Charlie Kaufman and the Truth
Charlie Kaufman is a fascinating writer. He is the name in screenwriting. Critics, for the most part, praise his films to no end. Even though the box office never seems to match up, cinephiles everywhere watch his films obsessively. And that’s just it, they are his films. No matter what director he works with, people talk about them as Kaufman films. This is pretty much unheard of, I can’t think of another writer that would be given this much credit. Maybe Aaron Sorkin, but if someone told you they loved The Social Network, even though the dialogue is so very Sorkin-esque, you would probably be more inclined to recommend another Fincher film to them as their next watch. In fact, when I was 16 and first getting into movies properly and I was speaking to a film-fan friend of mine about Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the first Kaufman film I had ever seen, he immediately asked if I had ever seen Synecdoche, New York. Not Be Kind, Rewind or any of Michel Gondry’s films. But Kaufman’s. In fact, he wrote a list of Kaufman’s films on the notes in my phone and told me to watch them all. So over the next few weeks, that was exactly what I did. And I was hooked. Since, at least one of Kaufman’s films is always in my top 5. I think this emphasis on Charlie Kaufman as a writer comes from the kind of stories he tells. I had the pleasure of attending the talk Charlie Kaufman held at Dublin Film Festival this year, just a week before the coronavirus forced us into lockdown. When asked for his best screenwriting advice, Kaufman replied “Try to be truthful”. Coming from any other writer this may not be as striking a statement, “write what you know” is pretty much the first thing any writer is ever told to do. It’s the standard. But coming from the man who wrote Being John Malkovich I think it has a different meaning. So let’s talk about the kind of stories Charlie Kaufman tells and how he manages to be truthful.
Truth is a big concept. I don’t have all day so I don’t want to dwell on it all too much. For our purposes let’s say that ‘truth’ in screenwriting means to reflect a part of the human condition for your audience in a way that resonates. There’s plenty of ways you can go about doing this, people like Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig do this by striving for realism, a cinematic world that feels like our own; characters don’t always say the wittiest thing, or get the girl in the end, or follow any clear plot structure. I’ve sat through enough film lectures to know you should never call something ‘realistic’ but films like Marriage Story and Ladybird often get labeled as such. They follow a few characters through an important time in their life, there’s no threat to the human race, just a turning point that many people face in their lives. This is pretty much the opposite of the kind of films Charlie makes.
“But what kind of films does he make?” I hear you ask. Charlie Kaufman makes weird movies. That sounds like an insult which it really isn’t, if anything I mean it as a compliment. But there’s no doubt that compared to the stories we are used to seeing, Kaufman’s are weird. In fact, when he wrote Being John Malkovich as a sample script, to show his writing style in order to get more work, it became an in-joke in Hollywood. People who read it were fascinated by how well written and weird it was. Kaufman was invited to several meetings only to be told that they loved the script but that this film would never be made, because it was so weird. Eventually it did get made. For those not in the know, Being John Malkovich is about a man named Craig who finds a portal into John Malkovich (the actor) inside his office. There’s a lot more going on, which we’ll get into in a bit, but for now I hope we can all agree that that is a weird premise for a film. Kaufman’s filmography is made up almost exclusively of films with weird premises like this. Adaptation is a meta-narrative about “Charlie Kaufman” and his brother, Donald, attempting to adapt a book about Orchids (which is what the real Charlie Kaufman was supposed to be writing). It’s worth noting that Donald Kaufman is not a real person, but has been nominated for an Academy award for this film. Synecdoche, New York (which Kaufman also directed) is about a playwright who creates an entire city in a warehouse, and fills it with actors including someone who is playing him, who ends up building a city inside a warehouse inside the city that was built in a warehouse and so on. Anomalisa is a stop motion animation about a man for whom every other person in the world looks and sounds the exact same as each other. And Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which is probably his best known film, is about a man and woman who meet, but it turns out they have already met, had a whole relationship, broke up, and had their minds erased and have now just met again.
On the surface, there is no truth to any of these films. But it’s the things that happen around these outlandish premises that allow Kaufman to comment on our existence. Despite how whacky these movies might sound, none of them are comedies. There’s the odd joke here and there and occasionally the absurdity of the premise will rise to the surface but as a whole these films are dark, existential nightmares that cover some very heavy topics.
Being John Malkovich, according to Charlie Kaufman himself is “the story of a man who falls in love with someone who isn’t his wife”, it also tackles gender identity issues and a lack of fulfilment in one’s life. For the most part, these characters are deeply dissatisfied with their lives; they don’t have the career they want, they’re in the wrong body, the right person doesn’t love them back. It’s a really sad film with a very silly idea at its core.
Adaptation is about the difficulties of writing, the purpose of storytelling, how and why to be original, and to an extent, identity. By splitting himself into both Charlie and Donald, Kaufman can explore and critique parts of himself. Our character Charlie is under pressure to be original and interesting while also trying to make something in a world driven by the monetary success of art, not the critical. These are things that the real Kaufman has had to battle with, his directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York was well received critically it was a financial flop and so Kaufman was unable to get funding to make another film for 7 years.
Speaking of, Synecdoche, New York is about obsession, particularly an obsession with searching for a meaning or purpose in life. Caden, our playwright protagonist, becomes obsessed with creating the truth in a play. In pursuit of truth, he builds a city in a warehouse and has actors playing the lives of their characters everyday, and as mentioned earlier he casts someone to play him and that actor builds his own warehouse and casts someone to play him and so on. Throughout the film, time seems to pass Caden by rapidly without him noticing, his daughter grows up never knowing him. He loses everyone he cared about. The play never even happens. I won’t give away the ending, there’s a good chance that you haven’t seen it yet but I think you should watch it and I want the last line to hit you without you knowing what it is beforehand. This film is the least funny and most existential of Kaufman’s films but it tackles these issues in a really interesting way.
Anomalisa was the next film Charlie Kaufman was able to make, partly through crowdfunding. It’s a stop motion film with only three voice actors. To the protagonist, Michael, everyone else in the world looks and sounds the same (they are all voiced by one person) but while he is at a work conference he meets a woman who looks and sounds different (and so, our third actor). Although there is a real condition, called Fregoli Syndrome, similar to the way Michael experiences the world, he doesn’t have it. But Kaufman uses certain elements of the syndrome to reinforce the loneliness and depression that haunt Michael, he feels different from everyone, the only different person in the world until he meets Lisa but they don’t end up together as any other film would allow them to, because this film isn’t about their relationship it’s a about the man who speaks at a conference about finding what makes every individual special when he cannot see anything different about anyone at all.
And finally in his most well known film Eternal Sunshine, known funnyman Jim Carey plays a quiet, reserved, melancholic man named Joel who falls in love with a spontaneous, outgoing, somewhat erratic woman named Clementine. We learn that they have already met and fell in love before but both had a procedure done to have the other erased from their mind. The non-linear structure of the film allows us to see moments from their relationship pre-mind-erasure and after when they meet again and also, we see Joel in his subconscious, the night he is getting the procedure done, he regrets his decision so he takes a memory Clementine with him through different parts of his memory in an attempt to keep some part of her somewhere in his mind in the hopes that he may remember her when he wakes up. It’s the most optimistic of Kaufman’s films but it still explores some big ideas. It asks us to consider the value we bring to each other’s lives, even when we hurt each other. It speaks to human connection and how heartbreak is an important part of life. In some ways I think the ultimate message of the film is similar to the monologue Michael Stuhlbarg’s character delivers to his heartbroken son, played by Timothée Chalamet in Call Me By Your Name. But Kaufman choses to get the idea across by telling a story about mind erasing.
And that, I think, is ultimately what makes Charlie Kaufman’s attempt at truth so impactful. Kaufman places complex characters in impossible situations. It makes it easier for an audience to investigate these characters and maybe even see some of their own flaws and anxieties in them. The outlandish worlds of these characters keep the film from reaching that “too real” thing — you when you flinch away from the screen because what’s going on feels too much like a bad thing in your real life? — well, because the situations are ridiculous it’s easier to interrogate. It’s easier to make you think about that relationship you regret by posing the question “if you could erase them from your memory, would you?” than it is by showing you someone go through a turbulent divorce. It’s easier to make you think about the meaning of life by watching someone create a city in a warehouse just because someone said his play didn’t feel honest, it might even make you think about a criticism that you may have taken to heart a bit too much. By nature, human’s identify with characters, we try to see ourselves in them. By placing characters in impossible stories, their lives look very different from ours so Charlie Kaufman forces us to look deeper into the characters, and in turn ourselves, to find a way to identify with them and in doing so, tells us the truth about ourselves.
So while he may not be breaking any box office records, those that do see his films are invited to see something in themselves while also thinking, “who the hell came up with this?”. And that marriage of deep, universal truths about our own anxieties with some of the most absurd premises in film history is what has inspired the passionate fans of his work. Those who will recommend you watch every one of his films after hearing you say you like one of them and those who will sell out the biggest screen in cineworld to hear him talk about his films.