starring Jesse Plemons, Jessie Buckley, Toni Collette, David Thewlis
screenplay by Charlie Kaufman, based on the novel by Iain Reid
directed by Charlie Kaufman
by Walter Chaw The thing I say about Charlie Kaufman films is that I never really understand them, but they always seem to understand me. I suppose there are many ways to unpack his work, but it always only means one thing to me, and I wish I could articulate what that one thing is. If I were able to, I would know something important. Then I wonder if I don't know it already, and I'm just protecting myself from articulating it because the thing that is important to know is also very painful to know. I'm Thinking of Ending Things tells me what it's about when Jake (Jesse Plemons), on an interminable drive home to the family farm with his girlfriend Lucy (Jessie Buckley), tries in vain to recite the first few lines of Wordsworth's Immortality Ode. Lucy interrupts him as he starts to make fun of the long title ("Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood"), asking if he's sure that's not the body of the poem and generally souring the atmosphere enough that Jake gives up. The first lines of the Immortality Ode are:
There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe'er I may,
By night or day.
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.
There's an introduction to it, too, that is just as famous:
The child is father of the man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
(Wordsworth, "My Heart Leaps Up")
Wordsworth is one of the foundational poets of British Romanticism. He wrote about the "story of place" a lot, this idea that there is, well, a story embedded in every physical space. His "The Thorn" sees the poet happening upon an unusual natural feature that causes him to fabricate a story about how the shape of this outcrop is not unlike that of an "infant's grave," and what of that woman in the red cloak who cries her misery by the pond near the thorn? In I'm Thinking of Ending Things, Lucy (or is her name Yvonne? Lucille? What is her name? How could I forget? How could Jake?) is a painter (or is she a veterinary student? Who works as a waitress? And how long have she and Jake been dating? Is it six weeks or six years--or is it decades, and are they married? Is she a poet? Because she recites beautiful poems that were written for Jake, except they weren't, of course)--and as a painter, Lucy paints landscapes that evoke a story of place.
When she shows pictures of her paintings on her phone to Jake's parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis), Father shakes his head gravely and wonders how a landscape without a person in it could evoke anything like an emotion. "Well, you imagine yourself in it," Lucy says, and Father shakes his head again: "No, I would have to see myself in it to know how I felt." There's a question being asked here about the nature of art and what replication does to it. Does the Mona Lisa have the same sort of power on a postage stamp or a T-shirt as it does in the Louvre? And did you know it's smaller than you thought? Given that all you've ever seen of it until now are the endless commercial reproductions locating us in the middle of Western culture, why would you imagine it as large? Lucy's paintings are sad indeed, though I couldn't tell you how they're sad, given that there are no people in them. Jake's father is right, but so is Lucy. (Lucille?)
Wordsworth's Immortality Ode highlights another thing Wordsworth does in his work, which is to regard the past from a position in the future: nostalgia in the most melancholic sense of it--the literal, foundational tenet of British Romanticism being a longing for the past recalled from a position from which the past is irrecoverable. Time is the unscalable wall between experience and innocence. The real cruelty of time is that it's made of glass--warped glass, it's true, so it's impossible to see through it to what actually was--tinted so as to magnify the beauty of what can't be recovered. The ugliness, too. I'm Thinking of Ending Things is about how the kingdom of our memory is populated by ladies fair we have constructed whole and pure and then imprisoned in the amber of our unbreachable expectations. They die in there, of course; they are our prisoners. They are flowers left to wilt in glass vases, thrown out once the bloom has gone to be replaced by identical ones, or near enough. Lucy is Jake's ideal woman. He says so when he says that Wordsworth wrote a few poems to a girl named "Lucy" who died tragically young. "Jesus," says Lucy. He assures her that the similarity between them ends with their loveliness and that they are forever to be so in his mind's adoring eye.
Jake's referring to a series of five poems Wordsworth composed between 1798-1801, called the "Lucy Poems" by scholars ever since. In them, he speaks of an idealized woman for whom he pines and can never possess. There's some back and forth about whether Lucy was a real person. I think Lucy is Wordsworth's sister, Dorothy, with whom he had a close relationship. If you read the diaries she kept at Grasmere (where they lived together), there's a passage where she dons William's wife's wedding ring and fantasizes that she's married to her brother. I got into arguments about what this meant once upon a time when I was privileged enough to debate poetry with people who wanted to and could volley back. The arguments rode along the rails of a love that really dare not speak its name, or just a certain romantic poesy driven by probably Depression and definitely a certain hermetic isolation that would be familiar to us now in the ninth month of a pandemic. Anyway, the "Lucy Poems." The most famous of them is "Strange fits of passion have I known," although my favourite is "She dwelt among the untrodden ways," which, with this title as its first line, continues:
Beside the springs of Dove,
A Maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love.
A violet by a mossy stone
Half-hidden from the Eye!
—Fair, as a star when only one
Is shining in the sky.
She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her Grave, and, oh,
The difference to me!
You see in this little piece those things we've been talking about: the story of place ("a violet by a mossy stone"), the lament of a love that cannot be recovered now, if indeed it had ever had been experienced or was merely dreamed. Lucy, in this incarnation, is exclusively for the admiration of the poet. As another poet--Cyndi Lauper--once eloquently put it, "Some boys take a beautiful girl/And hide her away from the rest of the world." Wordsworth is one of those. In his heart, at least. He's not so different from any of us. I am still in love with whatever ideal I formed when I was forming my object choice; my wife, for all the things she is to me now, was to me initially that perfect amalgam of Tippi Hedren, Olivia Newton-John, and Dolly Parton. If that idealized image was made the centre of a film, it might play a lot like I'm Thinking of Ending Things.
Most of what's evident in this Lucy poem is Wordsworth's immense sadness at having a secret love and then having the object of his affection die unmourned but for himself and unmemorialized but for that violet by that mossy stone. Making an appearance in I'm Thinking of Ending Things is a famous 1818 painting by Caspar David Friederich (a German Romantic not to be confused with...oh, it doesn't matter), "Wanderer above the Sea of Fog," that depicts a lonesome, some would say "Byronic," figure alone on a rocky bluff overlooking that sea of fog. There is a story there of place, you would agree, an evocation from the landscape of some deep, irresolvable sadness. Unlike Lucy's (Yvonne's?) paintings, Friederich's landscapes often featured human figures. Almost always, really. Lucy is purer in her desire to evoke a story of place--and isn't cinema ultimately a mass-reproduced collection of still images meant to evoke a sense of place with or without the spoken word? Jake's father says that he doesn't like expressionist or abstract art. He'd rather have photo-realistic stuff, since that's where the talent is. "Why don't you just take pictures then, Dad?" says Jake, who is embarrassed that his father is such a philistine. This is Kaufman saying that narrative is maybe the least important part of art and that while it's often the first thing people ask about when a movie comes up in conversation, what a painting is "about" is rarely the first thing asked about a painting.
It's also Kaufman saying that the versions of our parents we have in our memories are both dear and despised. They are the things we yearn for the most, but at some point their idealized form gets supplanted by unkind caricatures of their worst traits. Jake's parents are extremes: the probing Father; the tyrannically weak Mother. Everything Lucy says is painful for Jake, because he knows how his folks will misinterpret everything she says. It's the worst visit there ever was because it's likely a patchwork of the very worst parts of every time Jake brought a girl home he hoped was the one. (Maybe she was, maybe she wasn't.) Jake warns Lucy not to go in the basement of his family's home after he gives her a tour of the barn and tells a terrible story about how their pigs were neglected and became infested with maggots. They're having ham for dinner. Everything is farm-to-table, Lucy's promised, and she remembers the story. The moral of it is that life on the farm is hard. The moral of I'm Thinking of Ending Things is that life everywhere is hard: growing older is an atrocity and we live all our lives alone, if sometimes in the company of others who are likewise completely alone. We are each of us adrift on a sea of fog.
Wordsworth wrote his Immortality Ode in two parts. The first four stanzas were done in a group, meant to portray childhood, innocence. It's an echo of a strategy William Blake used with his two collections, Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. He showed the first four stanzas to his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who, liking where it was headed, was moved to write "Dejection: An Ode." In the second stanza, Coleridge writes, "A grief without a pang, void, dark, and dread,/A stifled drowsy, unimpassioned grief,/Which finds no natural outlet, no relief,/In word, or sigh, or tear." This reinspired Wordsworth to go back and pound out the last seven stanzas of his own piece. He starts the end of his poem with, "Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting." There are few lines in the English language that I find more mysterious, more lovely. Kaufman opens I'm Thinking of Ending Things with pictures of flowers on wallpaper. It reminds me of how Kim Jee-woon's A Tale of Two Sisters opens--that one being an adaptation of an old Korean folktale about two sisters named after flowers. It's about memory. Wallpaper has an extraordinary significance as well, of course, as a thing that covers walls in houses--houses that are metaphors for layers of our subconscious, perhaps, or the strata of our emotional histories. We used to send inconvenient women to the attic. In I'm Thinking of Ending Things, when Lucy goes into the attic, she finds the room where Jake grew up. There's still a sign on the door.
There's a janitor (Guy Boyd), too, who lives a life of quiet desperation, cleaning up a high school where the kids make fun of how he walks and get creeped out when they catch him watching them rehearse their fall production of Oklahoma!. Why does he like Oklahoma! so much? If anyone took the time to ask, they might discover that he actually knows a great deal about musicals, or that he's been there so long he sees the kids in these productions so full of hope and fire only to encounter them later in their lives checking people out at the CVS or walking like beachcombers along an endless, grey beach. In a series of shots highly reminiscent of the boundless temporal beach in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Jake and Lucy drive to nowhere, chatting about nothing, arguing about John Cassavetes with words written by Pauline Kael, whose phone book-thick review collection "For Keeps" we glimpse in the room where Jake grew up. Sometimes as I'm giving a film lecture I'm so tired of the sound of my voice that I wish I could tear it out of my head. I know all my references and where I got every one of my ideas. There's nothing miraculous about me, and there are miles to go before I rest. Lucy says at one point that we're not moving through time; time is blowing through us. We're standing still, too stunned to move.
I'm Thinking of Ending Things is about time rushing through us à la the divinity Coleridge described blowing through poets like wind through an Aeolian Harp. It dries us out from the inside. We are husks in the sway of a constant bellow and fury. That anyone ever thinks they can fight against it is absolute madness, but we all try anyway because what else would we do in these hours that stretch? Kaufman is a cartographer of our immense sadness. I compared him once to Orson Welles in his idiosyncratic importance to our collective well of thought on the way we work. I think of him more now like Marcel Proust, devoting himself to charting a roadmap of time and how it moves through us as we watch it, helpless to slow or even redirect its flow. The end of the film is about artifice and performance, yet somehow at the same time it's a cry, crystalline and pure, of the heart's fondest desire to be known and, failing that, to be for a moment ecstatic. Art can provide that. There's no other reason to be. There's no other way to engage. The kingdom of my memory grows every day as the people I love die and the places I live disappear. But there's that ineffable thing that drives art like a whip to a carriage mule. It carries me along with it, if I let it. There's room for you if you want to come.