How to Fight Loneliness
Last Life in the Universe meets Punch-Drunk Love
by Tom J. Carlisle
“I’m so afraid of tomorrow, so sick and tired of today. They say love is the answer, but love never came my way.” — Fred Wise & Ben Weisman
The song, barely audible, plays at a low volume in the mattress warehouse where Barry Egan has come to confront his latest tormentor, the phone-sex huckster played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman. It’s a dramatic and funny scene, the grand finale of the violent conflict that has energized much of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love (2002), and the song is easy to ignore if you’re not paying attention. But pay attention you should, because Conway Twitty’s version of the classic “Lonely Blue Boy” isn’t just ambient background music. This song is the very essence of Barry, of where he’s coming from, the original lonely blue boy with the bright blue suit to prove it. “Lonely, Lonely Blue Boy, is my name…”
What is so striking is not that such a lonely boy has found his way onto the big screen but that his loneliness is what animates the whole film. He’s no proud lone wolf, he’s not fighting the lonely fight, and he certainly isn’t the product of solitary existential ennui. Barry’s primary battle is with his own pathological awkwardness, with the specter of what was labeled in pharmaceutical ads a couple of years ago as Social Anxiety Disorder, the catch-all term for those who might not have been quite depressed enough to consider Zoloft. If Punch-Drunk Love has any power to affect the audience, it is because so many people today can look at those anti-depressant sales pitches and convince themselves that they have these prescribed conditions. Loneliness, it seems, is the disease.
The contemplation of the lonely life is hardly new in cinema, where it has been the shorthand for psychological depth in every genre from film noir to the romantic comedy to the epic biopic, and certainly not in the novel, where solitary confinement is practically a cottage industry. What is fresh, and it has quite a lot to do with the culture surrounding us, is that in Punch-Drunk Love, and a smattering of other recent American films, loneliness is not presented as an abstraction or an aberration but as an inevitability, a reasonable reaction to daily life. This is also indicated in a subtle shift in cinematic themes that announced itself, and has gained the most ground, across the other pond, in East Asia. From Taiwanese Tsai Ming-liang to Hong Kong’s Wong Kar-wai to South Korean Hong Sang-soo, directors have cobbled together their oeuvres out of explorations of this seemingly universal contemporary condition. One of the most recent, and I think one of the best, offerings in what is more than a genre but less than a movement is Thai director Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Last Life in the Universe (2003), in which a suicidal Japanese librarian identifies with the lizard protagonist of a children’s book—the last lizard in the universe, to be exact, even as the hectic life of Bangkok continues on all around him.
Taken together, Punch-Drunk Love and Last Life in the Universe, in the form of their respective protagonists, serve as mirrors of each other, refracting light and illuminating the contours of the 21st-Century Man, the loneliest blue boy, from whichever side of the Pacific he may hail. In the wake of the globalized information flood, people all over the world have been left with a pernicious sense of disconnection. While one film takes place in California and the other in Thailand, they both chronicle the same condition.
Stylistically, the two films are about as far apart as they could be without crossing from the art house to the multiplex. Punch-Drunk Love is all freneticism bouncing across the extremely wide screen (an aspect ratio of 2.35: 1, for those of you who pay attention to that kind of thing), a tightly composed pop expressionist pinball game whose quieter moments—such as a phone-sex scene that moves slowly but inexorably from uncomfortable to unbearable—are as bracing as an ill-timed tilt. The lighting is bright, the shadows black holes, and the color saturation is taken to the hilt—in a note on the DVD release director Paul Thomas Anderson advises the viewer to “Get Barry’s suit blue, blue, blue. Don’t be shy. Get Barry’s shirt white. Don’t be afraid to let it bloom a bit. Turn up the contrast! Make sure your blacks are black. And listen to it loud!” And rightly so, as Jon Brion’s score, shifting from rat-a-tat-tat propulsion to swooning waltzes (all mixed in with a song from Altman’s Popeye, a Hawaiian Waikiki number, and the aforementioned Country Blues), provides a soundtrack that practically serves as a narrator of Barry’s nervous condition.
Last Life in the Universe, on the other hand, is a slow-moving study in austere rhythms and space. The camera makes a meditative, unhurried examination of the objects in rooms and of the rooms themselves. Much of the humor of the film, and it is a very funny movie, in its own subtle way, comes from allowing scenes to blossom slowly, so that a small, throwaway physical gesture creates a punch line to a joke you never saw coming. At seemingly random points throughout the film, establishing shots from later events are spliced in between scenes, but rather than lead to confusion, these moments lend an odd kind of depth and wholeness to the film, mainly because what little plot the film has arrives in a gradual and organic fashion. According to cinematographer Christopher Doyle, the film stock was treated so that the color would be desaturated to a large degree, creating a monochromatic palette. The sound design favors silence and, other than a doleful minimalist score, features as its strongest element a Japanese language instruction tape repeating endlessly and the gentle clicking sounds made by the occasional lizard climbing up a wall or across the ceiling.
The only real aesthetic similarity between the two films is that they both favor the long take, and although used slightly differently (in Punch-Drunk, the camera is in near constant motion, utilizing a wide array of pans, tilts, Steadicam and tracking shots, whereas in Last Life the camera is rarely moving, and when it is, the movement is slight, such as its gentle, floating bob while watching a figure contemplating a rather final leap off of a bridge), it allows both filmmakers to assess the space that the characters inhabit, and how it defines them and their isolation.
At first the protagonists of the two films might seem as different as the cinematic worlds they inhabit. In a brilliant turn, Adam Sandler plays Barry as wounded man-child whose many behavioral tics include jumpy, staccato nervous chatter and graceless physical movements that have him perpetually backing away from everything he encounters and wary of anything that might sneak up behind him—reminding me of nothing so much as Johnny Depp’s paranoid Hunter S. Thompson shuffle in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Barry is a merchant of novelty plungers, splitting his time between a nondescript warehouse in the Valley and his even less appealing, half-empty cookie-cutter condo. Meanwhile in Bangkok, Asano Tadanobu’s Kenji has perfected a deliberate insularity and order not just in the way he speaks and moves—no wasted words or actions for him—but in his nearly sterile apartment, all blank surfaces and precisely stacked and numbered books that would put a library to shame.
What becomes apparent, though, is that the characteristics of the two men are both manifestations of obsessive-compulsive disorders. Kenji can’t leave a bathroom until every surface has been wiped clean of any human presence, can’t see a cigarette butt on the floor without picking it up and throwing it away, and makes a point of carrying his own supply of disposable chopsticks for use in restaurants. Barry has to repeat phrases over and over again, both to himself and to anyone who asks him a question, his favorite one being “I don’t know,” which he uses not only when he does indeed know but even in cases where it simply isn’t a viable answer. OCD, which seems to be overtaking ADD as the defining malady of contemporary life, is both what separates Kenji and Barry from any real contact with the people around them and is the result of that disconnection. In fact, in both cases, the disconnect seems to have been the result of a kind of shell shock that has a lot do with their siblings, those who they should be closest to but seem to look on with fearful trepidation.
Family is seen as a kind of violent intrusion, not just because their siblings violate the distance Barry and Kenji keep from the world but because their presence activates the violence that Barry and Kenji hold within themselves and their respective pasts. Barry has a rage deep within that is triggered by his seven sisters and their oppressive smothering, leading him to shocking displays of inanimate object destruction. Kenji has a Yakuza pedigree that he has left behind, but a visit by his still connected brother brings his murderous skills back to the fore. But while this inner violence can and does lead to negative consequences, neither film plays like an apology for this ill-tempered masculinity, and in fact serves both Barry and Kenji well when protecting themselves and the women who arrive in their lives to peel them out of complete insularity.
It is fitting that in both Punch-Drunk Love and Last Life in the Universe, the arrival of the female characters into the lives of the lonely boys are heralded by random and senselessly brutal car accidents. The obvious metaphor works: these women do come literally crashing into the lives of Barry and Kenji, and the freakshow romances that follow are so ineffable and gently shaded that any description or analysis of them is rendered pointless. Suffice it to say that while the women in Punch-Drunk and Last Life are certainly more socially adept than Kenji or Barry, they are just as alone, just as insulated, just as damaged. How these lonely creatures do come together and forge connections is what separates Punch-Drunk Love and Last Life in the Universe from both their East Asian auteur forebears and the romantic comedy genre they might resemble. There is a sort of solution to the dilemma of loneliness, but the participants in the romance that leads to this kind of healing do not become normalized, do not lose any of the freakish tendencies that pushed them to the outside to begin with. There is an expectation of loneliness, an assumption that we’re all screwed up by faulty wiring, be it OCD, ADD, or bipolarity, and even if we never get better, we can perhaps find someone who puts up with it. Love might finally come the way of the lonely boys and girls, but something inside of them keeps them forever blue.