As soon as the credits started to roll, I thought that Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (2008) was the worst movie ever made. It felt so pretentious and I was bored to death. Two years later, I rewatched it and it became one of my favorite movies. Have I changed, or did the universe somehow change? I was sure it was the latter. A couple of days ago, I noticed that Charlie Kaufman made a new Netflix film. I was skeptical at first since most of Netflix movies seemed to remind me of the old days of direct-to-video films. Even though I usually write about classical black-and-white films, there’s so much to tell about the world of color. There’s Coppola, Leone, Kubrick, Scorsese, there’s a whole world of masterpieces waiting for us. But one of the greatest gifts a film lover can give to another is a recommendation.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020) is based on Iain Reid’s novel of the same name (2016). We see a man and a woman in a car. A young woman thinks about ending things. Are these suicidal thoughts? She seems to be thinking about ending her relationship with her boyfriend Jake, who’s in the driver’s seat. Her name changes throughout the film, along with her occupation. She’s Lucy, Lucia, Louise, and Ames. She’s a biologist, then a poet, a quantum physicist, a painter, then a waitress. They’re taking a day trip to meet Jake’s parents who live on a farm, while there’s a blizzard coming. She is constantly reminding him that she needs to get back today, she has to finish her paper or work another shift: it doesn’t matter, she just has to go.
The scenes are intercut with the scenes of a janitor in a high school, who seems to be connected to Jake. Soon the couple reaches the farm and has dinner with Jake’s parents. You notice the little discrepancies in the car in the narrative structure, but as a viewer, you’re almost conditioned to suspend your belief for the sake of the story. But upon arriving, the young woman questions her identity and everything she knew about Jake as well. Things start to get weird, and you feel like this is starting to become a horror story, similar to Get Out (2017). Kaufman starts to play with space and time. They’re waiting for their parents to come downstairs for ages. Perhaps it was a matter of seconds for them. The parents seem to age from moment to moment, and time even seems to go backwards. We see the mother as a middle-aged lady, on her deathbed, and as a young woman. First the father is inquisitive and notices the narrative incoherence in the young woman’s story about how she met Jake, but soon becomes much older and demented. The young woman sees a picture of herself on Jake’s wall, which blends into Jake. That’s our biggest cue that her identity is dissipated. “Most people are other people”, she quotes Wilde.
In the novel, it might seem clear that Jake and the young woman are the same person, but in the film, we are hinted upon the strong connection with the janitor. His uniform is the same one as multiple ones in the washer in Jake’s parents’ house. He seems to hear Jake’s thoughts and sees what he sees. Is this a film about imagining a girlfriend, whose name you never found out, and never asked her out, so she could be anything? Maybe she’s a poet, maybe she’s a scientist, maybe she’s a queen. This reminded me of William Stafford’s poem:
If you were exchanged in the cradle and
your real mother died
without ever telling the story
then no one knows your name,
and somewhere in the world
your father is lost and needs you
but you are far away.
He can never find
how true you are, how ready.
When the great wind comes
and the robberies of the rain
you stand on the corner shivering.
The people who go by—
you wonder at their calm.
They miss the whisper that runs
any day in your mind,
“Who are you really, wanderer?”—
and the answer you have to give
no matter how dark and cold
the world around you is:
“Maybe I’m a king.”
However, I’m thinking of a different approach here. In philosophy, the characterization question – Who am I? – is the focal point of personal identity. Are we just biological organisms or collections of mental states and events? The key notion here is the issue of persistence: what it takes for a person to persist from one time to another? A sub-problem of the persistence question is what it takes for someone to remain the same person, what it means for past or future person to be you. If that’s corporal continuity, that means that if we were able to preserve our consciousness in a computer, we wouldn’t be the same person since our body would be gone. If that’s temporal continuity, that means that events like coma or even going to sleep means there’s discontinuity. One of the common answers to the persistence question is the psychological continuity: your beliefs, preferences, thinking, memories, all the mental states are inherited from the past you to the current you and passed over to the future you. But what if they’re not? This could explain why the young woman’s identity changes from scene to scene, her occupation, her mood, and her wishes. The only thing we apparently see is just the brute-physical view, we presume she is the same person because she possesses the same physical body, but there might be no psychological continuity. There’s seems to be more at stake here.
Narrativism is a theory that states that narratives can be identity-constituting, and the stories we tell about ourselves are the bases of our personal identity. Throughout the film, Kaufman presents us with different narratives. We accept that she’s a physicist, a poet, or a waitress. We listen to different stories, and the film as a medium itself tells a story we take as reality. Once you don’t have a story, you cease to exist. If you’re losing your mind, as Jake’s father seems to be suffering from dementia, you’re losing both your psychological continuity and your stories. The woman is telling a different story every time how she and Jake met, and Jake seems to be using the whole narrative to create her identity. The film is Jake’s story and it constitutes the identity of a missed opportunity.
But Kaufman is destroying all accounts of identity here. There is no body continuity, since Jake and the young woman might be the same person. Her face is morphing into Jake’s in the old photo. There’s no psychological continuity, their mood changes and so do their accounts of different events. The mother hears constant whispers, perhaps of former narratives, while the father is losing his memories. And by intersecting the story with musical performances, we’re removing the continuity from the overall narrative as well. I believe that this film is not only a film about identity but a portrayal of a person suffering from dementia. Your story becomes discontinued. You see a familiar face, but it’s not the same person. You see a dear person, but the face is unknown to you. Space and time intersect and change. Your identity is no longer your own. People have to tell you who you really are.
And needing to get out is not really about getting out of a bad relationship. It’s getting out of this state of mind where there are no causal connections, no coherent space and time, and no personal identity. The narrator is the same as Jake, the janitor, the mother, and the father. It’s the same person suffering from an inevitable loss of identity. That person, Jake or whoever, needs someone to tell him who he really is. The only thing that’s left is to try to tell the story himself. And who knows, maybe he’s a king.
Baker, L. R. (2000). Persons and Bodies: A Constitution View. Cambridge University Press.
Giles, J. (1997). No Self to be Found: the Search for Personal Identity. University Press of America.
Glover, J. (1988). I: The Philosophy and Psychology of Personal Identity. Penguin.
Noonan, H. (2003). Personal Identity. Routledge.
Olson, E. and K. Witt (2019). Narrative and Persistence. Canadian Journal of Philosophy 49:419–434.
Schechtman, M. (1996). The Constitution of Selves. Cornell University Press.
Schroer, J. W. and R. Schroer (2014). Getting the Story Right: A Reductionist Narrative Account of Personal Identity. Philosophical Studies 171:445–469.
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