My 2020 Reading Stacks #9: Giant Leaps for “Antkind”

Antkind!

A book by a filmmaker about film-making and film criticism. What could go wrong?

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:

At the beginning of each year I spend weeks writing year-in-review entries that cover the gamut of my entertainment intake, including capsule reviews for all the books and graphic novels I’ve read. I refrain from devoting entries to full-length book reviews because 999 times out of 1000 I’m finishing a given work decades after the rest of the world is already done and moved on from it.

As time permits and the finished books pile up, I’ll be charting my full list of books, graphic novels, and trade collections I’ve read throughout the year in a staggered, exclusive manner here, for all that’s worth to the outside world. Due to the way I structure my media-consumption time blocks, the list will always feature more graphic novels than works of prose and pure text. Novels and non-pictographic nonfiction will pop up here and there, albeit in a minority capacity for a few different reasons. Triple bonus points to any longtime MCC readers who can tell which items I bought at which comic/entertainment conventions we’ve attended over the past few years.

And now…it’s readin’ time. Again. This time it’s all about one book that consumed a lot of my summer, which worked out because I happened to have some free time in 2020.

36. Charlie Kaufman, Antkind. The frequent Academy Award nominee is known for writing some of the freakiest existential mind-warps ever committed to film — Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation starring two Nicolas Cages, the Oscar-nominated Kickstarter’d stop-motion romance Anomalisa, and more. Most recently he wrote and directed the Netflix Original I’m Thinking of Ending Things, another complicated tale crafted from his usual motifs of skewed realities, deceptive memories, and unreliable narrators who keep others trapped in their own heads because they’re too self-absorbed to cope with exterior realities. It’s a fascinating film that’s simpler to understand if you happen to catch the scene that borrows a setup from The Usual Suspects. Those same parts are reassembled on the printed page for his first novel Antkind, which hit bookshelves earlier in 2020, a few months before Ending Things was uploaded.

Here the reader meets B. Rosenberger Rosenberg, a NYC film critic who’s paid to write down his insufferably baroque opinions yet has no apparent fans. His high-falutin’ criteria are alternately arcane and addle-pated, his conclusions mistake verbosity for erudition, and his insular thought life is the farthest polar opposite from self-awareness. He has rigid rules for how many times and ways in which one must see a film before one has officially seen said film. He name-checks real-life critics and his differences with nearly all of them (sure enough, Armond White is not spared). Like some reviewers he has a guilty pleasure that he defends with far more passion than he should (in his case, a fondness for Judd Apatow comedies that perceives far more levels in them than Apatow himself could have even aimed for, even subconsciously).

He’s uncompromising in his aesthetic evaluations, but he swiftly eschews dignity and objectivity any and every time he stumbles over an opportunity to impress anyone in any kind of minority, especially if they’re women. He boasts of having a famous Black girlfriend, whose feelings don’t much resemble reciprocation. He wields his fandom for oddly specific BIPOC films like a set of semaphore flags that no one else is interested in interpreting. He prides himself on working an obscure nineteenth-century gender-neutral pronoun into even the simplest chats, mostly to assure himself he’s living life right despite any confusion left in his wake. He’s also quick to correct anyone who dares assume he’s Jewish for whatever reasons. He’s a reductio ad absurdum caricature of every white internet guy attempting to live “woke” to a degree so intensely aggravating that he makes the most hypervigilant vegan seem pretty chill.

Even if he weren’t receiving infrequent pitiful paychecks for his wordy scribbles, he would be a front-runner for the title of World’s Worst Film Geek. To the reader’s chagrin, he’s also our first-person narrator. Thus we wade into his muck of pretentious, self-righteous interior monologues and view the proceedings through his smeared lenses.

While researching transgender film history in St. Augustine, Rosenberg meets an elderly gentleman who’s spent decades creating his own stop-motion masterpiece of a motion picture, one frame at a time across his entire lifetime, using thousands of puppets, a preposterous number of which aren’t even onscreen because he wants the off-camera exterior life to be as “real” and as meaningful as what the camera permits the audience to see, even if the fully realized dimensionality behind his back is lost on everyone except the filmmaker himself. The resulting epic is three months (!) long, with bathroom breaks and intermissions built in to allow for the viewer’s biological needs. Rosenberg is invited to sit through it all, and subsequently declares it Literally the Greatest Film of All Time.

As vicissitudes are wont to go in such situations, physical custody of the film ends up remanded to Rosenberg. He envisions himself the film’s herald, its intrepid spokesperson who must preach its gospel to the masses and enlighten society with its overlong super awesomeness. During a pit stop at a fast-food joint where he fails to ingratiate himself with a disaffected young Black woman at the register, a freak fiery accident destroys all the film reels, every inch of the only physical copy in existence, except for a single frame, and puts him in the hospital with horrendous burns and possible brain damage. Upon his release, his life’s new mission is clear: he must remember the entire film, one scene at a time, all three months’ worth, and tell everyone what they missed. From start to finish. In excruciating detail. Because the world must know. Which would be a cinch if human brains were perfectly reliable machines, especially that tricky memory section. And if we weren’t all cursed with subjective filters. And that’s just our brains. It goes without saying Rosenberg may not be the best self-appointed apostle.

After that, things get complicated. No, like, really this time for sure. Rosenberg lets his insignificant life fall apart while his vision quest takes him across varying forms of consciousness and perception. Thus do different chapters switch modes as events are observed in physical reality, dreams, hypnotherapy sessions, recreated memories, brain-damaged memories, imaginary shorts, mental projections, flashbacks to alternate timelines, possibly actual time travel, and Strange Days mental recordings via an as-yet-uninvented device called Brainio. Or any combination of the above. All of it is real to Rosenberg; all discernment is left to the reader by default. We’re agonizingly aware Our Protagonist’s worldview is not our own and can surmise in advance his effort is likely doomed. One segment in particular tells us all we need to know as he laments to The Viewers at Home:

“If only I had an eidetic memory. But of course I don’t because it is a myth. A myth that has left me high and dry, for I am certain that if eidetic memory did exist, I would have it. I am just the type to have it.”

This long, strange journey is the sort of recovery job that would be a film preservationist’s worst nightmare. Rosenberg’s brain has intermittent flashes of humbling clarity, but even those are sabotaged with either rationalizations or digressions into capsule reviews. One particular lamentation expresses his sorrow with a bit less resilience than Hamlet:

“Coupled with the acceptance that I, through my Icarus-like hubris, have deprived the world of what is arguably (if only there were someone to argue with me!) the greatest single piece of art ever created. It is a burden I cannot carry. And now to realize that I, the one receptacle for this masterpiece, am failing, is enough to break me.”

Kaufman appears to have inserted dozens of notebooks’ worth of jokes, critiques, and commentaries on various films, each dart-boarded into the narrative like random Family Guy gags. The heavy-handed satire of self-imagined progressive paragons is not wholly leavened when we pass the halfway point and Rosenberg is plunged into an eighteen-page Trump satire that I will never describe to another human being but which feels like the kind of gag Trey Parker and Matt Stone could’ve animated in two minutes at most, but made it actually funny. Also presented for something resembling balance are numerous meta moments in which Rosenberg repeatedly trashes the one screenwriter he despises more than any other: that hack Charlie Kaufman. Each of his thirteen or more tirades (I tried to keep count) in turn receives a rebuttal from on high, usually in the form of slapstick with injury. To our list of states of narrative consciousness, add “homage to Duck Amuck“.

I’ve run across quite a few post-geek cautionary tales in my stacks (such as that time I reviewed three such books in one entry). A lot of those works dredge up my own flaws (some present, some blessedly past) and reassure me that my ongoing attempts to stay “grounded’ in middle age are seeing some positive results. Sometimes they let me look down the ladder and think to myself, “Wow, at least I’m not as detached from reality and priorities as those guys down there.” I will let you imagine examples for me. Other times, they invite me to look in the mirror and notice any lingering, festering resemblances to the jerks from Eltingville.

But Antkind is by far that sub-sub-subgenre’s biggest test of my patience. It’s 700 pages, an extraordinary length to spend trapped inside the mind of Comic Book Guy’s older, even denser brother. Between his maladroit attempts at human connection and the way his dogged obsessions define the narrow boundaries of his saddening reality, Rosenberg’s mind is a squalid jail from which I couldn’t wait to escape after I turned the final page.

It’s kind of a relief, and barely qualifies as a spoiler because honestly it is not a surprise, to know he doesn’t get the girl, or any girl. Some geeks may or may not see themselves when Rosenberg gazes too deeply at his reflection in the inch-deep wading pool that is his thought process on How to Meet Girls:

“In an attempt to improve my state of mind, I wander the streets of New York looking forlorn, as is my way, in order to attract women who might think I’m deep or that I need to be saved, a technique that has not yet proved fruitful but I am confident will. One might think I would have given up on it by now, but it is the single technique in my arsenal. I invented it at the age of fifteen at a teen party, where I say in a corner and wrote in a little notebook. What are you writing? asks the sad and beautiful girl of my imagination. Oh, just some thoughts, I say, matching her sadness. Do you hate these things as much as I do? she continues. I do, I say. It seemed like it should work. But it never did. I mean, not with any of the pretty, sad ones.”

And yes, it is presented as a single paragraph, no line breaks. Some paragraphs go on and on and on like this. And on. And on some more. And on and on and on and ON.

To the reader who can stomach more Deep Thoughts like this without face-palming themselves to a concussion, Antkind illustrates what happens when we disappear into the bottomless rabbit hole of our own preoccupations and convince ourselves the rabbit hole is a nice place to live. Rosenberg finds purpose and nobility of a degraded sort in crusading to save a lost film, but first someone needs to save him from his own wretched mind. And with synapses this crossed, who could stand to reach out to him?

I had planned to end with a few capsule reviews for other books, but I’m over multiple limits and feeling perhaps a bit of self-aware restraint is the way to go.

More to come!

[Other entries in this recurring feature: Stack #1 | Stack #2 | Stack #3 | Stack #4 | Stack #5 | Stack #6 | Stack #7 | Stack #8 ]

7 responses

  1. Wow! Thanks for writing up this review of Carl E. Coughman’s Wantkindt! Thanks for sharing it w/the world! It’s the best evaluation of the work I’ve read so far (2nd place finish : Adam Nayman’s piece in Cinema Scope on both it and the movie) and certainly the only one I was actively looking forward to!

    I gather that I enjoyed the actual experience of reading the novel perhaps a scoonch or two more than you did. I literally laughed out loud when I finished — because of the footnote gag, sure, but also from the cumulative weight of it all coming to a crashing end — and genuinely considered re-reading the book instead of returning it to the library tout suite. I opted to hasten another person’s encounter with art rather than delaying or denying them that gratification for my own selfish purposes, does that make me a hero? Am I as like unto the angel of history discussed by Walter Benjamin, as mentioned in the pages of the book itself? Do you think Rosenberger emphasizes the German consonant j in ‘Benjamin’ as a display of erudition or has he maybe never heard the man’s name pronounced aloud before and just cloddishly pronounces it ‘BenJamin’? I wonder what choice the audiobook makes. Is there an audiobook? Were you as cheered as I was by the inclusion of Arm Fall Off Boy in this particular magnum opus? Did it remind you of Arm Fall Off Boy’s recent appearance in Fraction & Lieber’s Jimmy Olsen series? Do you think Arm Fall Off Boy is the Sensational Character Find of 2020? I’ll take my answers off the air.

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    • True story: as this entry neared the 2000-word mark and my energies ebbed with the approaching midnight, one of the last two pre-writing scribbles that ended up on the cutting room floor (a euphemism for “unsaved Notepad file”) was indeed high praise for Arm-Fall-Off-Boy’s unexpected cameo, as well as Kaufman’s towering achievement in forging the Greatest Arm-Fall-Off-Boy Pun in Literary History.

      Critical sidebar: Fraction and Lieber’s Jimmy Olsen is my favorite DC Comic of 2020 and will be duly anointed as such in my annual “My Year in Comics” rundown come January 2021. DC is welcome to try and top that, but I’m, not holding my breath, especially since I realized two days ago that I missed the last two issues of Strange Adventures, so that title is out of the running until and unless I feel compelled to go play catch-up, which in itself has become a tiresome recourse for more than a few comics in this cursed pandemic, and frankly I’m not feeling the thrill of that hunt.

      To the consternation of any and all philosophical scholars who might be nearby, I’m candidly less familiar with Walter Benjamin than I am with Arm-Fall-Off-Boy, but while we’re on the subject of perceptible mispronunciations, in my head it was like Lady Deathstrike scraping her talons across Colossus’ armor every single time our man-teen Bal Rosy Rosy used the phrase “et chetera“. Perhaps this is an in-joke referring to some classic Monty Python character who thinks he’s a master of Latin when in fact he knows none, but I kept waiting for “et chetera” to have a payoff of some sort, or at least an explanation — best-case scenario, one of the women correcting him snidely with a “well actually” admonishment. Alas, I earned no closure on that, and growled aloud when another character besides Ba-Ro-Ro said “et chetera” like it had morphed into a contagious meme, or a memetic contagion, whichever is worse.

      Laughs were plentiful throughout and appreciated when caught, but some of the satire wasn’t necessarily on a comedic level intent on evoking belly laughs, which is fine and often favored, but IMHO works better in controlled dosages — i.e., with brevity. At 700 pages I would’ve felt seen if the Petty God Kaufman had dropped The ‘Bergmeister down quite a few more holes and let him hit his head hard enough to experience a Scrooge-level epiphany and moment of repentance. But that’s an unfair audience expectation, me wishing the author would’ve written only what I wanted at the expense of his own orchestrated goals. That way lies fan entitlement and grimdark superhero flick cults. I don’t withdraw the objection but I acknowledge its unfairness.

      Also, thanks very much for the link to that spellbinding Cinema Scope analysis, which was streets ahead of the written opinions I saw from two professional film critics who read the book. One had trouble getting past the Balaaminator’s film-critic lampoon veneer, while the other, limiting his reaction to a few parsimonious tweets, merely scoffed at Kaufman trying too hard to show off his smarts (uhhh, how dare he? or something?) and his incessant name-dropping of pop culture references, celebs, artistic influences, and other ephemeral proper nouns (which, I mean, that’s been MY thing since well before I became a MSTie, so clearly I’m biased and absolutely okay with it). So it’s nice to delve into an extended rap session with more nuance, less personal offense taken, and more asides clarifying some of Kaufman’s own references I didn’t get while I read it. The Bunuel quote in particular about specificity and universality because I know I’ve seen that referenced before and now there’s a tiny Rocky the Flying Squirrel fluttering inside my skull and asking, “That voice…where have I heard that voice?”

      One question remains unanswered for me, though, among several more I’m not thinking about as I wind this up: do the altered names (Cronenbauer!) represent ‘Bergagar ‘Bergagon misremembering them as Kaufman’s subtle way of deflating his pretensions and haughtiness, Mister ‘Bergstrom consciously getting them wrong out of a spite that only he finds hilarious (pause here for intensively cliquey in-joke about Kwan Yu), or instances of Random House attorneys telling Kaufman, “Take out that famous person’s real name or else they’ll sue”?

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  2. To paraphrase Hermes Conrad from Futurama, well, “Your questions just raise FURTHER questions.” Here they are :

    • Are the hyphens critical for Arm-Fall-Off-Boy’s moniker? Is it like Spider-Man? Is it a Spider-Man situation?
    • Wouldn’t the adamantium points of Mademoiselle Oyama’s talons penetrate Mssr. Rasputin’s organic metallic casing? I don’t imagine this as a ‘nails on chalkboard’ sort of thing – I assume they’d cut right through!
    • At a distance of some months since reading the original work I don’t quite recall the particular mal mot of “et chetera” nor the circumstances of its use. But I do have the memory of being charmed by how Rosenberg’s tics and quirks of language would sort of bleed into the wider world of the novel. I had a specific example of this phenomenon but (appropriately enough for a discussion about this particular work and its particular concerns!) I have forgotten it.
    • I do remember that at some point working my way through the dense tome I began to feel certain that any expectation of conventional narrative resolution would be ultimately confounded. I was anticipating, at best, a sort of abrupt non-ending. Maybe one with Rosenberg’s voice running off midsentence or the words on the page themselves fading away into illegibility. I ended up sort of satisfied with what we did get and how we got there, I suppose, I don’t think I would have liked the book more if it was less long!
    • You are, of course, welcome for the link! I agree that a lot of the critical discussion around the book seems to have come up kind of short. The Buñuel quote DOES appear familiar to me as well though I confess it sounds like the sort of commonplace advice that gets tossed about all the time.
    • I realize I have neglected to phrase most of these bullet-pointed responses in the form of a question. Oops!
    • Re: your final query my answer is “Yes!”

    [UPDATED 10/13/2020, 8:55 p.m. EDT: HTML edited for clarity, because we can. — MCC mgmt.]

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    • Whoops! I appear to have fouled up the HTML! That was supposed to be a formatted list of bullet points! And I also neglected to append my reply to your own reply! Sorry! I have only been using the Internet for decades! I’m sure I’ll figure out how to use it properly sometime soon!

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    • Repairs completed, bullets exchanged:

      • I fact-checked Arm-Fall-Off-Boy while replying and confirmed he is fully hyphenated. So yes, it is exactly a Spider-Man situation.
      • Perhaps Lady Deathstrike could be gentle with Colossus and my analogy would hold, but for the sake of integrity in comic book science, please allow me to retroactively replace Colossus with Ultron. As long as someone out there can glean my torturous mental screeching noise from my tortuous analogy.
      • “Et chetera” came up many times and haunts me to this day in the same way that every public use of “Spiderman” does, but yes, the bleed-through in speech patterns shined through and reminded me favorably of Jessie Buckley in Ending Things.
      • I could tell from the reviews I sampled that the book would gallop off the rails and away from any resemblance to straightforwardness. The ending, I think, was as good a stopping place as any — one last fall from grace, as it were.
      • The Bunuel echo remains a hobgoblin in my foolish mind. I know there was a mention of Bunuel in Call Me by Your Name, and I may have read the backs of one or more of his Criterion DVDs while browsing at Barnes & Noble. Or perhaps another internet critic like our Cinema Scope gentleman once cited the same quote, and my brain latched onto it but didn’t label it properly before storing it away. Alas.
      • Fortunately this is not a comic-con where I am a hardline Q&A moderator in a position to shout you down for claiming to have a question and then droning on at the mic for seven minutes in what reveals itself to be more of a comment than a question. I pardon you.
      • Fair enough.

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      • Thanks for the copy edit! I gather the problem may have arisen through my attempt to make use of the HTML tag “<ul type=square>” rather than keeping things clean and simple. I suppose I’m letting you (and everyone else!) know this as fair warning for the semi-plausible future. I, naturally, appreciate the assistance and — but of course — the appended pardon as well!

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