Charlie Kaufman is an endlessly fascinating writer. He takes strange ideas that many people have, and in his screenplays creates worlds that allow those things to take place. His first movie as a writer, 1999's Being John Malkovich, starts with the basic idea of: what if you could see the world through someone elses eyes? From there he created a surreal comic masterpiece starring John Cusack as a puppeteer who finds a portal into the mind of actor John Malkovich (who plays a fictionalized version of himself). With his next movie, Adaptation., directed by Malkovich's director Spike Jonze, he gave us a movie sort of about Charlie Kaufman. At least, a version of Charlie (brilliantly played by Nicolas Cage). A version that is having so much trouble adapting the book The Orchid Thief into a movie that he begins writing a screenplay about a guy named Charlie Kaufman having trouble adapting The Orchid Thief into a movie. And that's only the basic idea behind it. He most recently made his directorial debut with the supremely odd Synecdoche, New York, about a theater director who begins staging a play of his life, acted on a replica of New York City built in a warehouse, employing thousands of cast and crew to help him examine his life by acting it out in front of him, aided by his assistant, directing an actor playing him (as well as the one playing his assistant), and so on and so on down the rabbit hole.
The crowning achievement in his catalog, in my eyes, is the 2004 comic romance Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which teamed him again with French music video director Michel Gondry (who had previously directed Kaufman's script Human Nature, unseen by me). It concerns the relationship of Joel and Clementine, characters extraordinarily brought to life by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet. Kaufman started from the idea of erasing someone from your memory (who hasn't wanted to do that before?) and the impact that memories have on us as people. The way a loved one can get so associated with something that to remove it would be to remove a part of your own being. The impulsive Clem has had Joel erased from her memory by a company called Lacuna that provides such a service. As a way of getting back at her, Joel decides to erase her from his memory. Joel at one point asks Dr. Mierzwiak (the always brilliant Tom Wilkinson) if there's any chance of brain damage caused by the erasing. He answers "Well, technically speaking, the procedure is brain damage." There's an achingly sad moment when you realize that Joel doesn't remember the song "My Darling Clementine", even though it had deep meaning to him long before meeting Clem. It had become so associated with her in his mind that to remove her removes all traces of the song as well as his childhood favorite, Huckleberry Hound. For the majority of the movie we travel with Joel through the good and bad memories of the two years he spent with Clem. It's hysterical, heartbreaking, amazingly true to life while being totally surreal. The brilliant score by Jon Brion is worth mentioning. It plays more like an accompaniment to the action onscreen, instead of trying to underline it, or try and inform the audience how to react emotionally. It's one of my favorite scores in recent memory. Actually, come to think of it, the movie as a whole is one of my favorites of recent years.