Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Charlie Kaufman

I’ve written about writer Charlie Kaufman a bit before, writing about Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I recently revisited it, and the two movies he initially made his name on, as writer of 1999’s Being John Malkovich and 2002’s Adaptation. Both directed by former music video director Spike Jonze, these movies established Kaufman as a master of bringing odd ideas to the screen in new and interesting ways. He went on to win an Oscar for his screenplay for Eternal Sunshine, and in 2008 debuted as director as well, with the divisive Synecdoche, New York. I think he’s one of the most interesting artists in Hollywood, as his work is so different, but isn’t obtuse or intentionally alienating.

Kaufman’s work heavily explores the theme of identity. In Malkovich, Craig and Lotte (John Cusack and Cameron Diaz) are both unhappy being themselves, both fall in love with Maxine (Catherine Keener), and once Craig discovers a portal into the mind of actor John Malkovich, he and Lotte both want to stay there indefinitely. Craig, a puppeteer, discovers he can not only experience life through Malkovich’s eyes, but actually control him like a puppet and live inside him indefinitely. Lotte finds she feels more natural as a man, and uses Malkovich to live her love of Maxine as a man. That doesn’t even begin to describe half of the movie, which like all of Kaufman’s work winds and curves in ways we don’t expect, with this movie having one of the most hilariously surreal scenes in cinema history, where Malkovich himself enters the portal into John Malkovich’s head.

Adaptation. concerns the fictionalized account of Kaufman trying to adapt the Susan Orlean book The Orchid Thief into a movie. Unable to figure out how to do it, Kaufman decided to write a script about him trying to write the script. Twin roles by Nicolas Cage (in one of the great performances of the 2000’s) have Charlie juggle his frustration in adapting the book while keeping his artistic integrity against the upstart success of his brother Donald, who seems like a Hollywood wet dream, churning out a script about a serial killer with cliché after cliché and finding much more success than Charlie seems able to find. The movie is famous for Charlie’s speech at the beginning of the movie saying he doesn’t want to write a movie where people find love, learn life lessons, get involved in shootouts and car chases, or anything like that, and as the movie goes along, it becomes the thriller that Charlie didn’t want to write, bringing Meryl Streep’s Susan Orlean and Chris Cooper’s titular orchid thief along for the ride. It sounds twisty and turny, but Kaufman’s writing is so flawless, and Jonze’s assured direction bring the movie to life in a way that I didn’t even realize until leaving the theater that the movie had turned into the one Charlie had talked about in the opening moments of the movie.

I still believe his crowning achievement is the heartbreaking romance Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, where Clementine (Kate Winslet) goes to a doctor to get her newly ex-boyfriend Joel (Jim Carrey) erased from her memory. In a retaliatory move, Joel decides to do the same thing, but realizes during the process of the erasing that he wants the memories, good and bad, that made Clem have such an impact on his life. Eternal Sunshine has a heart that the others don’t. Not that the first two scripts are heartless, it’s just that dealing with the memories of a relationship gives a lot of space for tugging at the heartstrings. Directed by Michel Gondry, the movie has a lo-fi visual invention not often seen, which goes a long way to revealing the memories that Joel begins to realize he treasures. The absolutely infallible work by Winslet and Carrey is something to behold, and the partially fractured narrative makes it easy for me to revisit again and again.

His most “out there” work as writer, his directing debut Synecdoche, New York needs a re-visit by me. But it also concerns ideas about the identity, as it follows a theater director Caden (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who stages a version of his life, increasingly blurring the lines between fiction and true life. It’s been years since I’ve seen it, but I remember a similar surreal humor during things like Caden casting an actor to play him in his play about himself, and then casting an actor to play the actor playing him, and things along those lines. I don’t remember quite the same type of humor throughout the movie, but maybe I was just getting caught up in the movie’s labyrinthine structure and not sitting back and enjoying the ride like I did with the others. We’ll see how I feel once I re-watch it, as I find Kaufman’s work endlessly watchable.

Kaufman is also credited as the writer of George Clooney’s directing debut Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, about former Gong Show host Chuck Barris’s assertion that he was a CIA assassin the whole time he was in the public eye. Kaufman angrily criticized Clooney’s adaptation and made it known that the movie was far removed from his script. I liked Clooney’s movie, but I would be even more interested to see what Kaufman’s original draft looked like. Nobody in Hollywood has a mind like Kaufman’s, no matter how much we need more people like him.


Bernie is the most normal movie that I’d ever call odd. It is a very odd little movie, based on the true story of Bernie Tiede. Jack Black plays Bernie, an effeminate assistant funeral director in the east Texas town of Carthage who, was put on trial for murdering his 81-year-old companion Marjorie Nugent (played by Shirley MacLaine). This shocks the town, as Bernie was the nicest person imaginable, endlessly generous with money and time, and Marge was “a hateful old bitch.”

We see Bernie be as accommodating as you could possibly be to every family who came through the funeral home. When Marge’s husband dies, it seems like Bernie almost takes her animosity as a challenge, a wall to be climbed over to become her friend. He does, but before long finds her controlling nature holding him back from being himself. We see Bernie shoot her, there’s never a question of his guilt for us in the audience. But writer/director Richard Linklater interviews many of the real people of Carthage who insist that Bernie couldn’t possibly have done it, he was just too nice and honest and Marge was the dragon of the town and nobody was really gonna miss her. District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey) has to combat how he’s gonna get a conviction in a town where the people would sooner have the murderer around than they’d have deceased.

All of this is played as the slightest of comedy. Linklater (co-writing with journalist Skip Hollandsworth, on whose article the screenplay is based) doesn’t go for any big laughs, but he doesn’t try to darken the material either. Black’s extraordinary work as Bernie (a performance of truly the highest order) is pitched just this side of caricature. None of Bernie’s mannerisms are camp or insincere at all, Black goes for realism, making the performance all the more astounding in its creation of this odd character. MacLaine seems like she is having the time of her life playing the nasty Marge, and McConaughey shows again that he can be a good actor with the right material. And the right filmmaker, as both he and Black are working with Linklater again. Black previously starred in School of Rock, while McConaughey starred in The Newton Boys as well as getting his breakout role in Linklater’s Dazed and Confused.

But back to Bernie. I think it’s the townspeople that take this movie over the top, as they’re the ones the most comedy comes from. Linklater, being from Texas, knows these types of people and doesn’t try to make fun of them, he just lets them bring their own small town humor and charm to the movie, and we’re better off for it. My only real complaint about the movie is that there’s no drama. We know from the beginning that Bernie kills Marge, and we don’t really think that Bernie will get off, no matter how much the people love him, so there’s no dramatic tension. And the only real surprises come from the actors. Still, those surprises are so wonderful that the movie should be seen.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012


William Shakespeare’s work has been updated for new generations many times over the last 400 years. Actors like Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh made their name on adapting Shakespeare to the silver screen. Ralph Fiennes has been an established and respected actor for many years now, and he decided to make his directorial debut with the first screen adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy Coriolanus, about a Roman general banished from his homeland who takes up with his former enemy in a plan for destruction of Rome. Often thought of as a “lesser” work in Shakespeare’s canon, Fiennes’ adaptation makes one wonder why it isn’t more famous. It’s a powerful work, flawlessly acted, and gorgeously directed by Fiennes.

Fiennes keeps the language of Shakespeare, while transposing the action to an alternate modern setting. Obviously influenced by the setting of Cuaron’s Children of Men, the police state into which we’re dropped is frighteningly realized. The citizens of Rome are on the brink of riots as General Caius Marcius (Fiennes) conquers the city of Corioles, gaining him the title of Coriolanus. When he refuses to hide his contempt of the common folk, he’s eventually banished, leaving behind his family (a commanding Vanessa Redgrave as his mother, and the ethereal beauty Jessica Chastain as his wife) as he ends up seeking out his former enemy, rebel leader Aufidius (Gerard Butler), to join him in a sacking of Rome. Being a Shakespearean tragedy, things don’t turn out well.
Fiennes is electric in the lead role, his intensity and command of the language giving life to a play I had no prior knowledge of. Gerard Butler is, honestly, the only actor who doesn’t quite acquit himself, and that may only be because of Fiennes’ power making him seem unworthy of being an equal adversary. Redgrave is tremendous as the mother, Volumnia, and the always reliable Brian Cox is also a welcome addition as Roman Senator Menenius. Fiennes assuredness behind the camera is surprising and delightful. He stages every scene in a way that is imminently clear, even if you’re not able to keep up with the language density that plagues many people’s enjoyment of Shakespeare.

I have no idea whether Fiennes plans to bring any more Shakespeare to the screen, and follow the Branagh/Olivier multi-adaptation legacy, but the skill with which he has brought what is allegedly a “lesser” work to the big screen would make me welcome anything he does in the future as a wonderful filmmaker, now more than just being one of our best actors.

Indie Game: The Movie, and are video games art?

Before watching Indie Game: The Movie, I was never quite sure where I stood on the philosophical debate of “are video games art?” Roger Ebert caused an outrage in the gaming community a few years ago when he said that video games are not and cannot be art. There’s even a whole Wikipedia page devoted to the divisiveness of the issue (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Video_games_as_art). Ebert, as the most famous critic, noted after a presentation by game designer Kellee Santiago, that “One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome. Santiago might cite an immersive game without points or rules, but I would say then it ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film. Those are things you cannot win; you can only experience them.” I think there is a certain understandable logic to Ebert’s thoughts. But I find myself now disagreeing with him fairly decidedly.

Indie game Fez, in which you play as a 2-D character realizing he lives in a 3D world
I think people like Ebert, generally of his “older” generation, view video games as that, just a game. There’s luck of the draw in card games, luck of the roll in board games, and only a finite number of possible logical moves in a more complex game like chess. But Ebert is right that a game “has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome.” Video games, on the other hand, have a certain ability to achieve a higher goal. There’s no artistic reason why a video game has to have objectives or the ability to beat the game. There’s only the commercial drawback of it being possible no one will want to buy your game if they can’t defeat the alien invasion with all kinds of cool weapons in your game. But at its base level, that’s no different than people not buying tickets to your movie where stuff doesn’t get blowed up real good. So really is the only reason they are even video games because they’re interactive? Does interactivity negate art? Of course not. There are plenty of interactive art exhibits that are not denigrated because of their interactivity.

Indie game Limbo, an atmospheric, wordless journey through a dangerous black-and-white world
The game designers Indie Game: The Movie follows around talk about the artistic expression that the games provide them. They talk about how video games encompass visual arts, storytelling, and music, while simply being interactive. After all, the interactivity of video games is only allowed by the designer. A player can’t do anything in a game that they were not allowed to do by the constraints of the designer. Therefore, video games still possess the authorial intent that all art contains. We see the designers and programmers painstakingly work and re-work to get the desired effect in the game, while working against the clock to deliver the final product for release. All of that is directly comparable to the technical issues a filmmaker or a musician runs into when prepping their newest movie or album.

Screen shot from Super Meat Boy, one of the subjects of the movie
The designers in the movie talk with disdain about the people who work at the big video game studios as designers and programmers, because it would kill their creativity. But I came to see those jobs like those hundreds of names we see in movie credits, technicians helping realize the visions of the artists in charge. But these guys are like indie filmmakers, who work with smaller budgets and crews and are able to more easily deliver something close to their heart and artistic vision because it had to go through fewer people to get to us, the consumer. I can understand that mentality.

But the ultimate point of the movie and this discussion, to me, was: art video games art? I can now firmly say that yes, I think they are. And Indie Game: The Movie is what finally swayed me to that point.