Thursday, November 06, 2008


There is no question that Charlie Kaufman is a complicated genius. His screenplays twist in and out of the conscious world and the depths of our understanding. He makes no claim to understand any better than we do at any time. He is merely telling the story as he sees it, presenting it to us to do with as we will. I feel that if I had the chance to ask Kaufman what it all means, his guess would be as good as mine. He has been nominated three times for screenwriting Oscars (once he even shared the credit with a fictitious twin brother) and this month marks his first attempt at directing with the highly anticipated, SYNECDOCHE NEW YORK. First, Black Sheep looks back at the screenplays and movies that grew from such enigmatic beginnings to become the fascinating experience of being Charlie Kaufman.

Before his screenplay for 1999’s BEING JOHN MALKOVICH fell into the hands of Francis Ford Coppola (who passed it on to his daughter, Sofia, who then passed it on to then husband, Spike Jonze, who went on to direct the film and score an Oscar nomination in a particularly fierce year), Kaufman dragged his talent through the mud writing for television shows as forgettable as, wait … I forget. You can’t keep brilliance like this down forever though. BEING JOHN MALKOVICH made both Kaufman’s and Jonze’s careers when it hit theatres. People had never seen anything remotely like this. It was nearly incomprehensible. Let’s see if I can make sense of the whole thing. Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) is a starving puppeteer. His animal loving wife, Lotte (Cameron Diaz), convinces him to get a real job, y’know, just until the puppet thing takes off. The world beyond his puppet stage makes no sense to him as he has no control outside his safe haven. Outside, the company that hires him operates on the 7 ½ floor, has a secretary with a hearing problem who insists that everyone she encounters has a speech impediment and, oh yeah, his office has a tiny, hidden door that is essentially a portal into John Malkovich’s head. That barely makes sense to me for that matter but this is in itself no matter when the whole thing is so entirely engaging.

Making sense is not what concerns Kaufman. He is concerned with what it all means. BEING JOHN MALKOVICH is a fascinating exploration of what it means to be our selves, the connection between the soul and the body and the governing laws of attraction and success. It leaves a great number of questions unanswered but at no time do you feel like the writer is writing above you or that these unanswered questions have gone forgotten, rendering the experience unfulfilling. If anything, Kaufman has provided a platform from which you can spring forward to challenge your own securities with what it means to be inside your own skin.

The pairing of Kaufman and Jonze was so successful that it was thrilling to hear that the two would work again on Kaufman’s follow-up, ADAPTATION, based on Susan Orlean’s “The Orchid Thief”. Never has the word, “adaptation” been used so loosely. When Kaufman was asked to adapt Orlean’s beautiful and simple novel about flowers, he jumped at the challenge. Kaufman wanted to push himself to do something he had not done before. He didn’t believe that he should just coast along writing what he already knew. Somewhere along the way though, he got lost and ADAPTATION became something about oh so much more than just flowers. Kaufman’s struggle with adapting the source material became the screenplay itself. Before he knew it, he was the protagonist of this film that was supposed to be about flowers. One could call this act self-indulgent or narcissistic but these words, although powerful, cannot fully convey the extent to which Kaufman’s self-obsession reaches. Not only does he write himself into the screenplay but he wrote his twin brother, Donald, in as well. In fact, he called upon Donald to help him write the screenplay and the identical twins went on to earn a shared Oscar nomination for writing. It would have been interesting to see them win though seeing as how Donald is an entirely fictional extension of Kaufman’s own neurosis. (They lost to Ronald Harwood for THE PIANIST).

Charlie (played by Nicolas Cage) is neurotic and believes in artistic value above all else. Donald (funny enough, also played by Cage in an Oscar nominated turn) is trying his hand at writing too but is sticking to conventional Hollywood “wisdom”. They are two opposing forces that make up one complete whole and Cage is a delight as the bridge between them. ADAPTATION becomes a work about adapting – about adapting a book into a screenplay, about humanity’s ability to adapt through the ages and about one man’s struggle with adapting to his own life changes. The cast is completed by more award winning turns by Meryl Streep as Susan Orlean and Chris Cooper as the main subject of her book. Of course, many liberties are taken with Orlean’s source material but you will never see flowers the same way after watching this brilliant work that is perhaps better described as an interpretation than anything else.

Then came the masterpiece. I’ve heard people here and there say that they could not connect with this film but for me ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND is an unforgettable experience that dares to tackle one of life’s greatest questions – is it better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all? Joel (Jim Carrey in an underrated performance) sits in a diner. He has called in sick to the job he could care less about and hopped a train into Montauk but he has no idea why. Something inside of him just compelled him to make this uncharacteristically spontaneous move. Clementine (the always charming, Kate Winslet) sits in another booth and Joel is drawn to her. She acknowledges him with a small wave and he asks himself, “Why do I fall in love with every woman I see who shows me the least bit of attention?” That one questions tells us everything we need to know about Joel. He is lonely and has been for some time. He is a hopeless romantic but also a cynical non-believer. Most of all, he wants to be saved. “Too many guys think I'm a concept, or I complete them, or I'm gonna make them alive. But I'm just a fucked-up girl who's lookin' for my own peace of mind; don't assign me yours,” Clementine says to Joel shortly afterward. And so it would seem the problems are about to begin but in fact they have already begun ages before and run their course.

Exploring a theme he only touched on in BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, Kaufman goes deep into the human mind, the conscious and the subconscious parts in ETERNAL SUNSHINE. Clementine has undergone an experimental procedure to have Joel erased from her mind and her life. Who hasn’t wondered if they wouldn’t be better off if they had never met that person who inspired such great passion but also brought about such horrifying turmoil? And when Joel learns that Clementine has done this, he too wants the procedure. Only in the midst of it, he realizes that he doesn’t want this at all. And so he and Clementine revisit every significant moment of their relationship in hopes of finding a place where they can hide until morning when Joel will wake up and Clementine will still be there. Under the sometimes hallucinatory direction of Michel Gondry, ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND is Kaufman’s most accomplished work and most accessible because of its universal appeal. Even the man who claims not to get humanity clearly gets more than he knows.

Suffice it to say, Kaufman spends an awful lot of time in his head. Up until now, he has managed to take the mess in his mind and make some form of sense on it on paper. He has also been fortunate enough to work with directors that have not only understood his logic but also connected with it in a way that makes it possible for us to do the same. With SYNECDOCHE NEW YORK, Kaufman has cut out the middle man. Now we will see exactly what he does and this will bring us one step closer to taking a trip down a portal into his mind. What remains to be seen is whether we can handle being there any better than he can.

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