have meaning or logic, but if there is as much narrative and implied meaning and logic in it as there is in this film, then you lose the "abstract" defense against the inscrutable/doesn't make sense charge.
I can't speak to the arguments of people who aren't here. I don't know what they mean when they say "abstract". You're right, if by abstract they mean "non-representational", it's untrue on the face of it. But abstraction is not a binary; there are levels of abstraction. Abstraction is not opposed to meaning; it is a means of communicating it, even if what's being communicated, as with non-representational art, is purely about the form of art itself. I'm Thinking of Ending Things is often using abstraction to communicate its meanings.

So the movie is abstract. Its meanings frequently rests on things other than the literal interpretation of its story. When the film enters the school, what else is that but abstract? Interpretive dance is involved for christ's sake. Over focus on the literal, you're going to be endlessly baffled.

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Re: I'm Thinking of Ending Things (Charlie Kaufman, 2020)

#113 Post by Constable » Wed Apr 28, 2021 4:20 pm

Mr Sausage wrote:
Sun Apr 25, 2021 11:05 pm
Constable wrote:You seem to shift your position from paragraph to paragraph. First you defend difficult art on the basis that it does make sense, it's just difficult and then in the next breath you seamlessly shift into saying it doesn't matter if it makes sense.
And? These aren't mutually exclusive propositions.
You're asking me why it is a problem that your position shifts?

They are mutually exclusive. This film either makes sense, but it is difficult to make sense of or it doesn't make sense by design and doesn't need to. If we're gonna have a discussion about it you need to decide what your position on it is.
Yes, difficult and inscrutable art does in fact have meaning and is interpretable. Even Finnegans Wake. Even The Cantos. We're not discussing the Voynich Manuscript here. It's pretty rare for art to be 100% inscrutable and forever resistant to understanding of any kind.

And, yes, art doesn't need to be comprehensible to be "affecting, moving, and powerful." I would add, and this is important: it doesn't need to be comprehensible to provoke questions, to get you to ask what things mean, and to look deeper. That right there is one way inscrutability activates intellect.
You're attacking a position I did not take. I said in my previous post that I think abstract art is perfectly legitimate, but I said that if you have as much narrative and implied logic as this film does THEN it is a problem if you veer off into incomprehensibility.

But, as I said, when these kind of discussions get unmoored from a specific film and go into abstraction there's a tendency for them to become too abstract and unproductive, so I think we should try as much as possible to make our points with relation to specific films, it will be easier that way to see where the disagreement lies.
Constable wrote:But, again, we are talking about the meaning of a piece of fiction someone wrote. It's not some profound thing to be ignorant on, we're not talking about the latest in physics or medicine. The person who employs a tremendous mount of time to decode what Mulholland Drive or Persona means is decoding... what? Some important piece of knowledge?

Seems like a silly thing to invest such time and effort in, so it should be perfectly understandable why so many people don't care to do it. It's not that they're anti-intellectual. On the contrary.

I remember reading an essay by Susan Sontag on Persona where she goes on and on about the different pieces of evidence for what the right interpretation of the film might be and I just thought why in the world would someone spend this much time on this and be this concerned about what the writer of a fictional film meant.

I don't see why this activity is regarded by some as somehow higher than the people who can tell you what the name of the third cousin of Luke Skywalker's sister is.
Uh huh. This is the essence of anti-intellectualism. Culture doesn't matter. Meaning is unimportant. It's all a waste of time. Why are we bothering.
So, what is the importance of decoding the meaning of Persona? But give me concrete reasons. Non admissible answers: purple prose expressing comical nonsense like the bit about the cosmic and 2001
If you're content to be an empty consumer of art, have at it. But that's not the path to intelligence, and you're fooling yourself if you think you're the real smart one, up on all the tricks, seeing behind these fancy illusions fooling the rest of us. You're just ignorant, incurious, and proud of it.
Again, what is it that I am ignorant of?

And what is an empty consumer of art?
Constable wrote:Again, you have to decide what your position is. Is your position that the film is incomprehensible on a narrative level and I should just enjoy the sensations it causes in me or do I need to work harder to comprehend it.
You can do either of those or both.

"Incomprehensible" does not mean "incoherent". I'm Thinking of Ending Things may be on the surface incomprehensible because of its non-traditional narrative, but it's far from incoherent, and even farther from having no significance. If you want to stop at the surface pleasures of its mood or atmosphere or formal arrangement, sure. If you want to dig deeper and think about what the film is trying to express by using its non-traditional narrative, all the better.
If it's incomprehensible as you imply in the first sentence, then what are we digging deeper for, as you suggest we do in the last sentence.

Being coherent (meaning there being a logic and an explanation to what is going on in the film) does not matter if you're incomprehensible (meaning you're so unclear that no one could with any degree of confidence that they got the right reading recover the intended logic).
Constable wrote:My point was that for films like this one the abstract art defense is often marshaled. And I was saying that if your art is fully abstract, then it's ok for it to not have meaning or logic, but if there is as much narrative and implied meaning and logic in it as there is in this film, then you lose the "abstract" defense against the inscrutable/doesn't make sense charge.
I can't speak to the arguments of people who aren't here. I don't know what they mean when they say "abstract". You're right, if by abstract they mean "non-representational", it's untrue on the face of it. But abstraction is not a binary; there are levels of abstraction. Abstraction is not opposed to meaning; it is a means of communicating it, even if what's being communicated, as with non-representational art, is purely about the form of art itself. I'm Thinking of Ending Things is often using abstraction to communicate its meanings.

So the movie is abstract. Its meanings frequently rests on things other than the literal interpretation of its story. When the film enters the school, what else is that but abstract? Interpretive dance is involved for christ's sake. Over focus on the literal, you're going to be endlessly baffled.
So give me some examples of meaning being communicated through abstract means in the film (besides the dance sequence). I'm curious what you're getting out of these abstractions.


Let me ask you a few questions:

Do you think it matters whether you understand this film correctly, by which I mean the reading Kaufman intended?

Was there ever any film or piece of literature that was written at such a level of difficulty that you said this is too much?

As a separate question, you mentioned Finnegan's Wake, how did you feel about that? Did you enjoy reading it?

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Re: I'm Thinking of Ending Things (Charlie Kaufman, 2020)

#114 Post by DeprongMori » Wed Apr 28, 2021 7:16 pm

Constable wrote:
Wed Apr 28, 2021 4:20 pm
Do you think it matters whether you understand this film correctly, by which I mean the reading Kaufman intended?

Was there ever any film or piece of literature that was written at such a level of difficulty that you said this is too much?

As a separate question, you mentioned Finnegan's Wake, how did you feel about that? Did you enjoy reading it?
The only person who will fully understand every intended aspect of the film I’m Thinking of Ending Things is (potentially) Charlie Kaufman, and that isn’t a criticism. What he has delivered is a rich work of art that rewards attention, feeling, and analysis by the viewer. If it didn’t provide that richness it would be a cookie-cutter exercise that wouldn’t really be worth anyone’s time to make as a film or to sit through. It sounds as though you would prefer it to be cookie-cutter. That’s fine, it just isn’t a film for you. It doesn’t make it a bad film.

You keep insisting that the film is incomprehensible, but it is not. Kaufman lets the astute viewer in on his construction of the story from pretty much the first scene, where the janitor can been seen waving goodbye from an upstairs window to the young woman who is waiting to be picked up by Jake. We don’t know yet who he is, but we do by the time we see him pushing a mop in the hallway of a high school, surrounded by images and effects that find their way into Jake’s conversation with the young woman in the car. Do I understand every nuance of every item of Kaufman’s intention in the story? Of course not. I am not Kaufman. Yet the story and the particularities and construction of it reward attention and consideration. It is a rich text. The viewer brings their own experience to it as well.

You also talk about the post-Stargate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey as incomprehensible. I first saw the film in 1969 when I was nine. While the details of that sequence confused me at the time, I certainly got the gist of it even then. It was the film experience that launched my love of cinema. As I matured, I realized that my confusion about those details at the time was due to a poetic rendering of cosmic mystery. It was meant to bypass strict rationality. It rendered a character’s experience that was beyond our ken in such a way that it enriched this viewer’s cinematic experience.

It’s alright if that type of film is not the type of film you enjoy, but that isn’t a problem of the film — it is just not a good match for your tastes.

(Update: I regret the use of the term “cookie-cutter” as a general classification. It is apparent from your examples that you do not like films that have ambiguous or abstract narratives, but it would be unfair to characterize the only alternative for a general film is “cookie-cutter”. But in order for *this* film to provide you with what you seem to want, it *would* need to be “cookie-cutter” and thus would eliminate the artistry of the film that allows a deeper engagement. As I didn’t see what films you do hold up as exemplars, perhaps you just prefer a more realistic and naturalistic style that makes relationships clear, and one can explore the characters’ response to their situation — e.g., Dardennes Brothers’ Two Days, One Night. I would guess that films such as Claire Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum that are realistic but leave the relationships between the characters ambiguous for much of the runtime might also be unsatisfying, but that is only a guess on my part. What *are* your film exemplars?)

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Re: I'm Thinking of Ending Things (Charlie Kaufman, 2020)

#115 Post by Never Cursed » Wed Apr 28, 2021 8:34 pm

Constable, I don't like this film, like at all, but it's ridiculous to say that there's no way to deduce what is happening within the movie, even from a first watch. It is neither a completely inscrutable Cremaster-esque troll puzzle film, nor is the actual meaning of it particularly difficult to glean from what the viewer is presented (as demonstrated by how so many of the posters in this thread, including myself and the people with whom you are arguing, were able to provide convergent interpretations of the film after their own separate viewings). It's certainly quite narratively different from a more traditional/conventional dramatic feature (and it is not impossible to object to the ways that Kaufman is deviating from these narrative structures - I myself have issues with a lot of what he's doing), and it seems like those experimental elements just didn't work for you. Which is fine - you are far from the first person to throw your hands up at a Charlie Kaufman film, you just can't say that you're expressing something of particular novelty (or correctness) when you call this thing inscrutable.

(To answer your original questions, I haven't read the book and think this movie is a complete failure, but I did not have trouble understanding what was going on and I don't think it's a failure because it's difficult.)

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Re: I'm Thinking of Ending Things (Charlie Kaufman, 2020)

#116 Post by therewillbeblus » Wed Apr 28, 2021 8:55 pm

Constable, whatever you decide to watch down the line, avoid Twin Peaks: The Return. You may have a stroke.

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Re: I'm Thinking of Ending Things (Charlie Kaufman, 2020)

#117 Post by Mr Sausage » Wed Apr 28, 2021 8:58 pm

Constable wrote:You're asking me why it is a problem that your position shifts?

They are mutually exclusive. This film either makes sense, but it is difficult to make sense of or it doesn't make sense by design and doesn't need to. If we're gonna have a discussion about it you need to decide what your position on it is.
My position shifts? Your quoted post says I defend "difficult art", but now it has apparently switched to this film in particular? Quite a trick.

My position:

A. Being difficult to understand, in whole or in part, in and of itself, does not prevent art from being good. If you want a list of all the ways difficult art can be good, I haven't the time. But one I pointed out is that art that isn't concerned with narrative coherency tends to favour other forms of coherency, like thematic, symbolic, or allegorical coherency.

B. Denying the worth and value of art, denying it the capacity for meaning, because you found it challenging to understand on a first encounter, is anti-intellectual.
Constable wrote:So give me some examples of meaning being communicated through abstract means in the film (besides the dance sequence). I'm curious what you're getting out of these abstractions.
Here's an idea: read the thread.

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Re: I'm Thinking of Ending Things (Charlie Kaufman, 2020)

#118 Post by Peter-H » Thu Apr 29, 2021 9:00 pm

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I have some sympathy for Constable's position on this movie, the first time I watched it I had a similar reaction. Now that I know what this film is actually about I think the story was conveyed in a way that's unnecessarily hard to understand. The janitor character feels too removed from the main story, his connection to it feels too abstract. This is in contrast to movies like Mulholland Drive and Lost highway where we spend more time with the "real" version of the character, and so they feel more integrated with the story. I think this could have been fixed if the movie had old Jake in the final scene rather than Jesse Plemons. It would have made sense for the climax to center around the "real" version of the character, and it would have made his connection to the story more obvious. Synecdoche New York is one of my favorite movies, so I'm a fan of Kaufman and obtuse films, but I thought this movie was unnecessarily obtuse.

That being said I still really liked the movie and I'm still thinking about it. Here's my interpretation of it:

The thing Jake is most insecure about is that he is (or at least he feels that he is) unintelligent, unoriginal, and ultimately unremarkable. This is apparent when the girlfriend tries to enter the basement and he stops her because it represents a part of him that he's insecure about and doesn’t want her to see. When the girlfriend eventually enters the basement it's revealed that Jake’s paintings are just copies, and she remarks that “It's tragic how few people possess their souls before they die. Nothing is more rare in any man than an act of his own. Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else's opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.”

This is how Jake sees himself, and he tries to compensate for this by hiding behind a facade of intellectualism. It’s why he’s so obsessed with being seen as smart by everyone else, it’s why he constantly corrects the girlfriend and bores her with discussions on academic topics, it’s why he’s frustrated that he got an award for “diligence” instead of “acumen,” and it’s why his last fantasy is a recreation of the final scene of “A Beautiful Mind.” Jake tries to imagine a woman who will validate him as a man of exceptional intelligence, but even in his own mind she resists conforming to the role he has created for her, and she often intellectually bests him (most notably when she rips apart his reasons for liking "A Woman Under The Influence").

Kaufman’s movies are often about how people hide behind facades because they’re scared that people won’t love them for who they really are. This theme is laid out pretty bluntly in the lyrics for the song "Song for Caden" from the Synecdoche, New York soundtrack:

“I'm singing this song, but it's about you. Whoever else is listening, this song is only about you. See there's just one story, and everyone's the star, and it goes like this: No one will ever love you for everything you are, and so you build up layers of deception, and you leave out things to alter the perceptions of the ones you love who would never love you back If they knew all about you, every solitary fact. And the sadness of your life Is built upon this lie of really knowing anyone or having them know you.”

In the book, the girlfriend is an idealized version of a woman Jake met long ago in a bar. Jake wanted to get her number but was too shy to ask, and the story of the book is him imagining what would have happened if he got her number.

In the movie the girlfriend seems less like one particular girl that got away and more like an amalgamation of many different women in Jake's life which is why her personality and identity change throughout the movie. These women include Pauline Kale, the woman who wrote “Bonedog,” the waitress in the romantic comedy, past crushes, possibly various women he's been in relationships with, and maybe even feminine parts of himself(?). It's significant that this amalgamation of women takes on the form of a girl who resembles the waitress in the romantic comedy; note that the waitress nicknames the guy in the movie “nimrod” and calls him an idiot multiple times, but she ends up falling in love with him anyway. Jake connects to this movie because while on one level he desires to be validated as intelligent (especially by the women in his life), on a deeper level he wants someone who sees past the intellectual facade and loves him for who he really is even if he's a “nimrod."

However, the ultimate point of the film might be that no one has a "real self" underneath the facade and that what Jake is insecure about is actually just an essential fact of the human condition. As Jake's girlfriend says, our opinions are someone else's opinions, our lives are a mimicry, and our passions are a quotation. This is why much of the movie (which is to say much of Jake's fantasy) is just characters quoting other works, and why there are even whole scenes lifted from plays and other movies; Jake's whole internal world is constructed out of other people's ideas. Even when Jake breaks down in the car and is trying to be honest about his inner turmoil he can only express his suffering in terms of cliches, and the girlfriend responds to his vulnerability by saying "platitudes all!"
I also really liked Film Crit Hulk's essay on this movie.
Last edited by Peter-H on Thu Apr 29, 2021 9:46 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: I'm Thinking of Ending Things (Charlie Kaufman, 2020)

#119 Post by therewillbeblus » Thu Apr 29, 2021 9:29 pm

I definitely view the film as more psychologically eclectic, but that's a good interpretation- thanks for sharing! I will just add that I think Kaufman's adaptation of the book is very loose, personalized and intentionally more abstract to include that idea of a specific insecurity along with countless other reactions I noticed in the film. So I'm not sure it's actually "about" one slice of the pie, but the whole pie, and that the film is appropriately "hard to understand" because every time Jake, or we, think we've grasped the needle, we are thrown into another space of emotion and thought by another defense mechanism. It's utter chaos in Kaufman's mind, and he doesn't even fully understand it, but he knows how to express how that mind works. And for those of us that "get" it, because our brains work similarly, well, we know it's not a failure.

It's actually been really encouraging to hear reactions from people in my life who are likeminded. One of my closest friends isn't into abstract art at all, but called me immediately after watching this to say he loved the film and was bewildered that anyone could communicate artistically the way his brain worked. Pretty much sums up my experience in a nutshell, though I believe people love this film who don't necessarily relate to its content as reflectively. Either way, it's been a priceless opportunity for me to feel a closer intimacy to some friends, and members on this board, through some vulnerable conversations and vicarious validation. It's so wonderfully when art can do that.

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Re: I'm Thinking of Ending Things (Charlie Kaufman, 2020)

#120 Post by Mr Sausage » Thu Apr 29, 2021 11:10 pm

Peter-H wrote:Now that I know what this film is actually about I think the story was conveyed in a way that's unnecessarily hard to understand.
And that's a fair criticism. I've been fierce in my defense of the difficult, but not all works of art earn their difficulty. In the end, if you make extra demands on your audience, there should be a substantive reason for that. Being difficult for the sake of it is no fun; it risks making the audience work harder for minimal rewards.
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I thought the difficulty in I'm Thinking of Ending Things worked well as a portrait of a mind unravelling, with past and present, dream and reality, wishes and fantasies all colliding in an ever more incoherent fantasia. The longer the initial wish-fullfilment fantasy went on, the more it couldn't stop from curving back in on the fantasizer and becoming a pool of anxieties and regrets that his mind is unable to organize.
But it's more than fair to say the movie didn't need to be so impenetrable to communicate all that; that it would've lost nothing from a bit more connective tissue. Something like Ruiz' City of Pirates, which is diving into whatever area of the mind precedes rational consciousness, benefits from its shifting and amorphous narrative. Explanation would spoil the effect. I'm Thinking of Ending Things? It might actually be rational enough at base that the difficulty gets in the way rather than opens it up. I've only seen it the once, so I couldn't really say.

I can respect a criticism that rejects difficulty not prima facie, but because it doesn't work for a film. That shows someone grappling with what the film is doing, not just, you know, denying its capacity for value or meaning based on a superficial reaction.

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Re: I'm Thinking of Ending Things (Charlie Kaufman, 2020)

#121 Post by swo17 » Thu Apr 29, 2021 11:28 pm

Recently rewatching Loznitsa's My Joy, I was struck by how easily the narrative could have been clarified with title cards establishing the abrupt shifts in place and time, and yet that would have made the film weaker. Its willful obscurity is a powerful way of conveying the numbing sense of history repeating itself with no lessons being learned. It's disorienting in the same way that life must be under those circumstances. Clarification would put us at a remove, stepping in to remind us that this is all just a movie, and that the filmmaker is guiding us through it. It would be an artifice distancing us from a certain kind of understanding, even as it enhanced our understanding in a narrative sense.

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