Charlie Kaufman’s Hollywood
Screenwriting has always been a thick game. Despite the dalliances of Faulkner and the curiosity of Fitzgerald, major literary figures have – to some degree – distanced themselves from Hollywood business. Most of the active filmmakers who consider the medium capable of art both write and direct — P.T. Anderson, Ethan and Joel Coen, and Terrence Malick to name a few popular examples. So rarely is the cinema greeted by self-sufficient literary genius. Enter Charlie Kaufman. Now, I don’t want to suggest that he is a genius yet. He has written and made a few extraordinary films, but time is necessary to judge the type of thought and ambition that Kaufman has begun to practice. Charlie Kaufman is without comparison in contemporary popular filmmaking — a screenwriting auteur and an artist willing to confront literature and creativity as the object of his own literature and creativity. It is easy to get lost in a forest of postmodernist nonsense when considering his films and I’ll do my best to avoid most of that.
Kaufman is responsible for writing Being John Malkovich, Adaptation., Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. With his script for Synecdoche, New York, he made his first attempt at directing. Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine are both clearly Kaufman’s scripts, but they are also his most juvenile. They are dense stories that attempt to assess how our memories shape personal relationships. They also use gimmicky business models as a way to justify their density. To be relative, though, either of these films has room close to the top of their respective years. Juvenile for Kaufman is 300 level philosophy for us. But it is in Adaptation. and Synecdoche that he lets go of those tricks. We’ll focus on those two pictures as examples of Kaufman’s importance in keeping the movies vital.
Adaptation. is, among other things, about the process of adapting a novel into a screenplay. Kaufman was tasked with turning “The Orchid Thief,” a book by Susan Orlean, into a movie. When he became blocked, he wrote himself, a fictional twin brother, and his own experience into the film. Nicholas Cage, in his finest screen appearance this side of Face/Off, plays both Charlie and Donald Kaufman. Charlie is trying to adapt “The Orchid Thief” and, in combatting his writers block, comes to terms with the demands of Hollywood and his twin brother. We can imagine that the film is really just a grand fictionalization of Kaufman’s own experience writing it. Adaptation. gives us immediate evidence towards Kaufman’s importance. Since he is actually willing to write himself and a make-believe brother into a screenplay, he brings the audience closer to the artifice of movies. This ties in with an even more critical point that I’ll get to with Synecdoche, but Adaptation. allows the audience an additional layer of awareness. He inserts Cage into behind-the-scenes footage on the set of Malkovich and constantly references previous events in the film (like the creation montage) as Cage’s character writes them into the fictional screenplay. The astonishing thing about this is that the film doesn’t lose mobility with this awareness. Kaufman isn’t asking us to just be aware that we’re watching a movie — he’s asking us to see how dirty the process can get, but still deliver an engrossing, beautiful product. That’s why, in the final image, we pass through a week of time on the L.A. street while watching a single bed of flowers stay the same. He’s drawing an important comparison between the creative process and natural process. And much of the film is really about his own adaptation to the “rules” and “principles” of Hollywood. Many critics claim that the final 30 minutes destroy the entire movie, but it seems like, shrewdly, Kaufman intended it as a sly send-up of the way so many Hollywood films jump off the ledge. Unlike others who have tried to reveal this extra awareness with cheeky nods to the camera, he uses it as a way to dissect creative experiences and capitalize on his own writers block.
With Adaptation., Kaufman first allowed himself to experiment with creativity as the actual subject of a narrative. He wasn’t trying to answer the existential questions people believe him to be obsessing over. I don’t believe it is fair to say that Kaufman is obsessed with a subject any more than any other writer. The difference is that he doesn’t stop himself where most writers decide to stop. What does it mean to “put it all on the page”? With Synecdoche, Kaufman still seeks truth in the creative process, but uses death instead of Hollywood as his “portal.” Phil Seymour Hoffman plays an aging theater director (Caden Cotard) who engages in a number of relationships and marriages during the second half of his life.
Synecdoche, Kaufman’s directorial debut, is full of more visceral and emotional moments than Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry were ever able to pull from his scripts. For instance, Caden watches his estranged, grown-up, tattooed daughter dance naked in a glass box — he screams her name but she can’t or won’t listen. Much of Synecdoche works on a simply cinematic level, ignoring intellectual pursuits for a moment. It functions as a moving portrait of parenthood with Caden’s relationship with Olive. It does not ignore the way men float through marriages, often choosing very similar women. And the finale is a gripping abstraction of a moment in life that no viewer can have experienced. Just recognizing it as a movie reveals some decade-defining performances from Hoffman and Morton and a dynamite make-up job as well.
But the magic of Synecdoche is derived from its astonishing intellectual ambition. No words can relay the gravity of what Synecdoche attempts to accomplish. With death as its obsessive motif, the film is more clearly an illustration of all life and the way we try to process it. After his wife and daughter leave him, Caden receives a MacArthur “Genius” grant and decides to make a “truly uncompromising” theater piece that shares the same ambition as the film. In a massive warehouse, Caden and his enormous team slowly erect a life-size facsimile of New York City — ultimately, it even contains the warehouse in which the facsimile is built. Caden’s theater piece functions in the same way that the script does in Adaptation. Both are attempting to discover larger connections while deconstructing creativity. Synecdoche does make some progress in demonstrating how we compartmentalize all the people in our lives. It’s really a window into the narcissism of which we are all guilty. We all build our own warehouses and store our relationships in them. We expect certain things from certain people. But we don’t stop to understand that they have built their own warehouse, too. We can’t share that space.
Caden’s theater venture does reveal the greatest strength in Synecdoche and Kaufman’s most profound cinematic revelation — the binding intimacy between art and life. We watch Caden search for the meaning of his life through art. His wife’s work becomes infinitely smaller as his becomes infinitely larger. Most potently, Caden casts a man who has been following him for 20 years to play himself in the play. Some scenes are acted out, only to eventually be revealed as a rehearsal for the play. Ultimately, there is no difference between Caden’s art and his life. We can easily quote Shakespeare here, but Synecdoche is something else.
As the film relates to Kaufman himself, it is really a continuation of the subject he began to pursue in Adaptation. – creativity. The film sometimes reads as a criticism of the very questions it seems to be asking, balanced so confidently between pretense and unintelligibility. Synecdoche is what happens when a writer “puts it all on the page.” It doesn’t solve any of the riddles that Caden sets out to understand. In fact, it’s as much of a movie about the limits of genius as it is about the capabilities of one. Kaufman is saying that rabbit holes exist. Endless loops exist. Dead ends exist. He is beginning to understand that some of these questions we all want to ask are really just too much. There’s no answer.
And it’s Kaufman’s audacity to confront his own creativity and its limits in clear sight that makes him vital to Hollywood’s literary climate. Instead of just settling for sly self-reference or fleeting moments of meta-textuality, he fights the creative battle on the page and for everyone to see. His grace reminds me of David Foster Wallace, a martyr of 21st Century literature who was able to transcend “postmodernism” by confronting it without an attempt at irony or wit. Kaufman, likewise, is capable of great literary accomplishments. Thankfully, he makes movies.