The Philosophy of I’m Thinking of Ending Things
This article was originally published on The Pittsburgher’s predecessor, The Dog Door Cultural.
From Nietzsche to Schopenhauer, Raphaël Duhamel explores the philosophical discourse in Charlie Kaufman’s latest film.
In 1942, Albert Camus began his famous treatise, The Myth of Sisyphus, with the following sentence: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” Almost eighty years later, Charlie Kaufman opens his latest feature with a whisper, quietly delivered in voice-over by its female protagonist (Jessie Buckley), elusively credited as “Young Woman”: “I’m thinking of ending things.” This phrase, which recurs throughout and gives the film its title, seems to relate to the Young Woman’s unhappy relationship with her boyfriend, Jake (Jesse Plemons), but Netflix’s most recent auteur venture is a complex and deeply philosophical work, more concerned with the dread of existence than with the fate of a six (or is it seven?)-week old couple.
The story itself is straightforward: Jake is taking his girlfriend – first called Lucy, and then Louisa – to meet his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) in his Oklahoman childhood home. As they go further down the highway, in a snowstorm, the environment grows stranger: the Young Woman spots a brand-new swing set in front of an abandoned house, and sees an animated pig come to life on a billboard, inviting her to “join him.” At times, the film mysteriously cuts to show the daily life of an old high-school janitor (Guy Boyd). As the couple goes deeper into the countryside and arrives at the farmhouse, the Young Woman notices that something is amiss, but does not act on it – even when Jake’s parents suddenly start growing older and then younger by the minute.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things defies logic at all times, although this is almost a given for any Kaufman film, from Being John Malkovich and its portal leading directly into the distinguished actor’s head to Synecdoche, New York, which toyed with the concept of mise-en-abyme and confounded diegetic realities on a grand scale. His most recent effort thus makes no exception, taking place – at least in one interpretation – inside a single character’s mind: the janitor, a lonely man living in his now dead parents’ farmhouse, is the “real” Jake, and he has fabricated a younger, fantasized version of himself, along with a girlfriend, in a nightmarish and recollective dream to which we have access. The two protagonists are just figments of janitor-Jake’s imagination, which explains the film’s myriad inconsistencies: the Young Woman claims to have grown up on a farm but mentions her childhood apartment, says that she does not know Wordsworth and is not a “metaphorical-type gal” just a few moments before reciting a poem she wrote – actually author Eva H.D.’s – and is apparently a quantum physics student, painter, waitress, and poet all at the same time. As the imaginary Young Woman explains towards the end, her fabricated encounter with Jake is, in fact, “just one of thousands of such non-interactions in my life”.
The film plays out like a dramatized version of a fantasy gone astray, operating like it has a mind of its own and reflects the chaotic world it inhabits. Daniel Shaw had already identified, in Being John Malkovich, hints of Nietzsche’s perspectivism, a philosophical thread that Kaufman has followed up until his latest work: at one point, Jake reminds the Young Woman that “everything is tinged” and that “there is no objective reality” – a remark primarily aimed at the audience, whose window into janitor-Jake’s mind is an inherently subjective, and consequently imperfect one. In The Gay Science, Nietzsche pointed out the impossibility of being certain that every aspect of “all existence is not actively engaged in interpretation,” biases suffusing our life with involuntary colors and lights – like the ever-changing hue of the Young Woman’s sweater and glasses – from our everyday interactions to our experience of a film. As a living, cinematic brain, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is filled with cultural references, presenting a spectacle of false knowledge and vapid quotations – Tolstoy, David Foster Wallace and Guy Debord are gratuitously cited – all the while investigating meaningful philosophical questions. The janitor’s mind, and the film with it, goes from a form of Schopenhauerian resignation in the face of fatality to a Nietzschean amor fati, an affirmation of life and a “pessimism of the future” – meaning that one grasps “the absolute illogic of the world-order” and still makes due with it, remaining realistically hopeful and determinedly unresigned.
This evolution is palpable in the two protagonists’ spirited discussions, male and female endlessly conversing as opposite poles of the same consciousness, both helping Kaufman’s feature go beyond the “it was all in his head” cliché. Forming together “real” Jake’s split psyche, they follow a road that leads to the darkest of winters, journeying towards an inescapable conclusion which can be delayed – by visiting Jake’s childhood home, his favourite ice-cream parlour, and his high school – but not avoided. The proximity of death permeates the atmosphere, from the barren landscape to the farmhouse’s dead lambs and maggot-infested pig, leaving a murky stain on the barn’s floor, like an abyss inviting the Young Woman’s contemplations: “One likes to think that there is always hope. That you can live above death. And it’s a uniquely human fantasy that things will get better, born perhaps of the uniquely human understanding that things will not.” In such moments, the Young Woman seems to edge closer to that “eternal nature of things” described by Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy, the paralyzing truth which reveals to the beholder the inevitability of death and futility of all human action; still, she goes on, since as she made clear earlier, talking about her relationship, and by extension her life, “the alternative requires too much energy” – an alternative called, in other words, suicide.
Four minutes into the film, the Young Woman had already provided us with a drab outlook on the future of her couple and existence: “It’s not going anywhere. I’ve known this for a while now. Maybe it’s human nature to keep going in the face of this knowledge.” She seems largely unresolved and unsure of what her next steps should be; Schopenhauer, in his time, recommended asceticism and even self-starvation, the only acceptable form of suicide. The philosopher’s teachings implicitly re-emerge in a later car conversation, as the couple exchange about the apparent desire of everything, from ideas to insects, to live – a notion which the Young Woman rejects, rightfully thinking it impossible to assess the will of anything non-human. Jake closes the conversation by saying: “Maybe we’re all programmed, right?”, a simplified reformulation of Schopenhauer’s will-to-live, describable as a force which compels each and every human, may they want it or not, to live and reproduce, despite the unbearable depth of suffering life holds. For Schopenhauer, this knowledge was enough to withdraw from material existence; upon returning from the farmhouse, where he witnessed his parents’ slow decay, Jake himself is close to succumbing to Schopenhauer’s passive pessimism, declaring everything to be “hopeless” – only to suggest, a few moments later, that the couple take a detour to get some ice-cream. The prospect of something sweet, a delicacy in the middle of a snowstorm, is enough to turn Jake away from despair.
At the ethereal Tulsey Town parlor, halfway between a Coen brothers and Lynch film, they encounter an uncanny waitress who, like every other character in I’m Thinking of Ending Things, arises from the depths of the janitor’s memory. After a short exchange, the waitress calls out to the Young Woman, telling her: “You don’t have to go. Forward. In time. You... You can stay here.” But the appeal of an eternal fantasy, outside of time, is not enough to overthrow the finite nature of existence, and the couple goes on, now on the way to Jake’s high school after another deviation from the main road. After a series of peculiar events, the film stays with the janitor as he experiences a crisis of sorts, caught between childhood and old age, between nostalgia and death, exiting his car to follow the animated pig who, earlier, had invited the Young Woman to “join him.”
In their ensuing conversation, the pig gives the janitor a few Nietzschean life lessons: “It’s not bad once you stop feeling sorry for yourself, because you’re just a pig. Or, even worse, a pig infested with maggots. Someone has to be a pig infested with maggots, right?” The German thinker’s well-known contempt for pity is here echoed by the wise animal, taking himself as an example of the Nietzschean sufferer whose “anguish (...) is intertwined with his joy,” as Michael Tanner aptly summarizes. Far from recommending the disdain of empathy, Nietzsche contended that one must accept one’s fate, and even wish for it, while being fully aware of the pleasure and suffering it entails, two sides of the same existential coin. The pig goes on by telling the janitor that he is “just evolving. Even now, as a ghost, as a memory. As dust, as you will.” Thus the corkscrew-tailed philosopher speaks of Nietzsche’s pessimism of the future, which places hope – without the necessary expectation of progress – in the times to come, justly described by Joshua Foa Dienstag as a gladness “that the world is one of becoming rather than being.” The simple promise of change is enough to bear the weight of the past, in favor of the future’s indeterminacy.
The pig ends his philosophical musings by affirming that “everything is the same when you look close enough. (...) You, me, ideas. We’re all one thing,” a statement which certainly applies to the film’s protagonists, both part of the janitor’s consciousness, and one that brings Schopenhauer back to the table. Indeed, one of the German’s key beliefs was that behind each and every appearance was an elemental and immutable “Oneness,” betrayed by the human race’s perception of the world, which separates and individuates everything that surrounds it. Nietzsche later reappropriated the concept to differentiate the Apollonian and Dionysian tendencies in Greek tragedy, explaining that the Apollonian is all form, appearance and individuation while the Dionysian means intoxication and “the merging of individualities,” as Michael Tanner once more finely describes. These two opposed principles work together in the best tragedies – as in the best films – touching on the intoxicating ‘Oneness’ at the root of all being while keeping some semblance of form: without it, the finest tragedies would be unbearable. I’m Thinking of Ending Things, likewise, contemplates death in the only endurable way, by displaying the delusions of a tired and dissociative mind, plagued by “time-sickness,” as Nietzsche himself termed it, a mind that learns to let go and accept the sweet embrace of time and suffering. ▲
Raphaël Duhamel is a recent Oxford graduate in Film Aesthetics and now studies Screenwriting at University of the Arts London.