'On Killing Anna' by Anthony Morris

The piece below by Anthony Morris won’t make much sense unless you first watch this short film. (Click either ‘rent’ or ‘buy’, and enter the discount code ‘theliftedbrow’ to watch the 29 minute film for free.) 

The film is this: after filmmaker Paul Gallasch’s long term girlfriend Anna breaks up with him, he finds himself wishing that she had died in a tragic accident, thinking that situation would’ve been easier to deal with. In order to understand how this fantasy makes sense in the context of his continual love for her, he organises and performs a funeral service as if she had died, and films the process of doing so.

Trailer: 

‘On Killing Anna’ by Anthony Morris 

Why don’t we teach people how to cope with a broken heart? We assume that studying how to deal with pretty much everything else is at least worth a shot. We’ll spend weeks studying for a math test, months learning how to drive a car and years training to throw a ball really, really well, while the prospect—for most of us, the near-certainty—that at some stage someone we love is going to tell us to go away and never come back is something we’re supposed to deal with on the fly. People will happily spend money learning how to survive falling out of a plane, which is the kind of thing that generally speaking doesn’t happen to you unless you want it to, and yet spend nothing and no time learning how to survive a broken heart. So why don’t we? Maybe, as the short documentary film Killing Anna bluntly points out, because it’s not as easy as it looks.

By his own admission, writer and director of Killing Anna Paul Gallasch came late to love. Scarred by his parent’s bad divorce and his resulting fear of intimacy, he was in his early 20s, wandering the United States, sneering at their women (as he puts it early on in the film, “American women in general were unattractively ignorant and sentimental”) when he met Anna. He fell hard, they moved in together in New York City, and two-and-a-half years later she came home one day to their flat and told him she didn’t want to be in a relationship this serious – a specific phrasing that has the stab of truth; it’s often not that they don’t love you, they just don’t want to settle down right now (and then they marry the next person they meet). Considering the premise of this half-hour documentary, it’s safe to say he didn’t take it well.

The fantasy that a break-up would somehow be better—purer, more powerful, more understood—if the other person had just died instead is usually one that we keep to ourselves. I spent some time after a particularly bad break-up pondering a slight variation on it, wondering how I would have felt if my partner had died right before she unexpectedly dumped me, whether it would have made any difference to me not having her in my life if she hadn’t been directly responsible for her absence. Most people who think this way go on to be people who in subsequent relationships try to do the dumping before they can be dumped. Gallasch? Well, perhaps in anticipation of such bitterness, he decides to put on an actual funeral for his very-not-dead girlfriend. He also films the funeral. And the days and weeks leading up to it. And conversations with people about the funeral. Including Anna herself. Still, it’s not quite as creepy as you might expect, although the measure of what is creepy is perhaps rapidly narrowing

There is a slight difference between wishing your ex dead and wishing your ex had died, but it’s a difference only discernable to the person doing the wishing. In the first case, it’s an ugly wish motivated by anger and entitlement and it’s the kind of thing that no-one should be encouraging. Fortunately, Gallasch makes it clear—sometimes consciously, sometimes inadvertently—that his focus is entirely on himself with all this. Despite the title (which does make sense in a way), he doesn’t want Anna dead here and now; he just wishes that his pain came from her random death rather than her decision to leave him.

About now it’s really important to keep in mind that we’re talking about a young guy (he was in his mid-twenties when he made the film) going through the end of his first serious relationship. As he tells us, Anna was his first love, his first girlfriend, his first sexual partner (but don’t worry, he had plenty of opportunities before her, seriously). Killing Anna is a documentary in large part about someone trying to figure out what to do when a relationship ends and Gallasch isn’t really doing anything unusual here. He’s just coming up with a very external way of working through something most of us do in private. If you want you can fault him for putting his emotions out there in what is perhaps a crude way, but it’s hard to fault him for feeling that stuff in the first place.

There’s no better way to become utterly self-absorbed than by having someone leave you. You go from being largely externally focused—you’re part of a ‘we’—to being stuck inside your own skull. The only person who could possibly understand how you’re feeling is the person who made you feel this way, and perhaps the person who doesn’t care. Only that’s not true, because it doesn’t take long to realise that nobody else really cares either, or at least they don’t care as much as you do because it’s all you care about. How can you make people understand how bad you feel? Next thing you know you’re thinking that if your partner had died, maybe then the rest of the world would take your mourning seriously. If there was an actual grave to go to, maybe then everyone else would realise just how serious your heartbreak is.

Gallasch doesn’t dig a grave or create a fake tombstone (“R.I.P. MY HEART”), but he really does put on a funeral and yes, Anna does know about it. To some extent the film feels like it’s building up to the funeral, but we’re shown a clip from it at the start of the film that pretty much sums up the whole experience: Gallasch gets up in front of a small crowd and pours his heart out. It feels like exactly what it is: a group of friends indulging a buddy who’s spinning just a little out of control. It’s a smart move to put at least some of it early in the film, as once you’ve seen it much of the dark overtones suggested by the concept vanish. He’s grieving a dead relationship in a clumsy way, not standing outside his ex’s window shouting, “I wish you were dead!”

Much of what follows the opening is Gallasch trying to figure out how to go on. Let’s say it again: why don’t they teach this stuff in schools? It’s interesting enough to see him asking various older, wiser people (the staff at a copy shop, a security guard at a music festival) how to go on, but if you’ve ever been dumped you’ve heard/seen/felt it all before. They tell him a raft of things: you’ve got to try to sleep with someone new and if you find you’re not yet up to that you’ve just got to wait it out. Or: love is awesome, you’re young, relationships can work, don’t give up, don’t let your heart die.

Does Gallasch take their advice? Does he find out a way to go on? It’s giving away nothing to reveal that the final scene doesn’t feature Gallasch picking up a copy of the notorious pick-up artist’s guide book The Game while muttering darkly, “This time I’ll be the one breaking the hearts,” even if that’s probably closer to the experience of a lot of guys. He doesn’t spend six months in a drunk tank, he doesn’t join the army or become a monk, he doesn’t shave his head and start dressing like a pimp. Despite the outrageous nature of Killing Anna’s concept, on the scale of post-dumping nutty behaviour, putting on a fake funeral isn’t really that far out there. Spend a whole year crying on the floor and film it all, then we’ll talk.

Instead, Gallasch is reasonably insightful, seemingly decent and surprisingly funny – well, there’s a couple of decent (intentional) jokes in there, which is a couple more jokes than you’d expect from someone who’s been dumped. He’s a good guy who just isn’t equipped to deal with the sudden end of a serious relationship; then again, it is his documentary and he’s only showing us what he wants us to see, so all we really know is that he’s self-aware enough not to make himself look like a total dick.

As for Anna, she gets only one face-to-face scene with Gallasch and it’s the best scene in the film. It seems they’ve stayed friendly post break-up, which in this case means he keeps making contact and she doesn’t say “fuck off”. But she’s not keen to be filmed and she’s not on board with the whole funeral idea – though she’s not angry either, which suggests a whole hidden world to their relationship if this is something that only mildly freaks her out. She just wants him to come to terms with their new status quo, and as they walk and talk his shell starts to crack; he’s cried by himself in other scenes, but with other people he’s managed to pretty much keep himself together.

Not any more: he howls “I can’t come to terms with it because you’re fucking right there,” and the film cracks wide open. She’s not what she was to him, and she never will be again. Maybe they can be friends one day, maybe not. But the woman he loved is gone, and meeting up with her while his heart is still raw is like meeting a ghost. She’s right there, walking and talking but he can’t reach her. He can’t bring back the person he still loves so much. Maybe this whole funeral thing wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

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Anthony Morris’s writing on film and television has appeared in Empire, Kill Your Darlings, The Vine and The Big Issue, where he is currently DVD Editor. 

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Paul Gallasch is a director and writer, known for Killing Anna (2012), BIG CHINA/lil’ crise (2013) and Mag+ (2011).

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This piece is from our most recent print issue, TLB20. You can grab a copy for yourself!