Picture this: a renowned filmmaker famous for making confusing films releases their newest work. And upon watching, you expectedly don’t know what the hell is going on.
Should the work of understanding and the blame of misunderstanding fall upon the viewer, who may lack necessary context of what they are watching? Or would the finger point towards the filmmaker, for making a flat out indescribable film?
We tend to favor the filmmaker: that the mode of consumption is always to keep up with what the artist is trying to say; that the artist always has a defined thought imbued in the text for the audience to unlock. As consumers, we default to work our way upon layers of material to ease our position of ignorance to the text.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is the latest example of such. In this case, layers of intersecting texts are needed to be traversed first to fully grasp the meaning of the film: 1) the source novel where I’m Thinking of Ending Things is adapted from; 2) the whole filmography of its director Charlie Kaufman; and 3) the various literature, films, and theoretical frameworks the film references all throughout its runtime.
First of all, should the unassuming casual viewer always be expected to do the task of consulting referenced material to get a film’s meaning? We do consider this more as a welcomed challenge than a chore. But elitism can come from the notion that texts shouldn’t explain themselves on the first go, and that they should be consumed more than once.
Say you are familiar with all of the intertextuality and are still confused with the film, maybe it’s high time we hold the filmmaker accountable for the ambiguity as a flaw.
Of course, intentionality could be an obvious given. But oftentimes, this assumption may stem from the mentality of holding the filmmaker up on a pedestal, especially with an established confounding author like Kaufman.
In fact, actually familiarizing oneself with the three layers lead not to the clarification of the text’s meaning, but to the recognition of the confused nature of the text itself.
Most of the confusion in I’m Thinking of Ending Things arose due to its ending. Is this because the audience lacked attention to pick up clues leading to this? Or is it because the last 20 minutes felt like a complete betrayal to what was already established?
To recap: the film gets into the headspace of its main female character as she reluctantly accepts to meet his boyfriend Jack’s parents and attempts to avoid being “captured” by him. This is otherwise a fine narrative to tell. But for it to painstakingly establish the autonomy and agency of the young woman only to bait-and-switch in the end would send mixed signals even to the attentive watcher.
The film is not the satirization of the manic pixie dream trope that it pushes itself to be. Rather, through hijacking the narrative framing from the female, it’s an affirmation. The fangs it set up using various references from other works (rape songs, film critiques, and the fetishization of constructs) to make the viewer hostile towards female ‘capturing’ are abandoned in the final minutes as everything put here are in service for the reclamation of Jack and Jack alone.
You could say that the baiting device is accurate to the source novel. But this may only direct the narrative criticism towards the novel itself. Plus, it is the director’s input to insert all intertextuality and hyper-surrealism in the film.
Most are saying that I’m Thinking of Ending Things is mainly about the dread of aging and decay. But because this is a Kaufman film, themes on the centrality and reaffirmation of the male character is made more apparent. Again, this is not a bad thing in itself. Synecdoche, New York (2008) and Anomalisa (2015) dealt with precisely the same, but are more direct with it. (Asking whether the plots of the two are easier to unravel is a different discussion, however.) It’s just that I’m Thinking of Ending Things made efforts to subvert from the two just to double back and go to the opposite direction in 20 minutes – a tenth of its total runtime. Not to mention that it did so in the vaguest way possible.
The easiest counter-argument to all these is to say that everything is just what Kaufman intended. A recitation from Pauline Kael’s criticism of A Woman Under the Influence that mimics this same writingis featured in the film to hint that the confusion is preempted.
But this falls to the trap of giving premium to the author, as if he was infallible.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is confused about what it wants because it does not know whose narrative to prioritize. Sure, it may be about aging, decay, or solipsism – the idea that only you exist. But what about aging, decay, and the idea that only you exist? The truth is that the film is actually simple, even with its weirder elements. It’s the film’s attitude towards its themes that makes it so hard to discern.
Maybe Kaufman was confused from the very beginning of his career. But maybe it’s not a bad thing. Frankly, to attempt making a film that ‘comments on the human condition’, you have to be.