I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020) is a fascinating piece of Cinema (yes it’s cinema even if we’re seeing it on a TV or computer screen!) projected straight from the dark twists and turns of the one and only Charlie Kaufman’s brilliant brain. Drawing from a multitude of cultural and psychological references, tangled up within one strange mind, I’m Thinking of Ending Things evokes a vast spectrum of comparative images and textual parallels with a number of other films new and old.
More Lost Highway Than Lost Highway?
At the crux of Lost Highway (1997) is the seeming impossibility of escape into fantasy. Fred (Bill Pullman) goes on a deranged internal odyssey fueled by sexual inadequacy, the proverbial lost highway being his attempt at escape from this reality into a fantasy where he possesses the qualities he lacks in real life. However, the futility of his gesture becomes apparent when he realizes in the midst of his delirium that the object of his fantasy is just as unattainable as it is in real life, simply because fantasy and real life are inextricable. Fantasy, no matter how transgressive, ultimately adheres to the same ground rules as reality.
Like Fred in Lost Highway, I’m Thinking of Ending Things’ Jake (Jesse Plemons) is in the midst of a far more layered, multi-temporal, and multi-dimensional trip down memory lane (and quite possibly fantasy lane) within his own mind. Funny enough, Ending Things has far more “highway” time than Lost Highway itself and perhaps merits the title even more.
The film opens at the outset of a journey. Lucy, the apparent main character, is embarking on an angst ridden drive with her boyfriend Jake to meet his parents. However, as the film advances, we begin to realize that what we are witnessing is not a real time event but a condensed form of overlapping memory happening within Jake’s mind as an old man.
The trip is a mental one, comprised of fragments of Jake’s memories, fantasies, and all the cultural references that can fit in his bedroom bookcase (scientific and literary books, films, music, old TV commercials, and countless other jumbled up references). Lucy herself seems to be a synthesis of a number of women or even notions of women (whether fictional or real) in Jake’s life, and perhaps even an imagined female projection of Jake himself (she sees herself in his child photo which shifts between him and her). The drive is a symbolic one and the lost highway in I’m Thinking of Ending Things is Jake’s own mind and memory.
Jake is established as an eccentric character, the quintessential introverted recluse, withdrawn into a fragmented fantasy world. Lucy, his imaginary girlfriend, more or less acts as a real girlfriend would: bonding with him, arguing with him, contradicting him, and ultimately getting weirded out and bored by him while seriously considering leaving him. The fantasy that is just as unmanageable and unattainable as real life. Jake, who is in the reality of the film a dying old man, is revising a lifetime of fantasy and ultimately concludes that it has been a failure. Fantasy and reality both boil down to the same end results.
Fantasy and the “real” are meant to be separate in Jake’s mind. The real in this case being Jake’s suppressed subconscious, is aptly represented by the basement in his parent’s house, a place where bare truths are revealed but must remain hidden in order for the fantasy to be sustained. Jake burdens to keep Lucy out of the basement and her entry into it triggers the gradual unravelling of her spectral existence within Jake’s mind.
Ending Things’ Annie Hall Implications
Jake is not even the protagonist in his own life, a figment of his fantasy is. Yet even the fantasy ends up rejecting him. In this sense, there’s a lot of Annie Hall (1977) in Ending Things. I’m reminded of Alvy Singer’s quote of Groucho Marx at the beginning of Annie Hall “I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.” This quote is uttered in reference to Alvy’s relationship with Annie and is implicitly stated as the main reason for the failure of their relationship. It applies perfectly to Jake’s relationship with his imaginary girlfriend.
Ending Things begins to exercise something of a retroactive revealing effect on Annie Hall, which is also a fragmented account of a relationship where the female character is the protagonist in the male character’s life (the film is named after her). At some point during the film, Alvy (Woody Allen) writes a screenplay in which he exaggerates aspects of his relationship with Annie and readily admits to it (he also attempts to recreate moments from his relationship with Annie with other women). Is it not too far fetched then to assume that Annie, and the entire relationship depicted in the film, are a carefully crafted figment of Alvy’s imagination or at least a synthesis of several women (or notions of women and relationships) in Alvy’s psyche? A regretful reminiscence on past failures?
Annie and Lucy are both pragmatic and rational anchors to Alvy and Jake’s compulsive neurosis. Reality is too real to be faced with anything other than anxiety and neurosis, while the realm of fantasy can be abstracted just enough to be spared and allowed the luxury of clear and level headed thought. However, the fantasy is ultimately tainted by the incessant attempts of reality to breach through to it, both Annie and Lucy end up leaving Alvy and Jake.
*Spike Jonze, Kaufman’s frequent collaborator, touches on this subject as well in Her (2013), where the product of a loner’s fantasy also ends up declaring its independence and leaving him.
Kaufman and Nolan: Master Time Manipulators
Christopher Nolan, like Charlie Kaufman, is a master manipulator of time. Both their most recent films are prime examples of that. In Nolan’s Tenet (2020), the Protagonist discovers that he is the product of his actions in the future exercising an automatic and tangible retrograde effect on the past and present. The brilliance of Tenet is that it takes on the challenge of physically representing and acting out past, present, and future actions simultaneously and in the same plane while keeping them separated, sometimes literally by glass. Ending Things on the other hand, confounds past, present, and future in such a way that they are no longer discernible.
This is where Nolan and Kaufman are diametrically opposed: Nolan’s characters emerge from chaos into order by way of a mental and physical struggle that they triumph in. They are locked in to a singular purpose and goal every second of their on-screen existence, never stopping to worry or ruminate upon any secondary actions or needs. In that sense they are like video game characters, completely consumed by and locked into their fates. Kaufman’s characters, on the other hand, seem to be enveloped within an uncertainty that leaves them incapacitated and unable to see clearly or move forward or emerge from their existential daze. They are doomed from the outset without being aware of it, fragmented by chaos from within, despite their attempts at normalizing their situation. Ultimately, they are faced with the overwhelming weight of realization that breaks down their defenses and defeats them outright.
I’m Thinking of Ending Tenet
The intricate complexities of Tenet’s storyline can be headache inducing. However, stripped down, the implications of Tenet are increasingly similar to those of Ending Things (extremely detailed and layered accounts of their respective characters’ memories), albeit in a much more action packed and grandiose package . The Protagonist (that’s his actual name) in Tenet, similar to Jake, is reminiscing from a future vantage point upon a time when he was younger and less experienced, perhaps regretting some mistakes he might have made, or perhaps even playfully rearranging them in his head in search of closure. Present Protagonist might feel like his entire world is literally falling apart (represented in the film by an abstract threat of total annihilation), hence his sense of urgency. Future Protagonist, on the other hand, operates from a cool and informed place that is all seeing and all knowing.
In this sense, the Protagonist is a far less tragic character than Jake’s dying old man. In Nolan’s discourse, the future holds a reassuring promise of clarity and perspective (even if the present and past are completely blind) where the future Protagonist, the true protagonist of Tenet who we never see, operates from a vantage point which allows him to “play around” with notions of his past. Old man Jake on the other hand, who we also don’t see much of, is doing his due reminiscence from a point of disadvantage. The future has provided him with no perspective whatsoever (if anything it has further obscured his vision) and he discovers the delusional errors of his ways far too late, causing him to lose balance and most probably die in the process. His reality is nothing like the fantasy he has woven in his head (he’s not a Nobel laureate being applauded by all his loved ones, he is a lonely janitor who has died in a fit of delirium and lies buried under ice in his car).
Both Nolan and Kaufman embody the life of the mind (to borrow a phrase from Barton Fink’s Charlie Meadows). Nolan’s approach is externalized and physical, while Kaufman’s is internalized and mental. Even ideas of ideas and thoughts of thoughts take on physical forms and can never be completely abstracted.
Ultimately, Nolan and Kaufman’s bodies of work express their obsession with the notion of time and its relation with chaos and order. For Nolan, time is a tool that can be manipulated and tamed to serve the characters’ escape from disorder into balance, despite the looming uncertainty that might remain over their heads (Cobb’s uncertain top in Inception), and even if it means embracing an illusion as truth in order to keep going (Leonard in Memento). For Kaufman, on the other hand, time’s inherent distortion is a reflection of the chaos within his characters, one which operates independently of any conscious agency and is secretly in complete control of their entire being, emerging out of left-field to reveal the breadth of their disillusion.