‘people like to think of themselves as points moving through time, but I think It’s the opposite. We’re stationary and time passes through us, blowing like cold wind’Uncertainly named Girlfriend, I’m thinking of Ending Things
Any writer talking about Charlie Kaufman hasn’t got an easy task on their hands. Films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Being John Malkovich are detailed to such an extent that interpreting them is likely to result in a degree of the writer drawing on thier interpretation.
Kaufman has built his career on confounding viewer expectations around story, logic, coherence, often in attempt to criticise the clichés surrounding storytelling. A central theme of this movie is the often-stereotyped theme of romantic relationships. One of the key plot points that’s presented is the disconnect between staying in a relationship while burdened by the idea that this is the closest you will ever get to happiness, or risk confronting the uncertainty and anxiety that comes with ‘ending things’. Many people’s lives can lack a sense of certainty. My struggle to internalize and expect sudden noises, patterns of speaking or ways of behaving, means the world can be an uncertain place. What wonder then that when we find a sense of certainty like a stable routine or a relationship, we want to cling to that.
The actual story is distinctly awkward – the girlfriend whose name is not quite clear, is the central character. She is going with her boyfriend, Jake, to visit his parents. Importantly, before she so much as gets into the car she’s thinking of ending their relationship, which is in itself portrayed as strange, in the way they communicate. Equally disquieting are her interactions with his parents. The dispersed nature of the communication, accentuated by the erratic camera work and the cuts to out of context parts of the room like a pair of eye’s that don’t know where to focus. In one scene the girlfriend and father are discussing paintings – he hates art that dosent represent anything, and dosent understand how landscapes can be sad – ‘how can a painting be sad if there’s no one looking sad in them’.
The relationship between the couple is intriguing – Jake has a superiority complex when it comes to the art that he creates as well as the intellectual pursuits that his parents dote upon him. And yet they are not that different – they both like to paint and often her career is described as similar even if, like her name, its never made clear. Still, that sense that something is very wrong saturates. I’m not the first person to point out that the boyfriend could be autistic. The girlfriend has an element of being able to socialize that he clearly does not have, again reminiscing the strange feeling of being in a room where everyone’s chatting freely, and you have a glass wall separating from the atmosphere. Does she really want to be with someone who has such a different way of being, just to help him sustain this idealized image of a relationship that he has in his head? We soon realise that the film is not really about either of these two characters.
For as much as her name is obscured, the film puts the girlfriend front and centre both through the narration and the artwork. She captures the anxiety of trying to find a place where she can make a relationship work out of a sense of ‘what else am I going to do with my life?’, even if she knows that the relationship is doomed. Underpinning the film is that sense of danger and as a blizzard ensues throughout, there’s a running motif of the road being treacherous – a metaphor for the journey into uncertainty. Indeed, every time the girlfriend insists that they need to leave, the boyfriend loudly rebukes her with ‘I have chains’ – a strong metaphor for the surrender of freedom she might undergo, if she stays with him. While he’s clinging on to a sort of idealized romanticism that he’s seen in musicals, she’s clinging on to routine and the hope that the road ahead won’t be so treacherous.
I want to return to the title. There’s a deliberate vagueness to the wordplay that allows the viewer to apply the phrase to their own circumstances. Its like Kaufman wrote this film about you – ‘that’s what one hopes for, I guess’. Lurking all throughout is that element of concealed decay, that’s represented brilliantly by the bleak colours of the set. Early on they go to a farm and while their journey starts off sweet, they soon find a pig pen. Jake explains that the pigs had been infested with maggots that slowly ate them alive. There’s this stench of corruption that permeates even the nice moments. When they reach an ice cream parlor on thier way home, the contrast between the vein, dolled up waitresses and the humble serving girl with a rash, proves a vital instance of how the film communicates with the viewer. I had to watch the film several times and look out for those miniscule indicators of facial expression, tone of voice, timing.
Ultimately, if the girlfriend dosent face up to her emotions, either with her relationship or those revealed in the depressive monologue which opens the movie, then she will become like the pig, slowly being eaten alive by her own anxieties. Time bends around Jakes childhood home. The parents start to change age, becoming suddenly a lot older or younger as if to represent alternative futures and pasts for our main characters. When the couple first arrive at the parents house, the mother and the uncertainly named girlfriend wave at each other for a long time, owing to that idea of being stationary, not moving forward for fear of the unknown.
Its when they start driving home through the blizzard that things start to get really interesting. Our two lead characters start talking about another movie centred on a relationship, and while the boyfriend is a fan and sympathetic to the characters, the girlfriend starts reciting a scathing review, where she deconstructs the characters and the narrative, adopting an uppity sneer in doing so. This is in my view the most revealing moment – the boyfriend is empathetic to the concept of established narratives and expects his relationship to be a successful one. The girlfriend on the other hand, while desiring safety, has contempt for narratives as a whole. Its incredibly relatable – I’ve found myself creating those expectations to do with how I expect my life to pan out, only to be disappointed upon noticing I have pinned my hopes on a fiction.
In the final scenes we come to Jakes old school, where he goes missing in an attempt to confront someone he believes is watching him. Its here that we meet the janitor – a character who you have great sympathy for when you realise that this is the Jake who didn’t get to live out his fantasies. Saddest of all he still has that sentimentality, despite being seen by the world as just another old man. What follows is a dance scene between two caricatures of Jake and the uncertainly named girl, which feels reminiscent of a romance from Oklahoma or any number of assorted fairy stories. Constantly, the janitor figure tries to interrupt the dance, either in an attempt to wrench back that youthful innocence or to break apart this fictionalized image of this perfect relationship and restore ‘reality’.
One of the most poignant lines comes not from any of the main characters. Its not clear who the speaker is but the line runs ‘Someone has to be a pig infested with maggots, it might as well be you’. Its a dejected quote, which says you might as well be resigned to stay in situations where you are not in control of your life. Are we just part of somebody else’s narrative, constructed for us so they can say ‘I succeeded’? Or are we free actors, in control of our own lives, but naively setting expectations for ourselves? Indeed, isn’t it normal to fall into a routine of setting narratives and fantasies for ourselves, only to be upset when we witness them collapse?
‘It’s tragic how few people possess their souls before they die. Nothing is more rare in any man, says Emerson, than an act of his own. And it’s quite true. Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions. Their lives a mimicry. Their passions a quotation’Uncertainly named Girlfriend, I’m Thinking Of Ending Things
Considering this is a film designed to be interpreted, how do we square its themes with an overall understanding of autism? My past few works have been about the phenomenon of trying to mask ourselves to fit in. In that sense, many autisitc people are in service to a fictional narrative of normality that others construct for us, and can very easily relate to the girl. Still, there’s a lot of common ground the autistic viewer could find in painting an image in ones head of how you want your life to look. If you look through my past blog posts you’ll see numerous cases of where reality has confounded my narrative. Like the boy in the story, I have quite a sentimental worldview and find falling into those ways of thinking incredibly tempting. There’s more I have never told my readers about. Part of the reason this film works so well is that like a sad landscape painting, we see ourselves in these stories. We all have elements in our life at some point which we think of ending. We keep them close to our chest and mull over them because we don’t want to upset other people. Its that nebulous of doubt and uncertainty inhabiting this movie that makes viewing a relatable and sobering experience.
‘I’m Thinking Of Ending Things’ is available to view on Netflix.