The Warped Brilliance of ANIMA

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I first saw ANIMA as few people ever will — on a 53-foot-tall IMAX screen. The short film is a collaboration between Thom Yorke and director Paul Thomas Anderson, featuring three songs from Yorke’s album of the same name. It is now streaming on Netflix, where it will be debased by 13-inch laptop screens around the world, but I was lucky enough to catch it during its criminally brief theatrical engagement, which is why I can report that ANIMA — Yorke’s album and Anderson’s visual companion — is one of the most impressive artistic collaborations of the last decade. 

First, the album. 

Yorke says that the propelling force behind ANIMA is “a sense of anxiety” and the “unpredictable ways” that anxiety can manifest. That’s unsurprising, as the album borrows its name from psychiatrist Carl Jung’s theory of anima and animus. Jung himself borrowed the term from the Latin word with many meanings, including “a current of air, wind, breath, the vital principle, life, and soul.” Anima, Jung writes in his 1959 book Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious, “is the archetype of life itself.” He continues: “Permanent loss of the anima means a diminution of vitality, of flexibility, and of human kindness.” 

On ANIMA, Yorke is anxious about that “permanent loss,” whether it is caused by failed romance, deindividualization, or by simply being a person in modern society. In the album’s most intense moments, the synths thrash and the vocals wail. The distortion is haunting; the tension is palpable. “I can’t breathe / I can’t breathe,” Yorke sings. “There’s no water / A drip feed.” Yorke’s anxiety is also, at many points, distinct to the modern age. “Goddamned machinery,” he sings on “The Axe,” “Why don’t you speak to me? / One day I am gonna take an axe to you.” But “The Axe” also reads as a tale of heartache and rejection, an apostrophe to an invisible lover: “And where’s the love / You promised me?” 

When Yorke isn’t racked by anxiety, he’s quite romantic. “The wind picked up / Shook up the soot / From the chimney pot / Into spiral patterns / Of you, my love,” he sings on “Dawn Chorus.” It’s exactly these kinds of emotional zig-zags — from fear to loathing to infatuation — that keeps ANIMA so interesting throughout its unduly brief 10-song run. 

The music of ANIMA is indeed otherworldly, pairing sounds and beats that in unexpected, warped combinations. But its hooks are also impossible to deny; Yorke’s many years as the frontman of Radiohead have proven his aptness for crafting memorable melodies. On ANIMA, echoey vocals span octaves to deliver some of the most delicious refrains of Yorke’s career. By fusing pure synths, rich percussion, stretchy vocals, and indelible melodies, ANIMA achieves stunning results. 

Now, the film. 

Thom Yorke is on a train, and he is about to fall asleep. He’s trying to keep from dozing off, but some things can’t be helped. It’s been a very long day. The train is crowded with generic people in monochromatic grey-tones. “Who are these people?” Yorke’s voice wails from offscreen, weaving through a feast of synthesizers. On the train, he meets the gaze of a gorgeous woman with dark hair and big eyes. When it’s time to detrain, Yorke notices she’s left her lunchbox — ANIMA is the story of returning it to her. 

Yorke’s character is a Buster-Keaton-type in a comely man-bun. He is sleepy but alive, a real-life person surrounded by cogs. While they dance their synchronized dance, Yorke follows his own rhythm. He traverses a train station, a shadowy cave, a tilted stage, and the sparkling streets of Prague find the lunchbox-owner, fair and lovely. 

The two fall for each other to the tune of “Dawn Chorus” — “Please let me know / When you’ve had enough — and learn each other through dance. Theirs is a stunning silent romance, a love that plays out to intimate, breathtaking choreography. The thrill and tenderness of falling fast, the secret language of mutual infatuation — it’s all there, splayed out for your heart-bursting enjoyment.

There’s a musical, Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George, that begins with the following words: “Design. Composition. Tension. Balance. Light. Harmony.” I can’t confirm whether Paul Thomas Anderson is a fan, but I can attest to his devout observation of these artistic principles, especially in this, his latest work. ANIMA features some of Anderson’s most impressive cinematography — as well as some of his zaniest — with colors and shadows and staging and movement that will stay with you long after the film’s short 15 minutes are over. I’m hard pressed to name a living auteur with more to give than Paul Thomas Anderson. 

If you watch ANIMA on your 13-inch laptop screen, it’s not the end of the world. But if you can, put it up on your TV screen, or grab that old projector from the closet. Turn all the lights out. Make a night of it. It will be the best 15 minutes you’ve had in a while. 

Sophia Stewart