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.